Bill Gates vows to defeat hunger & diseases in Ethiopia: Could entrenched political interests allow him? – PART V BY KEFFYALEW GEBREMEDHIN
I must preface this piece with admission that I had planned to conclude the series under this title, at least at this point. I could not, as I thought I would. A number of developments and events intervened that I needed to take into account to enrich the discussion. These include:
The G-8 Summit Declaration was prepared with the summiteers at Camp David joined on 19 May by four African leaders taking part during the discussion on the Food Security and Nutrition agenda. The declaration has come with official endorsement of the trend already set and is taking place on the ground in a number of African countries such as Ethiopia, which Bill Gates is spearheading. Within the framework of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition this outcome of the summit would give political impetus to the role of the private sector in agriculture – both national and international. Emerging out of this high-level exercise is that international multinationals are presumed as future source of finance and technology. While such are the signs, this has not deterred the G-8 leaders from renewing their commitment to “fulfill the outstanding L’Aquila financial pledges”.
I have received 96 comments from readers on the public forum and a few more in private mails in response to the previous four articles under this series. These mostly contain Ethiopian sentiments as well as particular concerns, some of which this article has tried to address. These Ethiopian views can be categorized in three parts: huge distrust of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime, worries about the dangers of foreign companies serving their own interests at the expense of Ethiopia’s. There is also the fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), crops in general and if it results in possible loss of native crops, their consequences to human health and the environment in particular. While Ethiopians welcome the Gates Foundation’s support for smallholder agriculture, fears have been also been repeatedly expressed if Meles Zenawi succeeds in enlisting Bill Gates, as a famous person, to provide his tyrannical regime with international approval and support. Some of these problems have been discussed in the earlier articles. Also in his 8 May update, Bill Gates has responded to that extolling praises on Meles Zenawi, without addressing his human rights records.
From time to time, Bill Gates has been making some remarks on progress in Ethiopia’s agriculture, which I needed to reflect on. These are contained in his video report of 1 May. There is also the 8 May upbeat summary note (Ethiopia: Exciting Innovations in Agriculture and Health). The other is from May 9, entitled Ethiopia’s Agricultural Revolution .
The above issues are partially discussed in this article, without necessarily following that order. At the same time, the article raises certain issues of concerns, such as: (i) lack of information on the direction of Ethiopia’s agriculture and problems of transparency; (ii) G-8 summit and the implications of their actions to Ethiopia; (iii) emerging interchangeability between financial flows from private companies to agriculture and the changing role of foreign aid; (iv) the deliberate confusion between Africa’s successes and the profit margins of foreign investors.
The hurdle is not lack of information, but honest government and transparency
As this article was being prepared, most overwhelming was enormity of the information available especially regarding: (a) the problems of Ethiopian agriculture, (b) cyclicality of drought and famine that has become easily predictable, now occupying central position, (c) evolving scenarios on climate change and its impact on Ethiopia’s agriculture, and (d) successive Ethiopian governments and their policy failures. Not much of these was of great help, although it has contributed to better understanding why Bill Gates needed to do differently what he has started doing with particular focus on agriculture and health.
Nevertheless, in spite of all the available information and data it still is not possible to build a picture of the Ethiopia’s present direction. In other words, there is no sense of the known and unknown implications of the government’s policies in the agricultural sector in the medium and the long-term. This situation is further complicated by the entry of foreign private firms into the country’s agriculture, which surely do have their respective interests.
The problem is not about what the foreign companies could and could not do. It is about the government failing to inform the public what is underway. The problem with this is that rightly or wrongly all companies may end up being associated with the regime, as its promoters and bankrollers it and its Machiavellian approaches, especially the end justifies the means the prime minister employs. In a country where the excesses of government have reached astounding levels, such reaction is inevitable and may impede the companies’ activities.
Of course, their intervention could also be seen in a positive light, assuming that the companies would exert positive influences on the government, the chances of which are minuscule when seen from a historical perspective.
Why is this being discussed here? This is because the absence of transparency especially on the government’s part has now become a serious problem. Surprisingly, so far some information is trickling from Bill Gates, although the government has kept even his involvement in Ethiopian agriculture secret. That is not right. As citizens, we do not know what actually is taking place right at this moment in our country’ agriculture, both on the ground and at the policy level, even when it is the source of sustenance of our people.
