Of the IMF, African Nations, and Misinformation (Activist Resolutions Update)

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

After I finished reading the article I was angry enough to want to put my fist through a wall.

That’s quite a remarkable thing. I have not worked myself into a proper activist rage since I was around sixteen years old, full of anti-establishment fueled anger and planning to skip school to protest the IMF by way of property damage back in 1999.

Eight years have passed and I realized a great many things, both about the world and about myself. I use anger as a signal to learn more and get involved, rather than an end in itself. I caution myself to remain calm and to explore multiple sides of an issue before jumping to a conclusion. I am wary of activists who will happily put a brick in my hand, but refuse to answer probing questions about the cause.

I am both older and wiser – but this article on Malawi took me right back to the let-me-grab-a-rock Latoya of old.

The New York Times article comes with a provocative headline: “Ending Famine By Ignoring the Experts.”

Malawi hovered for years at the brink of famine. After a disastrous corn harvest in 2005, almost five million of its 13 million people needed emergency food aid.

But this year, a nation that has perennially extended a begging bowl to the world is instead feeding its hungry neighbors. It is selling more corn to the World Food Program of the United Nations than any other country in southern Africa and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to Zimbabwe.

In Malawi itself, the prevalence of acute child hunger has fallen sharply. In October, the United Nations Children’s Fund sent three tons of powdered milk, stockpiled here to treat severely malnourished children, to Uganda instead. “We will not be able to use it!” Juan Ortiz-Iruri, Unicef’s deputy representative in Malawi, said jubilantly.

Farmers explain Malawi’s extraordinary turnaround — one with broad implications for hunger-fighting methods across Africa — with one word: fertilizer.

Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Oh, hold up. In the years post “the Battle of Seattle” IMF protest, I have kept up a casual interest in the activities of the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. Researching a bit of the history, finding out what the goals of each group, and reading the arguments both for and against each organization consumed the next few years and I fully began to appreciate why people were protesting.

The quick and dirty explanation is this: each of these organizations purports to assist developing nations improve their global standing by lending money (the IMF), attempting to reduce poverty (the World Bank) and governing the rules of international trade (the WTO).

The country’s successful use of subsidies is contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy: fertilizer, improved seed, farmer education, credit and agricultural research.

Malawi, an overwhelmingly rural nation about the size of Pennsylvania, is an extreme example of what happens when those things are missing. As its population has grown and inherited landholdings have shrunk, impoverished farmers have planted every inch of ground. Desperate to feed their families, they could not afford to let their land lie fallow or to fertilize it. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.

Malawi’s leaders have long favored fertilizer subsidies, but they reluctantly acceded to donor prescriptions, often shaped by foreign-aid fashions in Washington, that featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.

These expert organizations continued to misdiagnose the problems of Malawi until their leader finally decided to break from tradition and try something radically different – to do what the country required, rather than what free-market theorists wanted. The result? Increased self-sufficence! Go Malawai!

The harvest also helped the poor by lowering food prices and increasing wages for farm workers. Researchers at Imperial College London and Michigan State University concluded in their preliminary report that a well-run subsidy program in a sensibly managed economy “has the potential to drive growth forward out of the poverty trap in which many Malawians and the Malawian economy are currently caught.”

Progress! So, what did the US say?

The United States, which has shipped $147 million worth of American food to Malawi as emergency relief since 2002, but only $53 million to help Malawi grow its own food, has not provided any financial support for the subsidy program, except for helping pay for the evaluation of it. Over the years, the United States Agency for International Development has focused on promoting the role of the private sector in delivering fertilizer and seed, and saw subsidies as undermining that effort.

But Alan Eastham, the American ambassador to Malawi, said in a recent interview that the subsidy program had worked “pretty well,” though it displaced some commercial fertilizer sales.

*sigh* Are you kidding?

And did y’all notice the numbers (emphasis mine)?

[The US] has shipped $147 million worth of American food to Malawi as emergency relief since 2002, but only $53 million to help Malawi grow its own food, [and] has not provided any financial support for the subsidy program, except for helping pay for the evaluation of it.

So it makes more sense for us to keep shipping Malawi food, but not to assist them in becoming self-sufficient? Riiiiiight.

Eastham continues:

“The plain fact is that Malawi got lucky last year,” he said. “They got fertilizer out while it was needed. The lucky part was that they got the rains.”

And the World Bank now sometimes supports the temporary use of subsidies aimed at the poor and carried out in a way that fosters private markets.

