Is this the most evil Aid program in the world?

U.S. Food Aid has long had a dirty name in development circles. Whether you prefer see it as a giant exercise in Corporate Welfare or a transparent sop to farm state senators, one thing is clear: the program is more concerned with shifting grain surpluses (in gringo ships, of course) than with feeding the world’s hungry.

Now, research by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian just published in the hyper-prestigious American Economic Review shows it’s even worse than we thought.

U.S. Food Aid kills. In the actual bullet-holes-in-bodies sense.

How? You’ve heard of the butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a rain storm in North Dakota. Turns out that rain storm leads to a bumper U.S. wheat harvest, which U.S. AID ships out to Africa, where a warlord steals it, sells it, and uses the money to buy weapons and kill people.

Nunn and Qian start with the (standard) observation that the key determinant of U.S. aid shipment volumes for wheat have little to do with conditions on the ground in recipient countries. Instead, food aid closely track wheat production in the U.S.: a good harvest in the mid-west is inevitably followed by a spike in food aid shipments the following year.

Their strategy is to identify the impact of wheat aid shipments in a given year on the incidence of civil conflict in recipient countries. Some whiz-bang econometrics later they conclude that, on average, “an increase in US food aid increases the incidence and duration of civil conflicts.” The more it rains in the mid-west, the more violence there is in very poor countries.

The deeper you get into the weeds, the hairier this story gets:

The amount of theft can even exceed the value of the food, since convoy vehicles and other equipment are also stolen. In 2008, MSF Holland, an international aid organization working in Chad and Darfur, noted the strategic importance of these goods, writing that these “vehicles and communications equipment have a value beyond their monetary worth for armed actors, increasing their capacity to wage war” (Polman 2010, p. 105).

The research finds no impact of U.S. Food Aid on local food production or prices. Let me just repeat that, because it’s actually quite staggering: flooding a conflict area with free American wheat does not cause local food prices to go down. Nunn and Qian do note that the available data on this is limited – still, that’s amazing.

On the one hand this is “good”, in that it suggests aid may not lead to agricultural disinvestment or to farmers reallocating their labour to armed conflict due to agricultural prices collapsing (the traditional case against aid).

On the other hand, it’s hard to see what possible use Food Aid can be at alleviating hunger if it leaves food prices where they were before. It suggests the scale of Food Aid diversion in conflict areas is so vast that all it does is bolster the resource base of the parties to the conflict, without so much as a cursory bump to food availability.

What intrigues me is the Limited Access Orders reading to this evidence – something that, to be clear, Nunn and Qian don’t really go into. In an LAO reading, developing country conflicts are usually driven by failures in elite pacts over how to divvy up rents. Food aid is, in a way, the ultimate rent: free food that drops from the sky (sometimes literally.) It’s just more stuff to squabble over.

And I know it’s true, because I read it in the AER.

How the ICC Gift-Wrapped Kenya and Delivered it to Beijing’s Doorstep

In my more Machiavellian moments, I almost think China’s Foreign Ministry must have paid off somebody in The Hague to get Uhuru Kenyatta indicted for crimes against humanity.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. Yet if, like me, you subscribe to the Cui Bono School of International Relations, you almost have to wonder. Certainly, no one has gained more from the now President Kenyatta’s indictment than China.

Here’s what that ODI report has to say about this:

In August 2013, President Kenyatta made state visits to Russia and China. The government profiled the visits as the Jubilee government’s initiative to grow new markets for Kenya’s exports of coffee, tea and fresh produce. The visit to China was to seek new trade agreements and investment opportunities. Kenyatta’s opening to the East came almost a month after the US President had shunned Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and visited the neighbouring Tanzania instead. Earlier in May 2013, Kenyatta had visited London for a Somalia conference, but failed to get what the media called ‘a photo opportunity’ with the British prime minister. These two events were generally seen as humiliating and those around the president quickly crafted a new agenda to intensify contacts with the East.

