Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bill Gates saves Africa

The Wall Street Journal has "philanthropy" feature today discussing a UN/Bill Gates/Son of Warren Buffet plan to "fund [an] agriculture market for overlooked small [African] farms" -- which is basically a euphemism for "keeping the majority of the population from starving."

The article makes some remarkable statements, among them:

Small African farmers, who provide most of the continent's agricultural output, have never had a reliable market to sell their food. Many of them are in remote areas with little access to transportation rely on archaic networks of small traders who set prices.
Small African farmers have never had a reliable market to sell their food. They grow their crops, no one wants any of it -- and this has been the basis of African civilization for thousands of years. Making matters worse, they live in "remote areas" -- like inside Africa -- instead of in port cities or other locales favored by global commerce and tourism. They have to rely on "backward" methods of getting their product to market, since they don't own trucks and in some cases barely have roads, which they apparently require since they don't "have markets" of their own to begin with.

Enter Bill Gates, et al., who will generously fund a UN program to buy food from small African farmers for reuse as humanitarian aid for other starving people with no means of livelihood and no access to viable markets. Thus Bill Gates will create them.

The fact is that Africa has always had markets, the problem is that they are flooded with mass-produced foodstuffs from wealthy, industrialized countries. People go hungry when they can't sell what they grow to their neighbors, because their neighbors are buying imported food for less than the cost of domestically-produced food. It also doesn't help that they are in competition with "large African farmers," or, foreign corporations that monopolize land tracts, retooling them for the production of whatever crop will bring the highest export price, regardless of whether it is efficient or sustainable to grow them in a particular climate or region, or whether it is something the locals can eat (e.g. coffee).

These are industrial trade policies pursued by wealthy nations on behalf of whatever business groups dominate their economies, and, subsequently, their governments. That business may not be so good for the small African farmer is the direct result of the fact that it is so good for industrial producers in more powerful countries. But since mass famine can lead to political instability and chaos, business is not in favor of mass famine. It is rather in favor of low-intensity famine which it can lament as an unfortunate reality of the world we live in -- unless, of course, there is some way to integrate small producers into the global supply chain which neither 1) imposes business costs, or 2) infringes on the sovereignty of business operations.

In essence, it is left to others to clean up the mess made from profits. It is government's job to at least make certain that the mess does not become so unmanageable that the very making of profit is jeopardized. This is as true in financial catastrophe as it is in human epidemics. It is also a notable fashion among those who have already played the profit game so successfully that they leave themselves few challenges except to parlay their wealth into high-profile, headline humanitarianism. African farmers can't do it, but Bill Gates can -- never mind that African farmers are systematically denied the chance. Naturally, Bill Gates throwing money at the poor is better than Bill Gates doing nothing; but, insofar as state-facilitated profit got us into this mess (and Gates knows its treasures better than most), it is hard to look at its greatest beneficiaries with special appreciation when they seek to further capitalize on a sudden interest in others.

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