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Cutting agricultural aid research or how to dig your own grave…

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food handout bangladesh

Giving people fish or teaching them to fish?

A few years back, I had a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE.
I told him of the humanitarian work we did. He listened attentively, and kept a silence after my explanation. Then he said candidly: “You know, you are giving people fish, instead of teaching them how to fish. Give a person a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will have food for the rest of his life!”

food aidI was quick to respond: “Your Highness, when people are starving, they are not interested in being taught how to fish. If we give them fishlings for their pond, they will eat it, rather using them for breeding. Our organisation gives people the fish, so they are not starving anymore, and have the energy to be taught how to fish, and to fish themselves. Other organisations we work closely with, teach them how to fish, how to breed fishlings. After that, others come in and teach them not to overfish their pond, or even to market their excess harvest, set up funding mechanisms to sell their harvest beyond their own village. We all work hand in hand, each of us has its own role.”

How true are we to our aid commitments?

This was then. But at this moment, there is a growing concern and dissatisfaction in the aid world. How well have we done in the past decades. Have we really followed our own reasonings and explanations..? Or were they mere justifications for our own existence?

The global food crisis hitting the poorest people first, is an objective proof we – the international aid community – have not done well enough. Have we – all of us – not concentrated too much on giving people fish, rather than teaching them how to be independent from foreign aid? How much of it could have been avoided? How can we learn from our lessons?

While the international focus is on the global food crisis, it is the right time to highlight the importance of not only concentrating on short term solutions. Short term solutions for hunger are like drops of water on a hot plate. Let’s give people fish, but also concentrate on “teaching them how to fish”.

In the context of the global food crisis, this means concentrating not only on emergency food aid, but also on achieving sustainable food security and reducing poverty in developing countries through non-for-profit and transparent scientific research in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, policy, and environment.
I explicitly exclude the agricultural research done by the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, international commercial giants who only aim at increasing their profit margin, often to the detriment of the farmers in poorer countries.

Let’s rather have a look at the benevolent work of organisations like the CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Agricultural aid research, a proven success.

The CGIAR has a proven success track record (Source):

food aid- Successful biological control of the cassava mealybug and green mite, both devastating pests of a root crop that is vital for food security in sub-Saharan Africa. The economic benefits of this work are estimated at more than $4 billion.
- Increasing smallholder dairy production in Kenya improving childhood nutrition while generating jobs. This award-winning project with smallholder dairies has contributed up to 80 percent of the milk products sold in the country.
food aid- New rice varieties for Africa, which combine the high yields of Asian rice with African rice’s resistance to local pests and diseases. Currently sown on 200,000 hectares in upland areas, they are helping reduce national rice import bills and generating higher incomes in rural communities.
- An agroforestry system called “fertilizer tree fallows,” which renews soil fertility in Southern Africa, adopted by than 66,000 farmers in Zambia.
- Widespread adoption of resource-conserving “zero-till” technology in the vital rice-wheat systems of South Asia. Employed by close to a half million farmers on more than 3.2 million hectares, this technology has generated benefits estimated at US$147 million through higher crop yields, lower production costs and savings in water and energy.
food aid- A flood-tolerant version of a rice variety grown on six million hectares in Bangladesh. The new variety enables farmers to obtain yields two to three times those of the non-tolerant version under prolonged submergence of rice crops, a situation that will become more common as a result of climate change.
- A new method for detecting and reducing by 100% aflatoxin, a deadly poison that infects crops, making them unfit for local consumption or export benefiting farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
- More than 50 varieties of recently developed drought-tolerant maize varieties being grown on a total of about one million hectares across eastern and southern Africa
- A simple methodology for integrating agriculture with aquaculture to bolster income and food supplies in areas of southern Africa where the agricultural labor force has been devastated by HIV/AIDS, doubling the income of 1,200 households in Malawi.
- Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera….

Digging our own grave.

All good news. Except that the focus on emergency food aid seems to have drawn worldwide attention – and funding – away from long term agricultural research. Proof of the matter is that while U.S. President George W. Bush recently ordered up $200 million in emergency food aid, with a follow-up of another $755 million, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is cutting as much as 75% of their funding to the CGIAR (See Science Magazine). USAID’s support to the CGIAR in 2006 was $56 million or about 12% of the CGIAR’s core budget.

And USAID is not the only one to blame. Look at this graph illustrating the worldwide trend of foreign aid (which excludes relief aid – as the graph would then look even worse!) going up, versus the downward trend of in agricultural aid.

foreign aid versus agricultural aid

Here is another interesting graph, comparing the annual budget of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), one of the CGIAR’s research centers, and the global rice stock pile volume, using the latter as a measure for consumption versus demand on rice. Now is there not a strange correlation to be noticed? This can not be coincidence.

rice research versus stockpiling

How a small bug illustrates a worldwide problem

Talking about the IRRI, here is an example of how, by cutting back transparent and not-for-profit agricultural research is as bad as digging one’s own grave:

food aidThe brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people. China, the world’s biggest rice producer, announced on May 7 that it was struggling to control the rapid spread of the insects there. A plant hopper outbreak can destroy 20 percent of a harvest.