The ‘Look East’ initiative that then happened was a continuation of what the Kibaki and the coalition government had already established. The visit to China in particular resulted in the government signing a number of agreements worth about 5 billion USD in investments in several sectors, including the building of a new standard-gauge railway line from Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda as well as energy projects. While the ‘Look East’ initiative has a political motive, as a response to how the West has treated the president because of the cases at the ICC, it is also aimed at generating economic opportunities

So, assuming Uhuru’s indictment wasn’t plotted in Beijing, you can only conclude that it has backfired catastrophically. In the first place, because by painting him as a victim of foreign meddling, the indictment actually helped the guy get elected, meaning it closed the door on any prospect that he will one day pay for whatever he did in 2007/8 with jail time. What the indictment did achieve, on the other hand, is to basically put a bow on East Africa’s biggest economy and deliver it to China’s front door.

Let’s just review: back in December 2007, the wheels came off of Kenya’s elite pact. A close, contested election led to a spasm of communal violence, as leaders in the Limited Access Order scrambled to make a grab for as much of the rent-stream as possible. Hundreds of people were killed in violence that shocked liberal internationalist sensibilities, but that was broadly seen as “part of the way things work here” by many Kenyans.

To be clear, that in no way means Kenyans liked or approved of the post-election violence – who would? It’s just to say that recourse to violence when your ethnic group’s access to power is threatened is not perceived as illegitimate in East Africa to anything like the extent it is in the West. So not-a-big-deal was this in Kenya that Kenyatta actually got elected, fair and square, with over 6 million votes, even after his ICC indictment had been published. Some would argue that the indictment was a net positive to him in the campaign, allowing him to take on the mantle of Kenyan nationalism in opposition to a neoimperialist West.

Few people in the West seem to appreciate quite how wrong indicting a guy whose name literally means “Kenya’s Freedom”, and also happened to be the literal son of the father of the nation, would rub proud, patriotic Kenyans.

Worse, almost no one seems to have thought through the way the indictment, and Kenyatta’s subsequent ostracism from polite international society would play directly into the hands China’s ambitious African strategy.

That last observation calls for a tiny detour: A lot of Westerners seem to be under a basic misunderstanding about China’s strategy in Africa. People think China’s studious avoidance of human rights and good governance talk there is driven by values: China doesn’t care about these things back home, so it doesn’t press them abroad. Surely there’s something to that, but perhaps less than people figure. The major reason China never talks about these things is strategic: silence on governance and human rights is the one thing they can offer that the West can’t.

In some ways, China is playing a relatively weak hand as it tries to extend its reach into Africa. It doesn’t have as much capital as the west, or as much engineering expertise or technological sophistication, its people don’t speak English or French as well, it doesn’t have anything like Western military capacities, and it doesn’t have the historical ties Western countries have with their former colonies. China feels hobbled by all of this. Like it needs an Ace-in-the-Hole to overcome all these disadvantages.

Simply shutting up about governance or human rights is that Ace in the Hole. From Beijing’s point of view, it’s all up side. For one thing, it’s free. Not just financially, because it also doesn’t demand any additional scarce technical or human or administrative resources. It’s very literally costless. And it allows China to score killer deals in Africa that the Western powers unwittingly rule themselves out of through their lecturing.

The Chinese really can’t believe their luck. And the West seems oblivious to this whole dynamic. It still has the model in its head where capital equals Western Capital and where lecturing the continent has no consequences.

But why on earth would Uhuru Kenyatta put himself through the indignity of sitting there as he’s called a war criminal, for doing things his constituents don’t think are outside the rules of the game, by a bunch of effete European peaceniks, when he can just look east and get all the investment and technical cooperation he needs from people who intuitively grasp the rules of the game in a Limited Access Order in ways western partners just can’t?

Seriously, why would he?

He wouldn’t. And he doesn’t.

[This post, again, mostly pilfers its ideas from that ODI’s report on East Africa’s Political Economy. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re really missing out: it’s a treasure trove of hard-to-come-by clarity on the real power dynamics in the region.]