Since the last few months we have repeatedly heard that efforts are underway toward agricultural development to end hunger. Even mentioning of food security has been infrequent. Why should that be made privileged information?
G-8 initiatives and Africa
For the international community and in particular to the private companies, now Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania have become the test cases in agricultural development in Africa. In launching the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in these three countries, the G-8 leaders anticipate the accelerated “flow of private capital to African agriculture, take to scale new technologies and other innovations that can increase sustainable agricultural productivity, and reduce the risk borne by vulnerable economies and communities.”
What the G-8 has done is consistent with all that Bill Gates has been pioneering and talking about. Whatever actions the G-8 has taken regarding African agriculture, I see through his fingerprints literally in every sense of the word. In any case, in welcoming the statement by President Obama, Mr Gates noted:
“These are exactly the kind of smart, innovative partnerships with African governments we need to accelerate progress and I hope that the G8 will put in place clear, actionable targets and accountability mechanisms to ensure these efforts are meaningful. Unless we measure, we can’t see if we are succeeding.”
During his remarks at the Symposium on global Agriculture and Food Security, President Obama put his finger right on the problem, when he said:
“In Africa and around the world, progress isn’t coming fast enough. And economic growth can’t just be for the lucky few at the top, it’s got to be broad-based, for everybody, and a good place to start is in the agricultural sector. So even as the world responds with food aid in a crisis — as we’ve done in the Horn of Africa — communities can’t go back just to the way things were, vulnerable as before, waiting for the next crisis to happen.”
The president’s is a great vision, which comes with the admission that for decades “agriculture and nutrition didn’t always get the attention they deserved” and therefore, he said, “we put the fight against global hunger where it should be, which is at the forefront of global development.”
How much the US would pursue this vision to its logical conclusion is to be seen in the coming years. The good thing about it that its processes have been unleashed in Ethiopia. Therefore, in the interests of Ethiopia’s smallholders and the wider society this needs to be pursued, without politics and ethnicity becoming obstacles. Ethiopia needs to take advantage of the knowhow the Gates Foundation is offering, and perhaps others also following suit.
The fact that Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania are selected to become examples has its advantages. This means the initial efforts would enjoy continued political support from the G-8. If successful, their objective is to replicate their experiences to other African countries. That exactly is what the G-8 said in connection with the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.
Already before that, we have heard about this same idea from Bill Gates’ presentation at Stanford University on April 4, 2012, about which Part I of this article also discussed.
In a word, these efforts aim, according to the G-8 document, to “build on African ownership, yield significant outcomes, and can be replicated across Africa.” They amplified that by stating:
This New Alliance will lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next decade, and be guided by a collective commitment to invest in credible, comprehensive and country-owned plans, develop new tools to mobilize private capital, spur and scale innovation, and manage risk; and engage and leverage the capacity of private sector partners – from women and smallholder farmers, entrepreneurs to domestic and international companies.
There is no doubt that these are important steps, vitally necessary and reassuring especially if the companies that have decided to join the partnership restrain themselves from focusing on their profit margins or taking advantage of these poor countries.
Moreover, in the case of Ethiopia the companies need to step cautiously for it has become a country where the state and citizens cannot see eye to eye. Ignoring this situation would put them in an awkward situation if their efforts are seen as reinforcing the actions of strong government that is wearing out the people.
With respect to Ethiopian views on the matter under discussion, as reflected in the comments I received, one thing is certain. There is out there strong public distrust and loathing of the ethnically oriented Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime. For a development economist, most worrying about Ethiopia’s present situation should be the continued denial by citizens to government of one of the vital ingredients for leadership in development – popular support. Presently that support is very thin for any government anywhere to take action or implement important policy measures.
For many, underlying this denial by the public of such support is the lack of trust and respectability to the country system of governance. The state has not only failed to defend at all costs and promote respect the fundamental human rights and human dignity of citizens. But also has become perpetrator of the most egregious forms of human rights violations. The implications of this to agricultural development cannot be sufficiently emphasized.