Umm…that was a two year in a row “lucky” streak. Can we blame the people in Malawi for trying for the third year? And I am all for capitalism as a system, but can we at least wait until the people of Malawi have recovered from the widespread starvation that rocked their nation before we shove more flawed economic theory down their throats?

What pisses me off to the nth degree is this whole idea that the third-world is our own free market petri dish, a way to test economic principles with nations that are under financial duress with little to no regard for the people who are dying while the market is forming.

What makes it even worse is the attitude that is echoed so often – that any success from a deviation of policy is an accident and that the policies created and formed in another nation will automatically cure what ails – just give it time.

Digesting the information in the article, I was reminded of a post over on the Undercover Black Man blog (h/t Rachel’s Tavern) surrounding some inflammatory remarks made by Nigerian writers after James Waston’s famous remarks.

UBM writes:

It blows my mind that this is the character of a public discussion in a major newspaper in the capital city of Africa’s most populous nation.

Think about what Bill Cosby is catching hell for saying. Now re-read Zainab Kperogi. “Most of us blacks simply do not have the capacity to think very deeply…”

It’s one thing to want to shake folks up… to demand the best from your people. It’s another to be fully invested in the psychology of black inferiority.

I don’t know how Africans can get past that.

(Please take the time to read the UBM piece and the following comments. They may upset you, but the commenters are making well reasoned points that are oft-repeated in the realm of economics, sociology, global business, and global policy.)

I like the conversation over at UBM because it reminds me of a common refrain when discussing African issues.

“Why can’t Africans get their shit together and join the global economy?” is a question posed in many different ways in different spheres of conversation.

Answers range from corruption to distribution of resources to genetic inferiority, but rarely do we point to situations like the one described in the NYT article and wonder if this kind of jacked up logic is being applied to the rest of Africa as a whole. How many other leaders have a vision for their country that they are not able to implement because the financial backing they need is tied up in conditions placed upon them by donor nations?

Again, I caution everyone to be wary of people who present you with the smoking gun solutions. I highly doubt that dismantling the IMF, WTO, and World Bank tomorrow will create some kind of magical utopia where the third world will suddenly spring out of poverty and become economic juggernauts.

These issues are complicated and interconnected. Africa is composed of 61 countries, each with their own specific history and set of problems. In one area, the IMF/World Bank restrictions may be the greatest stumbling block to progress. In another region, it could be corrupt leadership. In another territory, it could be the destabilization of currency and trying to restore the economy in a time of crisis. An economic emergency has many causes.

However, the best thing to do to start untangling all the misinformation is to start paying attention.

******

Related – The Bookish Black Girl on Africa Rising…To Whom is Credit Due?

Unlike what Bono, Angelina Jolie, Jeff Sachs, Tony Blair et all want the west to believe, YOU CAN’T FIX AFRICA. Putting aside the simple question of what it means to “fix” a continent, the bottom line is that no country has ever developed under a master plan created by another country or group of country. So as much as the Millenium Campaign wants Americans and the like to feel good and empowered to solve Africa’s problem, the underlying truth is that the Millenium Campaign was bound to failure before it ever began. A country, not to talk of an entire continent, will not grow because of some top-down plan formulated by Western economists and their hollywood buddies. Foreign aid is at best, a fruitless divestion of energy and at worst a contributor to the problems it seeks to correct. Let aid money go to those who use it best–the WHO, nonprofits like MSF but not to governments. There’s only one way for Africa to grow and alas, it is not for Jeff Sachs to waive his magic wand. The continent will grow when its people and entrepreneurs are empowered to tackle the problems in its governments, judicial systems and infrastructure.


The New York Times – A Question of Blame When Societies Fall

The backlash had been brewing since a symposium last year, “Exploring Scholarly and Best-Selling Accounts of Social Collapse and Colonial Encounters,” at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Jose, Calif. Although “Guns, Germs and Steel” has been celebrated as an antidote to racism — Western civilization prevails not because of inherent superiority, but geographical luck — some anthropologists saw it as excusing the excesses of the conquerors. If it wasn’t their genes that made them do it, it was their geography.

“Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame,” said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. “The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots.”

Please note: I shared the Times article with some friends (who proofed this piece) and they noted that this article is a bit difficult to follow if you have not read Jared Diamond’s work. If you find yourself confused, try to focus only on the sections of the article that specifically deal with Diamond’s work.