Why Warlords Fight: The David Yau Yau Story

Douglass North’s theory of political order based on elite pacts to carve up access to rents can seem like a pretty distant abstraction. Surely the dirty deals that give rise to North’s “Limited Access Orders” are academic speculation rather than anything you’d encounter in the real world today, right?

Well, consider David Yau Yau.

Yau Yau is the South Sudanese Warlord pictured above next to the nervously smiling centrist politician from Norway who runs the U.N. Mission to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson.

On again off again since 2010, he’s led the most vicious, mindlessly murderous little tribal war you’ve never heard of for control of his home region in Jonglei State’s Pibor County, just near Ethiopia.

At the head of a small but dogged group of fighters from his Murle tribe, Yau Yau organized dozens of heavily armed attacks on villages of the neighboring Lou Nuer tribe.

These attacks are somewhat misleadingly referred to as “cattle raids”. Yes, cows are stolen, and in a society where cattle is the main store of wealth and prestige, that’s deeply destabilizing. But the level of armament and violence used was out of all proportion to that goal, and the more salient fact is that these cattle raids often leave dozens of villagers dead.

The crowning achievement of Yau Yau’s little rampage in Pibor came on April 8th last year, when his fighters murdered five UN peacekeepers from India in an ambush, as well as seven civilians. By October, the government in Juba was visibly exasperated: unable to put down the rebellion, it declared him a terrorist and called on the International Criminal Court to prosecute him for war crimes.

To be clear, SPLA’s response to Yau Yau’s rebellion often matched him for brutality, with civilians sometimes singled out for reprisal just because they were Murle. And the abuses on both sides of this little war pale in comparison with the much larger scale carnage the country has witnessed since the start of the broader Civil War in December last year.

What’s sad is how common stories like Yau Yau’s are. If you’ve never heard of him it’s because there isn’t really anything particularly noteworthy about he’s done. There’s nothing to distinguish his rebellion from the dozens of tiny wars taking place in Africa at any given time. The only way these things end up in your morning newspaper is if someone goes to the trouble to attach a hashtag to them.

But why exactly does a guy like Yau Yau start a fight? And what would it take to stop him?

It all goes back to 2010, when he ran for a seat in Jonglei State’s Legislative Assembly. It wasn’t a particularly powerful post. But he lost. And having lost, his best chance for a share of access to local contracts, patronage jobs and other rents was abruptly closed.

At that point, David Yau Yau had a decision to make.

Yau Yau wasn’t even a unifying figure among the Murle. But he was charismatic enough that he could muster a few hundred Murle kids from in and around Pibor with the promise of cattle. Using links with Khartoum, he got them guns and persuaded them to go shoot up some near-by Nuer villages. Certainly, he had no prospect of overthrowing the government in Juba, nor any intention to try.

If SPLA was even minimally competently run, it could’ve disposed of his matchbook rebellion in a weekend.

But the army is a basket case. If your tribal roots are strong enough, and you find a foreign partner willing to supply a stream of ammo, you don’t even need all that many soldiers to sustain a rebellion that maybe can’t win, but can’t be defeated either. In the meantime, it can create plenty of chaos, and chaos is leverage.

So how did that work out for him?

The clue is in that photo. If David Yau Yau is suddenly getting to mug for pictures with Norwegian Christian Democrats it’s because the government threw in the towel. Facing the much bigger challenge from Riek Machar, the government decided to cut a deal with him.

Earlier this month, David Yau Yau was appointed “governor” of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area in return for calling off his rebellion. In effect, the National Government handed him the keys to the area he’s been terrorizing for years.

So Yau Yau drove down to Juba – he reportedly refuses to board a helicopter – to work out the details and get his picture taken with the grandees.

And that’s when Hilde Johnson committed the unforgivable rookie gaffe of smiling through her Warlord photo op – a gesture her murdered peacekeepers’ relatives back in India will doubtlessly have found charming.

Considering the kind of unreconstructed, blood-soaked thug David Yau Yau is, it’s not easy to suppress your gag reflex as you consider his rehabilitation.

But if you look it analytically, you start to see how beautifully it illustrates North’s description of elite settlements and how they work to establish order in societies on the edge of violence.