How can small farmer feel confident that he would not be pushed off his plot the day after, in a country where an ordinary cadre is more powerful than a judge or a police can ignore court orders without fear of sanctions?
If at the end of the day, the public-private partnership collaboration in the agricultural sector is greeted with success, there is no doubt that African agriculture may be transformed. The companies would reap the fruits of their investments. If, however, the overall motive is profits and or more expansion of the reaches of American capitalism, the effort is likely not to succeed.
Consequently, as the companies prepare to step especially in Ethiopia, they would need to have two scorecards: one that would assess their own performance as companies and whether they have made a difference towards the country’s aspirations. The other card is for measuring whether their success in Ethiopia has also allowed them to speak about the successes of the Ethiopian people.
Hunger is the worst enemy to individual citizens and human dignity. Nations and peoples need to look beyond politics and profits. On the part of Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania, countries which would implement the new partnership some reforms of policies are expected. These are the type of reforms that should enable foreign investors to take advantage of the “investment opportunities”.
Inevitably, there would be some tensions there. These could be overcome, if the partnership is truly premised on the conviction that its primary their mission is, as the USAID put it, to “accelerate the implementation of their country-led plans on food security.”
Finally, private sector partners are reported to have already committed more than $3 billion and are expected to increase future investments. Among others, Yara International is reported to have announced its intention to invest up to US$2 billion to build a world-class fertilizer production facility in sub-Saharan African country and also develop regional fertilizer distribution hubs.
How should African succes be measured, by the volume of aid it receives or its outputs?
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has what it calls, A Guide to Actionable Measurement. It says three principles guide their approach to actionable measurement. These are:
Measurement should inform specific decisions and/or actions.
We do not measure everything, but we do strive to measure what matters most.
The data we gather help us learn and adapt our initiatives and strategies.
These are approaches and principles Africans and African governments need to adopt in their dealings with foreign investors. So far, testimonies about African successes come only from foreigners. In the first place, no one would listen if Africans announce their own successes. But the testimonies by foreigners find their ways to think tanks to finally become the African reality. The home government squeezes that for propaganda purposes to a point of revulsion.
Because of this, such assessment has been foreign by origin and content. That is why people have to be a little bit skeptical about these things.
The first reason for that, as a matter of fact is that Africa’s success has so far been measured by the profit margins companies or the countries generate for the elites at home and international firms. This continues up until a few individuals with conscience come across and speak out that country X’s economic growth has barely improved the lives of ordinary Africans.
It has been common to hear inhibitionless defenses of and efforts by some international figures, both in business and politics, deliberately confusing the differences between national growth benefitting all citizens from that which is exclusively for the few at home and foreign companies, as is the case now in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, it is in everyone’s interests, donors, foreign businesses and Ethiopians alike to realize that all sides can benefit by ensuring inclusiveness in growth and development. It also helps to make it sustainable, instead of responsive to momentary problems and short-term gains. It would also immensely contribute to peace and stability. This is one singular important lesson any expert and policy-maker must learn from Chinese policy-making, especially in regard to evolving a vision and committing expenditures.
Ensuring this now primarily is the responsibility of African governments. In this era in particular, Africa must realize that its continued dependence on foreign aid would only end up satisfying foreign needs and apetites.
Anyone who has closely observed the Ethiopian situation could relate to this point and, I suppose, would also agree that success must be measured by serious and more sincere criteria, instead of the self-serving arguments these days we hear even from donor agencies that claim to be working in the development field.
Even foreign aid has changed its behavior in recent years. Its overriding objective has become ensuring continuity of a dictatorial regime, instead of facilitating development.
That speaks well to the experiences of some African countries under the claws of modern dictators, to whom foreign governments and the foreign media have turned their praises, even when the growths ushered in have left the millions of needs unattended, including the daily bread that is lacking and justice denied.
There is no better explanation for this other than international think tanks and the international media measuring Africa’s success by the benefits foreign investors reap.
Ethiopians respect Bob Geldof. Unfortunately, he just took a wrong turn when he echoed the Ethiopian prime minister’s denial at the World Economic Forum Africa of any relationship between democracy and growth. Mr. Geldof opined, “democracy is not a prerequisite for growth.”
