The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment

Everyone knows Liberal Guilt is a seller’s market, but oh brother, where to even start with The Guardian’s feel-bad-now piece on Blood Roses and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day?

The notion that you can improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links your readers have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

I guess it makes people feel empowered to be told that their daily choices can have an impact on the lives of the world’s poorest. And there’s a noble sentiment at the heart of that that we really should honor. What’s sets me off, though, is the pig-headed determination to make the perfect the enemy of the good, shaming readers for taking part in one of the few, tragically few pipelines currently linking their pocketbooks to the world’s poorest people.

Check it out:

Around 70% of the roses being sold in the UK this week were cut in Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley, according to the Kenya Flower Council. The industry is dominated by multinationals, which own vast farms, and about 800m flowers will be dispatched from Kenya to Europe in the runup to 14 February, making them the country’s biggest export earner.

While the industry’s carbon footprint is far from fragrant, there’s also the issue of low-pay and harsh employment conditions for pickers to consider.

Yes, those Kenyan flower-pickers sure are peculiar, leaving the rural idyll of life as a Kenyan subsistence farmer for the drudgery of life as a flower plantation worker. (Shhhhhh, don’t ask too many questions about rural Kenyans’ actual lives, lest you realize the conditions you’re casually condemning as “harsh” and “low paid” are an immense improvement on the alternatives – the real alternatives, not your fantasy alternatives.)

Sigh. There’s enough bad economics and confused aid thinking here to keep me going for weeks on end, but let me try for the aggressively abridged version:

The notion that you can somehow improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links normal people in the west have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

There’s a special perversity to targeting your guilt trip at one of the very few areas of Kenya’s rural economy actively pulling in serious investment and innovation, driving infrastructure development, creating pull for biotech capacity building and giving local people livelihood alternatives.

Somehow “being ethical” has become a luxury good. Because let’s face it, normal people on normal salaries cannot afford to pay 50 pounds (fifty quid!!) for a dozen roses. What we’re left with is a mindset where “social responsibility” just another item to be conspicuously consumed, just one more way of differentiating yourself from the hoi-poloi, who end up being stigmatizes – by implication – for the sin of…creating demand for the products very poor people supply!

Let me make this simple for you: the only known cure for poverty is economic activity. If you want to make a Kenyan farmer less poor, buy something she grows. 

It’s…not hard.

[Note: If you just can’t face Valentine’s without some sort of tiers mondist guilt trip for some reason, I recommend this one: it’s much better.]

11 thoughts on “The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment”

  1. I totally agree with what you are saying. I used to work in garment industry advocacy, and was constantly hearing calls for boycotts (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Viet Nam, etc.), when workers were the very people who would be hurt–not the multinationals who could move their production to another spot on a dime.

    It does seem to be a bit of a quandary though, how to put pressure to improve those “harsh” and “low-paid” conditions. If the public gets the message that “any economic activity is good economic activity,” it makes it harder to mobilize them for leverage on labor and economic regulations, trade policy, etc.

  2. I notice from the Guardian article that the author deplores that some of the African farmers producing cacao “are resorting to child labour to keep costs down.” Has this person ever visited a family farm in, say, Iowa? In my small town, the farm kids began to help out at age five, and by age seven were at least feeding the chickens. Milking the cows came at age ten, and it went on from there.

    Kids should go to school, and they should have play-time too. But boycotting African farmers for having the kids pitch in, is totally nuts.

    1. I don’t think that you can really compare a kid working full-time on a cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast with your bucolic upbringing in Wisconsin. Of course, it is possible that CNN is relying too much on anecdotes about orphan workers (http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/), along with the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15681986) but these don’t seem to me to be invented narratives.

      “At first, the farm’s owner insisted that three of the boys were his sons and that two belonged to a friend. But when I asked for their names, he hesitated – then left.

      “I was living in Bouake with my grandmother,” Yao Kouassi said. “But my father sent me here to work. I haven’t seen my family for three years.”

      Not exactly “having the kids pitch in”.

    2. Absolutely. Yet tens of millions of kids work on subsistence farms all over Africa every day. That’s “normal” in rural poor households. Just like it was normal in the Now Developed Countries for hundreds of years, until processes of investment and productivity increases had left a critical mass of households wealthy enough to be able to survive without child labour.