Because, really, what choice did the South Sudanese government have? The real solution should’ve been to defeat him militarily, but if there’s one thing Yau Yau’s rebellion made clear is that SPLA couldn’t do that. Yau Yau wasn’t just threatening open-ended chaos in Pibor County, he was delivering open-ended chaos in Pibor County.

You don’t reach a political settlement with a guy like David Yau Yau because you want to. You do it because you have to, because the only other alternative is a never-ending cycle of blood. You give him power over Pibor not so he’ll deliver good government, but so he’ll keep himself busy stealing from the public purse rather than torching villages.

It’s in this sense – this simple, primordial sense – that corruption acts a mechanism to limit violence. It sure ain’t pretty. You do it because you have to do it. And so, a Limited Access Order is born.

To be clear, David Yau Yau has certainly never heard of Douglass North. But he knows what it takes to turn the barrel of a gun into a constant stream of rents. And that’s all it takes.

Time to Let Go of “Corruption”

Given his stature, it’s a little disappointing that Douglass North’s recent work, along with John Wallis and Barry Weingast, on “Limited Access Orders” hasn’t had more of an impact on the development world. Probably, a lot of mistakes would be avoided if practitioners took the time to really digest the lessons there.

For one thing, we’d have a more nuanced, less moralistic, more realistic understanding of corruption, or to put it in language North would recognize, the role personalized exchange plays in maintaining political order in developing countries.

The Limited Access Order approach is nothing if not ambitious. In a single, slim volume, North and his collaborators put forward the kind of Grand Theory of History more usually associated with multi-volume 19th-century door-stoppers. Writing well into his 80s, North seems to have been in no mood to write about anything short of everything.

A taste:

Systematic consideration of violence, and the role it plays in shaping societies, is fundamental to the problem of economic, political, and social development. All societies possess institutions, organizations, and beliefs that enable them to deal with violence with varying degrees of success. These social structures embody a fundamental logic, captured in the concept of a social order. Standard development advice fails all too frequently because it conflicts with the social logic that maintains order.

It’s not really possible to conceive of a brush broader than that, and yet I think there would be a lot less confusion and wasted effort in the development enterprise if practitioners would just take the effort to grasp even just that much.

For North, the vast majority of societies for the vast majority of human history have been Limited Access Orders: systems that keep violence at bay by limiting competition – both political and economic – while allowing elites to carve up the rents between them.

This, when you think about it, isn’t actually a controversial point at all: until 250 years ago or so, no settled society had operated in any other way. And, in North’s view, it’s how most of the world still operates today.

Both in historical and comparative perspective, “Open Access Orders” that limit rent-seeking while allowing open political and economic competition are the exception, not the rule. In the context of an Open Access Order, working to limit competition and extract rents is deviant behaviour. Criminal behaviour. Behaviour so reprehensible we describe it with a word that doubles as a moral judgment.

It’s corruption, plain and simple. In societies organized around the principles of Open Access, it’s intolerable.

But, of course, in the 17th century, nobody thought of Europe’s extractive elite as “corrupt.” When, as Braudel meticulously documents, French manufacturing guilds went to extreme lengths to prohibit technological innovation and colluded to limit entry into the textile sector, nobody thought of them as corrupt.

In the context of a Limited Access Order, leveraging personal contacts into political power for the purpose of limiting competition and extracting rents isn’t deviant. It’s how things work. It’s the way society preserves order.

What’s peculiar about the situation in today’s Least Developed Countries is that donor countries have exported the category of “corrupt” to describe behaviours that are deviant in the donor countries, but essential to preserving political order and preventing generalized violence in the recipient countries.

Of course, this doesn’t make LDC elites any less extractive: it just means that their extractiveness happens in a legitimacy vacuum. Politicians in today’s LDCs grasp realities about the nature of politics in their countries that seem nearly impossible for observers in Washington or Geneva to grasp – but that decision-makers in Beijing understand instinctively. They grasp the role rent-seeking plays in maintaining the viability of the basic political settlement. They grasp that, given the economic and social structures of their society, the alternative to rent-seeking isn’t squeaky-clean technocracy but generalized chaos.

