The West helps, and harms, as Southern Africa seeks food

Editor's note: Monitor staff correspondent Danna Harman and staff photographer Andy Nelson spent three weeks in southern Africa, looking at the causes behind widespead food shortages facing six nations. This is the second in a four-part series.

Last May, with signs of a food crisis in Southern Africa growing, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) rented out a two-story building in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa. Gray carpeting was rolled out, cubicles were erected, coffeemakers wheeled in, computers hooked up, and ID badges handed out. The emergency center sprung into high gear.

Some 50 WFP employees were flown in from other stations across the world. Tim Smith, who used to work in the Sierra Leone office, was brought in to the Johannesburg headquarters in July and put in charge of ports and shipping logistics. His job: to track incoming food donations and coordinate the movement of the cargo to distribution points around the continent.

Mr. Smith's mobile phone rings nonstop. The distribution agents in Maputo, Mozambique, want to know when exactly the Liberty Grace - a US freighter filled with 50,000 tons of yellow corn - will be arriving. Someone calls to say there is a storm coming down the coast which could hamper offloading. An overland logistics officer tells him that some trucks have broken down and a transport agent wants more money.

"There are always hitches," he says calmly. "But nothing more or less than the usual. We just keep it all moving."

Smith and his team are working hard to help mitigate a food shortage affecting 14.5 million people in six Southern African countries. Little rain has fallen on the region this growing season, so people here are relying on international donations. But the food that Smith and the WFP are distributing - sent here by the US, Europe, and Japan - might not even be needed, say observers, if those same countries would open up their markets to African goods. Some argue that Africa is in the position it is in now - unable to remedy the food shortage itself - because rich countries have put up trade barriers that have kept Africa poor and reliant on the West.

Eliam Diamond lives on the shores of Lake Malawi in the small fishing village of Chiwawala, some 100 miles from the capital, Lilongwe. But he is not a fisherman.

"Fishing," says this father of six, "is a rich man's business." Fishing requires a net and rope and bait, he patiently explains, and, most significantly, a canoe. He has none of these.

He is not a farmer, either. He tried for some time, digging in the soil with a handmade hoe and lovingly sprinkling in corn seeds. But his plot was too small, his production too meager, and the market too saturated.

"Farming used to be the poor man's business," says Mr. Diamond. "But these days, it is just like fishing - for the rich man."

Diamond is a weaver. He makes mats out of dried palm leaves. A six-foot sleeping mat takes him four days to make and sells for as little as 4 cents, not enough to buy what little food there is here. So he relies on handouts.

A few days ago, Diamond picked up his monthly ration of donated US corn from the WFP at the Ngodzi distribution center near his village, carrying home the 110-pound bags tied to his old bicycle. Throughout Malawi, there are an estimated 3.3 million people like Diamond - too poor to buy food, living on monthly distributions from international aid organizations.

But, say critics, the problem of terrible poverty will not be solved with handouts.

Rich donors - the US, the European Union, and Japan, in particular - would be doing much more good in the long term if they concentrated on trade, instead of aid, goes the argument.

Critics also say that the large farm subsidies paid by wealthy countries to their own farmers hurt farmers in developing countries. The subsidized farmers can flood the market and sell their goods for less than it costs to grow them; the governments make up the difference. Poor farmers can't compete with such low prices, keeping them out of international markets, and keeping their countries from gaining economically.

According to the World Trade Organization, rich countries gave $57 billion in development aid in 2001 but paid more than $350 billion to their own farmers. World Bank figures suggest that giving developing countries more access to rich markets could earn them about $150 billion a year.

"We're subsidizing farmers in the north to the tune of $1 billion a day to preserve the quality of life of those in the north," says Pedro Sanchez, a professor at the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. "Whereas there is only negligible support for poor farmers in Africa and the rest of the developing world. The already strong in this case are only getting stronger."

Sarah Lowe of Oxfam International, a confederation of 12 development agencies working to find solutions to poverty, says that while many poor countries were convinced by international lending organizations to open up trade, wealthier countries did not do the same.

"The IMF [International Monetary Fund] pressured countries in this region to liberalize their economies - reduce their emergency grain reserves, dismantle their state marketing boards, and remove farm subsidies," Ms. Lowe says. "And what happened? Grain production slumped because farmers no longer received guaranteed prices for their crops, and many could no longer afford inputs like fertilizers, so the price of staples like corn skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the rich countries continued along with their own farm subsidies."