      Everywhere child labour has ended, it has ended as the outcome of a long run economic process of growing investment, rising productivity and rising incomes…precisely the process that we short-circuit if we withdraw demand for the products of tropical agriculture, setting off a cycle of disinvestment that closes off livelihood options and leads inevitably to…more kids working longer.

      Having kids not work is one of the greatest *benefits* of development. Trying to deliver the *benefits* of development before you’ve delivered the economic transformations that constitute development is the real definition of unsustainable in my book.

      Which is why any time you find yourself making an argument that implies disinvestment from the economic activities that the poorest people rely on to make a living you’re making a serious category mistake.

  3. I have no doubt that kids who work on farms in Africa are working harder and more than they should. Being kept out of school in order to work is a terrible problem, and deeply unfair.

    But the suggestion in the Guardian article that we should be wary of produce grown using some component of child labour.

    In North America, schools are shut down all summer. The original reason for this was that children were simply kept home to work on the farm during the summer months. In bucolic Wisconsin, farm kids generally do not join Little League or other summer programmes because they are needed at home, to work. In Wisconsin, as a matter of law, children ages twelve to 16 are allowed to drive tractors on designated highways, because that’s what they are required to do to bring in the crop.

    Family friends own a cherry orchard in Door County. The three girls, ages 11, 14 and 19, do ALL the canning, something like 8,000 gallons of cherries.

    Should we buy their cherries, or boycott them, because they use child labour?

    1. Jeffry,

      It’s quite possible that the author of the Guardian article has the same vision as you do of the phrase “child labour”. So let me be ultraclear about what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about farmers asking (or demanding that) their own children work on their farms. I’m talking about the purchase of slave children, frequently but not always orphans, frequently orphaned as a result of armed conflict. I’m not talking about kids “working harder and more than they should”. I’m talking about 10 year-olds with machete wounds on their legs. (And those are the ones which survived.)

      And, yes, I did my errands when I was a kid and no, I don’t think that it did me any harm. I’d happily buy your friends’ cherries, and I’m certain that their cherry-canners are learning interesting and useful skills which will serve them well in later life. That is no more similar to cocoa-growing in the Ivory Coast than is “taking out the trash” similar to garbage picking in Dandora. (http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/kenya-dandora-nairobi-dumpsite-garbage-waste-management-crisis)

  4. Francisco,

    Let me repeat that there is a difference between a kid working on their parent’s subsistence farm, and a kid being sold into slavery, even if the slave-owner also has a subsistence farm. Both of those things are “normal” in Africa, but we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the fact just because we were lucky enough to have been born elsewhere. (Actually, I was born in Africa, but I chose my parents wisely.)

    The CNN documentary (or at least, the trailer and the published excerpts) indicates that the chocolate companies are, in fact, engaging in development activities, including building schools and helping kids attend them. Since the documentary hasn’t aired yet, I can’t report more on this initiative, but at first sight it seems like a step up. But why are they doing that? They are doing that because they know that I and many other chocolate consumers have alternatives. We could buy some other sweet, or we could purchase chocolate from other producers who don’t rely on slave labour, or we could buy our own cocoa fruit and make our own chocolate (at least, I have that option, since I live in Perú and cocoa fruit is a market commodity), although that last one is a lot of work.

    If chocolate consumers indicated that they really didn’t care about slave labour, it’s unlikely that chocolate manufacturers would invest in social infrastructure. Clearly, they are only doing so in order to be able to publicize the fact, and the publicity only helps because they believe consumers care. So my threat (which must be credible to be effective) to alter my consumption patterns does have a potentially positive effect.

    Of course, you would be correct to claim that any such program is only a short-term ameliorative. Actually fixing the problem requires changing the economics of cocoa production, either by making the cocoa more valuable or by making the production less labour-intensive, or both. And the second strategy does not actually help the slaves, although it may well help the plantation owners; the slaves will simply be displaced into some other black hole of the African economy. After all, it’s “normal”.

    In “my book” (if I were to write one), it would say that depending on free market primary agriculture to provide an economic future is a pipe dream, and that a simple unbiased glance at the history of any continent would clearly show how insane an idea it is. In Europe and a handful of mostly anglophone countries there are wealthy farmers, but on the whole these are beneficiaries of enormous social subsidies, generally driven by a bizarre combination of romantic bucolicism and ahistorical national image, and/or of an elitist market of alimentourism. (Which of these explains the Swiss cheese industry, for example, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Elsewhere and historically, agriculture has been and continues to be a dumping ground for the mass of peasants who can do little more than feed themselves while paying their taxes and indentures, and waiting to serve, voluntarily or not, in the next armed conflict. Countries which can afford an agricultural sector, as opposed to a peonage, depend on something else to drive their economies. (And on other ways to keep their armies staffed.)