They grasp, in other words, the progressive potential of corruption, its role in strategies of state formation that offer some kind of reprieve from generalized violence and some sort of potential for stability and growth.

You can see why development practitioners have a hard time taking on this kind of message: the kind of hard-bitten realism baked into North’s late work on social orders might run with the grain of African Power and Politics, but it runs directly against the grain of the narratives that dominate Western development discourses.

It’s a hard sell, back when you’re writing that grant proposal back in Brussels, or Ottawa: “yes, we’ll be working with a completely corrupt government, but that’s inevitable, and actually it could be a feature, not a bug.”

You’re way out beyond the development Overton Window there, out on your own. And when you’re that far out at sea, Douglass North probably can’t help you.

East Africa, Minus the BS

How often do you come across an Think Tank report that doubles up as a genuine page-turner? Doubt such a thing even exists? Well, I’m here to tell you East African Prospects by ODI’s David Booth, Brian Cooksey, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi and Karuti Kanyinga is that report.

Shockingly readable, unendingly quotable, and deeply entertaining, it’s a kind of weary Hobbesian counterpart to the standard, pollyannaish hogwash that dominates so much think tank writing about aid.

Starting from Douglass North’s analysis of Limited Access Orders, David Booth and his collaborators pick apart the political economy of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with rare clarity and insight.

There’s a frankness to the writing that’s like a balm. Take this bit of straight talk from the introduction:

Comparative history suggests that, as a group, the EAC countries will retain for some time yet most of the features of what North et al. (2009; 2013) call a limited access order (LAO). That is to say, the political and economic power of elite groups will remain closely entwined. Markets will not be highly competitive or inclusive. Capitalism will begin to take hold but in the form of ‘crony capitalism’ in which non-market relationships play a crucial role. The generation and allocation of economic rents will play an important role in limiting political violence and maintaining the fundamental agreements underlying the rules of a patronage-based political game. This will limit the use of rents to finance the learning processes and provide the market coordination required to turn fast economic growth into real economic transformation. It will also prevent politics and policy-making from becoming primarily a battle of ideas based on contending programmes or ideologies.

The feeling you’re left with is that a grizzled old East Africa hand, somebody who’s been around the block two dozen times and knows exactly how things go down, has decided to take you under his wing and is giving you the straight dope over beers.

What Booth and his colleagues have done is turn the Gates Foundation’s formulation on its head: rather than Impatient Optimists, what we have here is the Patient Pessimists’ view.

Booth et al. are pessimists, but not fatalists. It’s an important distinction to grasp. The work of dispelling the facile fantasies of the Gates/Sachs set is the first step in their journey, not the final word. If they lay some unpleasant realities squarely on the table it’s so you’ll have a clearer grasp of what is achievable, how, and on what time-scale. The realities are somewhat sobering, but sobriety seems like a much needed corrective to the cycle of over-promising and under-delivering that so much of the aid world seems stuck in.

For now, I’ll make it easy on you: if you’re even a little bit interested in the region, you have to read it. The good news is, it’s great fun to read.

Factoid of the Day

Posting is slow as I read and digest as much about Uganda’s recent history as I’m able to.

For now, one factoid that left me absolutely gobsmacked. I’m sure it’s something everybody who follows these things already knows, but it stopped me in my tracks.


During the Luwero Bush War of the 1980s – the one that brought Yoweri Museveni to power – Museveni’s counter-intelligence chief was…Paul Kagame.

How has nobody made a movie about this yet?!

Here’s more from the sensational 2009 article reporting this: Continue reading Factoid of the Day

One simple reform Africa needs right now

The story of seed is the story of Africa’s development woes. While the aid world concentrates on one narrow slice of the Seed conundrum – new variant development – the bottlenecks keeping farmers from using the best seed take on many more forms than that.