He cited China and Singapore as examples. Perhaps there he was indifferent to the fact those were from a different era and different set of circumstances. But today, democracy is vital for development, for popular participation to ensure accountability of national leaders, given the age of instant global communications in our hands and the young are leading the search for a fairer world. It is a pity that, of all people this good soul should take that line.
The fact of the matter is that Africa must realize its redemption lies in its ability to rally the people (not in the Soveitesque manner that the Meles regime still practices), but with clear objectives, awareness of the needs and benefits to be derived to the people and the nation at large. From there, government could move to mobilizing domestic resources to promote broad-based growth – inclusive growth. In fact, national consensus cobbled through give and take is a huge asset for a nation.
As for aid, none has articulated in recent times in clearer terms better the metamorphosis it has undergone than Prof. Thandika Mkandawire of Oxford University who said, “The problem is the model of aid, not aid in itself. In the last 20 years, aid ceased being developmental. It is used for political stabilisation purposes, it is conditional and welfarist instead of being focused on creating jobs or performing developmental functions.”
We need to understand that even this just agreed new Camp David arrangement is also likely to create a new precedent regarding the financing of agriculture. But it is no disaster at all for Africa. On the contrary, it should encourage Africans to value mobilizing domestic resources for development more than ever before. What private companies would channel, as implied above, would come each time with more demand for concessions.
Moreover, another development that follows the partnership is the fact that, in places where lack of respect for fundamental human rights is a problem, the private sector may also be ardent defender of a status quo that in the first place allows it to invest. In countries under tyranny, this may end up making investors and investments targets of the anger by ordinary people. It is within our experiences that foreign aid has systematically been supporting and shoring up regimes with the worst human rights records.
It is because of that, without being disrespectful or offensive, I dare say, in spite of those welcome intentions of the G-8 and perhaps the right courses of action too, the leaders behind it ought to capture that in countries such as Ethiopia there already is huge skepticism. This has nothing to do with capacities and efforts of private companies and their role in agriculture that the powers have now certified.
The question is how private companies go about making their contributions, doing what they said they would, say in Ethiopia and other African countries, without losing sight of when adverse situations occur or recur in regard to the rights of citizens.
In simple words, shoring up tyrannical regimes is not the way forward, even if during this period growth has come under their watch. For that matter, since the past decade growth happened in synchrony with the march of world history. Therefore, it is bound to happen due to the global economic and financial dynamics of the past two decades, which coincided with emergence of several poles of growth.
As a matter of fact, a serious research shows that between 2003-2007, according to Ruuchir Sharmna of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, average GDP growth rate in a number of countries doubled from 3.6 to 7.2 percent.
Sharma has rightly dubbed 2003, “the miracle year”, although it was not for Ethiopia, as the country was recuperating from huge destruction of human lives and resources from the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the internal strifes within the ruling party. The coutnry was also just emerging from the throes of the worst 2001-2002 famine that put at risk the lives of over 15 million citizens.
Nevertheless, the records show that even Ethiopia bridged into 2004 for the first time with 11.4 percent growth, according to data from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development.
Therefore, as far as developing countries are concerned, the year 2003 was the dawn of growth and development, literally for all nations. All in all, since then the economies of 183 nations grew, save three outliers (Congo DR, Fiji and Zimbabwe), according to Sharma. Some countries have used the opportunities to aim for the long-term, building infrastructures, developing human resources and brightening the future. States that have done in most cases have increasingly widened the public space and also brought respectability to the voice of the people.
This can be seen how much the media has opened up in a number of African countries – from Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, to Sengal and Ghana in West Africa and many others in the south and north, improving official accountability. What is being witnessed in that respect in Ethiopia is intensification of repression and silencing of the media and persecution of journalists.
These have made Ethiopia a country locking itself out of sustained prospects, with some improvements. The angry reactions in the different parts of the country are signaling that. This is a rejection of the country’s whetted appetite for more robust growth, with preference for greater exclusion, profound repression and official unaccountability.
Unfortunately, this is likely to coincide with the cloud drawing closer, marking the beginning of the end of a better time for growth for many countries. The rising tensions and frustrations have now dotted Ethiopia’s political and economic environment.
(To be continued)