In a recent report, Oxfam illustrates the damage being done by subsidies by looking at handouts given by the EU to sugar farmers in Europe. These farmers then produce surpluses, which flood the world market at artificially low prices.

Meanwhile, South Africa, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zambia - all low-cost sugar producers - are unable to tap potential markets in North America or the Middle East because they are outbid by the subsidized European producers, according to the Oxfam report.

"This means that an agricultural commodity that could play a real part in poverty alleviation in Southern Africa does not do so," the Oxfam report said. "European consumers are paying to destroy livelihoods in some of the world's poorest countries."

Western countries are beginning to see the harm done by subsidies and trade barriers. At the August World Summit on Sus- tainable Development in Johannesburg, debate over the contentious issue of farm subsidies raged, pitting developing nations against their wealthy counterparts.

The US and the EU affirmed their commitment to helping agricultural practices in the developing world through projects aimed at encouraging sustainable farming, diversifying crops, and expanding winter harvesting. Western countries committed to "move toward phasing out export subsidies and reduce trade-distorting domestic support," though it was generally seen as nonbinding and weak.

Just last week, the Bush Administration proposed the creation of the Southern African Free Trade and Development Agreement with South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Swaziland in an effort to open US markets to African goods.

Diamond shakes his head when asked where the corn he has received as food aid came from, or how it got to the distribution center, or whether he will always be able to get free handouts.

"I think it might be from America," he guesses. "In America there are no poor people," he continues, gaining confidence in his story and directing his comments at some neighbors gathered around, who nod in agreement. "The farmers are so rich they can give us their corn for nothing." Diamond stops and ponders the statement. "That is what I think, at least," he admits. "But I don't know for sure. I have never been there.... I have not really been anywhere."

An American farmer's view of subsidies

By Laurent Belsie | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ALTAMONT, ILL. - Don Schmidt empathizes with the plight of farmers in Southern Africa - perhaps more than most American farmers - because he's been there.

Shortly after retiring three years ago, Mr. Schmidt and his wife, Linda, visited farms in South Africa, Kenya, and Zambia. They're still avid travelers. Their "greeting card" is a photo of their own 900-acre farm in Illinois, now run by their son-in-law. "I get into houses that nobody else can get into because I've got the picture," Schmidt enthuses.

This year, the Schmidts have something else in common with Southern Africans: drought.

Although lack of rain slashed production both here in Illinois and in Southern Africa, the challenges remain so different they hardly belong on the same scale. There, a string of poor harvests threaten some 14.5 million people with starvation. Here, Schmidt's corn and soybean harvests were cut by a third, which means the operation will lose money this year. But no one is starving - and the family will be able to live off its savings.

Between disaster assistance and crop insurance, the federal government will pay US farmers well in excess of $4 billion - on top of the billions of dollars in crop subsidies it normally hands out.

"It's easier to farm in the United States than it is in Africa," acknowledges Schmidt, taking into account the subsidies, the scale of operations, and the advanced technology on US farms.

Such advances have turned the US into the world's leading agricultural exporter by far. Depending on the year, exports account for 20 to 30 cents of every dollar of farm income. In Illinois, roughly 40 percent of the state's corn and soybeans get sold abroad, says Gerald Nelson, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. (The grain from the Schmidts' land gets sold to a cooperative that occasionally sends grain down to the Gulf of Mexico for export.)

But cheap, subsidized corn exports represent a mixed blessing. This year in Africa they're feeding millions. But the US and Europe are criticized by some for undercutting local producers in foreign countries who can't compete.

"I have heard this very same comment," Schmidt says. But "if we did not have the extra grain that we produce here, there wouldn't be enough grain in the world to feed the people." And it's not just US grain that undercuts local prices, he argues. Governments almost everywhere use subsidies to keep food prices low to curb any rural discontent. "I don't think they would allow the price of corn and wheat to get very much higher than the world market price."

US farmers also face charges that their genetically modified (GM) grain is unsafe (part 3 in series, tomorrow). While Schmidt and his family, like most Americans, consume GM food without concern, countries in Europe and Japan now label it because of environmental concerns. And Zambia is refusing to release donated US grain to hungry citizens because they say it might be harmful to eat.

"I don't think [GM critics] realize the business aspects of it," Schmidt says. For one thing, his farm's GM soybeans are cheaper to grow and allow soil-conserving tillage practices. "You save soil," he says, and lessen erosion. Another benefit, he notes: Instead of having to pass through the field twice using two pesticides, the soybeans require only one pass with a pesticide (Roundup) that's regarded as one of the safest to mammals.

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