Easily the most boring bottleneck (and as far as this blog is concerned, that’s high praise) arises from the impossibly slow and bureaucratic seed certification standards 53 out of 54 African countries impose. Add to that the fact that African countries refuse to recognize their neighbours’ seed certifications and you end up with a system where cross-border trade in improved seed is nearly impossible and the introduction of new adapted seed varieties is exasperatingly slow.

Solving this problem would be easy. Costless. It would require no additional capabilities. Hell, it would require fewer capabilities than the current system. All it would take is for governments to announce they will henceforth recognize seed licenses issued by their neighbours. That simple change could completely change the dynamics of the seed sector, bringing in more competition, more investment, more choice and many, many more varieties into the market.

Think of it like this: if a company produces a new seed variety and gets it licensed in, say, Portugal, that new variety is automatically legal for sale in the whole of the E.U. Farmers in Poland can buy it, farmers in Italy can buy it, farmers in Sweden can buy it.

This is a good thing. Portugal’s market is small, but the European market is huge, and competition enormously tough. Lots of seed companies are interested in participating, and one result is that farmers in Europe get a huge catalogue of seeds to choose from, with different varieties minutely adapted to the specific agro-ecological, climate and pest profiles they face.

But in Africa, despite the crazy alphabet soup proliferation of notional Free Trade Areas, the reality is that virtually no country accepts its neighbors’ Seed Certification standards.

So there is no African Seed Certification system, there are 54 of them; so there is no African Seed Market, there are 54 of them. The slow, grinding, costly business of getting new seed varieties tested and certified has to be repeated, in principle, fifty-four times if a company wants to sell a given seed variety across the whole continent.

How burdensome is this?


Presently, all governments in sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa control the introduction of new varieties of seed for major and minor field crops through official tests to evaluate the variety’s performance and to describe its characteristics […] Test procedures vary from country to country but normally involve a series of “value for cultivation and use” (VCU) and “distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability” (DUS) tests carried out by the national seed authority in which data needed to measure different traits are collected in various locations around the country. Developing a variety can easily take plant breeders seven to ten years or more and, with few exceptions, registration trials take a minimum of two years but often require much longer […] In Kenya and Malawi, some registration tests have lasted for six and seven years respectively (Setimela et al., 2009).

And that’s just the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare that is seed certification in Africa. Take this jaw-dropping nugget from the same paper by John Keyser for the World Bank:

 In countries such as Angola, Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Uganda, guidelines for appraisal of DUS and VCU data have not been published so are prone to unannounced changes and different interpretations.

Did you catch that? You have to spend years and years and thousands of dollars on the DUS and VCU tests that will eventually determine if your new seed variety is allowed for sale, but you don’t even know ahead of time precisely which standards your variety is going to be held to! And even if it goes well somehow in Angola, if you want to sell the same seed in Mozambique you have to gear up to do the whole thing over again…

Keyser’s paper goes into the weeds of why African seed certification is certifiably FUBAR and cross-border seed trade basically impossible.

But the upshot of all the red tape is that farmers in Africa, who need adapted variety with the kind of urgency your average subsidy-cuddled Audi-driving French farmer couldn’t even begin to imagine, usually face a desperately reduced set of certified seed to plant, a good portion of which ends up being fake.

Here’s Keyser again:

As a result of such requirements, many seed companies say they only bother to register a few varieties in each country that are generally suited for each market even though other seeds in their portfolio may be even better adapted to certain locations and/or offer better value for some end users. The cost and time taken for seed registration, therefore, is not only of direct financial importance to the seed companies, but can also have a major impact on agriculture production and the time farmers must wait to access to new and improved technologies.

One study Keyser cites shows that, on average, just 0.62 new seed varieties are released in the average African country each year across eight major food crops. Meanwhile over the 2000-2010 period in South Africa “farmers gained access to a median of 45 new varieties of maize per year, 10 new varieties of beans per year, and six to eight new varieties per year each of potatoes, sorghum, sunflower, and wheat.” Needless to say, South Africa is the one country that refrains from shooting itself on the foot with all this senseless VCU and DUS testing.