    Consequently, maintaining an agricultural system based on peonage and slavery is quite possibly counter-productive for economic development, something which the southern states of the USA found out the hard way. One might even argue that promoting investment in such an anachronism is not radically different from propping up bloated state apparatuses with foreign aid. If you think of things that way.

  5. I am sympathetic to the idea that free market primary agriculture has serious defects. Here in Canada, there is a decent-sized tradition of seed co-ops, sharing of heavy farm equipment, etc. I would be the last to complain about this.

    Still, the experience of the last century militates against the idea that some better non-market agricultural system can be put into operation. I am sure you know the results of socialization policies in the USSR, China, Cuba, or Zimbabwe as well as I do.

    No matter how badly the free market system has performed, there will be no reason to abandon it unless some other system performs better. And I do not see that, anywhere.

    I look forward to your book, when perhaps you will be able to treat these questions in depth.

    1. If I ever write it, I’ll send you a copy 🙂

      In my comment, I didn’t advocate abandoning free market primary agriculture. I simply suggested that it would be a mistake to rely on it as a large-scale long-term support of the economy (and, in particular, of employment). I apologize for not making that clear enough. Let me try again.

      In Canada, for example, primary agriculture now accounts for about 1.7% of the GDP (http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/publications/economic-publications/alphabetical-listing/an-overview-of-the-canadian-agriculture-and-agri-food-system-2013/?id=1331319696826). The number of farms reported by the 2011 farm census was only 205,730; in addition to the farm operators, there were a total of 112,059 full-time paid employees (and somewhat more seasonal workers). Half of Canada’s total gross farm receipts come from just 9,602 of these farms; of those larger farms, more than three-quarters are corporations (although many are family-held corporations.) (Data from Statistics Canada, see http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/95-640-x/2012002/01-eng.htm and Cansim.) I would guess that most Canadians, particularly of our age, hold a mental image of agriculture much more similar to your cherry-picking friends than to Cargill-style factory farming, but that train has left the station.

      Canada was once an intensely agricultural country. In 1941, when the population of Canada was just 11.5 million, there were 730,000 farms, and the rural farm population was more than three million, more than a quarter of the total population. StatsCan no longer computes “rural farm population” but the it does show that in 1971, with the rural population essentially unchanged in 30 years, the proportion attributed to farming had dropped by more than half, representing seven percent of the total population. Today, based on the farm census numbers, it’s hard to believe that it amounts to even two percent.

      Canadian agriculture is doing just fine. It produces lots of food, and lots of stuff that is reprocessed by a growing “agrifood” industry, not all of whose products are recognizably food. But in roughly three generations, it has become essentially marginal in the economy, whether viewed as a source of jobs or GDP.

      Want another example? In 1970, South Korean agriculture represented 50% of employment and 25% of GDP. By 2005, those numbers had dropped to 7% and 3% (http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/handle/52051). Cuisine and food production are deeply emotional issues for South Koreans, and as a result it has one of the world’s highest indices of agricultural support, more than double the OECD average.

      I could go on but it would be tiresome. I don’t disapprove of agricultural support systems; I retain the romantic view of small-scale production as a post-capitalistic ideal, and recognize the importance of social and state support to prop it up, because the free market won’t do that. (And I completely agree with you about forced collectivization as an alternate strategy; that’s just serfdom wearing an ideological t-shirt.)

      What I’m saying is that, when you look at agriculture around the world, what you see is either a bunch of really poor and frequently enslaved peons living on the verge of starvation when they are not conscripted into cannon fodder for unscrupulous warlords — basically the state of the entire world until recently, and still the case in significant parts of the world — or industrialized fields largely devoid of human life, producing lots of food but not providing many jobs.

      Given that progression, to which the only exceptions are the production of luxury food products — wine, gourmet cheeses, and other AOCs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appellation_d%27Origine_Contr%C3%B4l%C3%A9e), and so on — the view of agricultural development as a motor for poverty reduction seems misguided.

      For another example, consider South Korea, one of the miracles of

  6. Does anyone who reads the guardian actually have children of their own.
    I cannot imagine any of their children do a paper round in the morning before they go to school.

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