Notice how this cuts directly against the prevailing narrative on state capability. South Africa doesn’t outperform the rest of the region because it does more, it outperforms the rest of the region because it does less. Less needless testing and less regulating and less encumbering and less standing in the way.

For reasons that nobody’s really explained yet, the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa refuses to follow suit. One outcome of that is that the big old mean seed transnationals – y’know, the ones everyone loves to hate – largely don’t trade in much of Africa. The market is too fragmented, and each of the national markets is too small and the volumes just aren’t attractive and the whole thing isn’t worth the bureaucratic hassle. So the private players with the most scientific/marekting/logistics/financial muscle stay out, and leave the field to small-time local players who can’t even figure out how to make a tamper proof seed bag.

All the while, development partners keep funding guys in lab-coats to sit around and develop new seed varieties.

Is it really bad form to suggest that maybe, just possibly, lab-based plant-breeding is not the most relevant bottleneck here? That just possibly there’s something very strange going on with the political economy of countries bent of throwing up this many bureaucratic hurdles in the way of a tried-and-tested technology they desperately need to achieve food security? That the debate on Seed in the aid world isn’t so much wrong as focused on the wrong questions?

And do you see why I think the Story of Seed is the Story of Africa?

Adventures Outside the Aid Comfort Zone

I’ll own up, I’m obsessed with Counterfeit Seed. I don’t think about much else these days: Seed Counterfeiting is just this perfect little case study of the way Aid can keep winning development battles from now until the end of time and still lose the war.

First things first: Big Aid is very well clued in to seed issues.

In a way, Seed (and fertilizer, and herbicide) is where it all started: the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s in Asia and Latin America was, among other things, a massive, these-days unthinkably successful Big Aid project. It was the crucible where the model that so many later initiatives would try to emulate was forged.

Low agricultural productivity in Asia and Latin America was an enormous Third World problem solved conclusively in First World labs back in the day when people still talked about the Third and the First World. And it was solved in no small part is a sprawling effort to bring out the fruits of that research and put them into the hands of the world’s poorest people, with impacts on food security that were dramatic and lasting and real.

Even today, there’s a whole little subworld of the aid world that’s all about seed. Legacy organizations from the Green Revolution like CIMMYT and ICRISAT working alongside newcomers like AGRA are out there working to spread knowledge of modern plant breeding techniques, developing new strains, monitoring pest and plant disease patterns to come up with new resistant varieties.

And it works! They do amazing things! 20th century biotech is alive and well in the 21st century thanks to a wealth of initiatives by crop scientists who do more for the world’s poor before breakfast than an army of voluntourists would do in a lifetime. Hurray for them!

So far, so comfort-zoney. Aid for new crop varieties is development as we’d like to imagine it: the poor are poor because they lack certain knowledge- and technology-intensive tools, and if there’s one thing we’re not short of is technical expertise to provide them. And so the Gates Foundation grants keep getting granted and the FAO studies keep getting studied and the whole machine keeps puttering forward relentlessly and everybody’s happy…except the Africa’s smallholder farmers.

Because here we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and fewer than 1 in 10 Ugandan farmers even tries to buy High Yield Variety seeds from the market! When they do, they’re cheated 30 or 40% of the time, sold counterfeit seed and hung out to dry.

And suddenly we’re well out of the collective comfort zone of the guys in the white lab coats. Suddenly, you start to realize the problem isn’t technical at all. The reason the Green Revolution somehow skipped Africa isn’t biological.

Ugandan farmers are not primarily constrained by a technological gap, what they’re facing is criminal gangs running a sprawling criminal conspiracy that preys on the world’s weakest people. Forget the lab coats, what you need a badge and a gun. You need informants and snitches, you need somebody to grass. You need a courtroom and a prison and a parole board and all kinds of things the Gates Foundation ain’t ever going to give you a grant for.

Notice what happened just there? When you become genuinely aware of the prevalence of seed counterfeiting, you’re summarily evicted from the Aid Enterprise’s collective comfort zone. You’re expelled from that Sachsian schematized reality where you have poor people in villages who lack access to technology and you have sophisticated experts able to develop that technology and the only thing keeping you from putting the two together is lack of a big enough aid budget.

Fake seed fascinates me because it shines the spotlight back on the whole tangle of social and political relationships that mediate between the two. In the final analysis, farmers buy seed not from the top of Mount Olympus but from a local agro-dealer who’s the last stage in a perfectly mundane, entirely corruptible supply chain where transactions are regulated and policed by an equally humdrum set of bureaucracies arising from an eminently corruptible state.

The seed scientists – the real heroes in all of this – find themselves in an impossible position. They can continue developing improved seed varieties from now until the end of time, but there is no magic wand you can wave to make the intervening institutions suddenly stop hindering the interface between what they produce and what farmers sow the following year.

To ask why Ugandans go hungry is to ask why those who grow the foods don’t have a reliable way to access the things they need to grow the food. That interface is broken, not because the seeds don’t exist, not because the farmers don’t want to buy them, but because markets – even the simplest of markets – are complex institutions that need a minimally competent state guarantor to operate properly.

But the stories of the specific features of that break-down is one that’s seldom told: or, rather, one that’s usually told at such a high level of abstraction and generality as to be fairly useless. I’m not interested in Why Nations Fail as a general pr0position. I’m interested in why this farmer can’t find good seed and fertilizer in that village. That’s the story I want to explore.


Taking “Context is Everything” Seriously

You’ll have noticed the pace of posting here has slackened. Truth be told, I’m having second thoughts about whether a blog on “Development” is really a viable project in the first place.

I started Campaign for Boring Development because I noticed nearly every blog on development out there were not actually about development at all. They were about development work. They were about the aid enterprise, about NGOs’ and multilateral agencies’ role with regard to development, about stuff expat aid workers like or about a series of more or less recondite academic discussions in the west on development research topics.

It didn’t take long to piece together why this happens: bloggers respond to traffic and the reader engagement it brings, and the thing that generates engagement is writing about the problems that Western development practitioners face. Poor people in poor countries, alas, don’t spend much time reading development blogs.

So the posts that were getting the most reader engagement here were posts about the lives of first world professionals involved in development. That thing I wrote on Bulte et al.’s double-blind seed RCT went the development-nerd version of mega-viral. The other post on why World Bank reforms don’t stick was another big hit among…wait for it…World Bank staffers.

Meanwhile, what I consider to be far and away the best stuff on BoringDevelopment – the posts on Seed Counterfeiting, in particular – basically languished.

This, I started to suspect, is why the globaldev blogosphere is the way it is.

The deeper problem is that “development” tout court is  too abstract a topic to make for a good, meaty, focused blog. And “African Development” or “Rural Development” don’t really solve the problem. These formulations totally decontextualize the process, bleaching out all the politics, the state context and the power relations that increasingly seem to me to be the heart of the matter.

Development, when you get down to it, is a political process. Whether you go for the right wing or the left wing variant of this idea matters less, I think, than whether you buy into the concept in the first place. If “context is everything” then “development” doesn’t make sense as a starting point for analysis: why would you start from a category that works by zapping the very thing that “is everything” out of the picture?

The upshot is: I’ve been spending more time reading about the gentlemen in the photo, and less reading about the econometrics of missing variables. I think it’s a much better use of my time.

I may be obsessed with the problem of counterfeit seed, say, but without a deeper appreciation of the basic ways power and influence flow through the Ugandan state system, there are very clear limits on how far I can take that obsession. I may find the marketing strategies of Kenyan seed producers riveting, but without a sophisticated understanding of how agro-inputs policy fits into President Kenyatta’s coalition-building approach, there are very clear limits to what I can do with it.

There’s hope for a blog on Ugandan development or on Kenyan development or on Rwandan development in a way there isn’t for a blog on “development” as such. Hope for relevance and insight into questions that ultimately matter.

So now I need to get a solid handle on the political economy of the Kenyan, Ugandan and Rwandan states. Will it be easy? No way. It’ll be much harder. But worth doing.