The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so. (Full)

Learning from the past

In the 1960s, population growth was far outrunning food production, threatening famine in many poor countries. Wealthier nations joined forces with the poor countries to improve crop yields. Yields soared, and by the 1980s, the threat of starvation had receded in most of the world. With Europe and the United States offering their farmers heavy subsidies that encouraged production, grain became abundant worldwide, and prices fell.

Many poor countries, instead of developing their own agriculture, turned to the world market to buy cheap rice and wheat. In 1986, Agriculture Secretary John Block called the idea of developing countries feeding themselves “an anachronism from a bygone era,” saying they should “just buy American”. (Full)

And this attitude got the world into the mess it is in today: a demand (the world population) outgrowing the supply (food production)… The below graph clearly illustrates this trend (the food production – in purple- is represented by the total production of grain in the world).


Bottomline. And how you can help.

We need to push the international community for long-term agricultural research aiming solely at making developing countries food self-sufficient, without any commercial interests at heart, if we want to resolve this food crisis and avoid it from ever happening again.

Here is one way how you can help: sign the petition urging USAID to maintain its support for the CGIAR’s food research centers.

Maybe, just maybe, we will be in time to turn this food crisis, into an opportunity, and really teach people how to fish, rather than just giving them fish to eat. Maybe, just maybe queues for food hand-outs in developing countries could be a thing of a past.

rice queues philippines

More articles on The Road about the global food crisis

With thanks to “the other E” for the inspiration!
Graphs courtesy New York Times and
Pictures courtesy Luis Liwanag (The New York Times), EPA (Al Jazeera), Crispin Hughes (WFP), CGIAR and Pavel Rahman (AP Photo)

Written by Peter

May 18th, 2008 at 10:23 am

Mohammed wants baksheesh

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On the road from the hotel in Cairo to the airport, we took a local taxi. The concierge had warned us: “70 Egyptian pounds, not more!”…

Our driver took off, cutting off a roundabout by driving in the wrong direction. He rolled down his window, snorted up and spit whatever came up from deep, deep inside his throat with a well expressed Arrghaaat-[spit]. Mafoud, my colleague sitting in the back behind the driver, pulled away from the open window, hoping the snot would not hit him.

The driver introduced himself as Mohammed and asked if it was OK if he would smoke. We are all smokers and of course we did not mind.. We joked around with the little English he could understand, and the little Arabic Mafoud could come up with. We cursed at the bad drivers (the other ones), laughed at the near-hits as Mohammed cut off other cars, cheered as we passed yet another taxi, but loudly protested as he pulled in at a gas station to join a queue of twenty cars. “Petrol, petrol!”, he smiled at us. We answered. “No petrol, airport, jalla!” So he reversed, with two pedestrians trying to avoid hitting us, and Mohammed continued to the airport.

He explained he had ten kids, was a poor man, and needed “baksheesh”. “Baksheesh” is a word you often hear in the Middle East, and South-West Asia… It means anything from a fee, a tip or a bribe…. Somewhere a way to pay for services rendered, let’s say.
Mohammed did not mean the negotiated 70 Egyptian pounds, but money on top… We kind of liked the guy, and agreed on 30 pounds baksheesh.. He seemed happy as he kissed us goodbye when we arrived at the airport… I think next time we will pay 40 pounds and ask him not to kiss us. (I don’t know how you women can do this.. Yak!)

Written by Peter

March 15th, 2008 at 10:11 am

Posted in Stories

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Lost Connection

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Dubai airport at night

Dubai International Airport – October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,… Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), (Duty free zone)

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Written by Peter

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:08 am

Palestinians: Refugees for Life.

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Warning: this piece is highly opinionated. It is nevertheless my honest opinion. My impression of the reality, my interpretation of the facts, and my reflection on the state of affairs. Mine only.


Today’s headlines: “Mortar strike wounds Israeli troups”, “Lebanon camp offensive continues!”, “Seven US soldiers killed in Iraq”… The Middle East… How did we ever let it come this far?

In a previous post, I stated that today, 5.7 million people in the world were long term refugees. That excluded the Palestinians. 4.3 million Palestinians have been “Refugees for Life” since 1948. 4.3 million… That is about the whole population of Norway. Or half of New York city.

Since 1948, time and again, the “Palestinian Issue” became front page news. An excellent historic overview, you find in this summary. But have a look also at the UNRWA overview of the issue, which includes a lot of pictorial data.

According to me, the “Palestinian Issue” has been at the basis of most conflicts in the Middle East, as well as at the root of the artificial split the US foreign policy has made in the world since 9/11: on one hand they put the Muslim world, and the other hand, the non-Muslims. “With us or against us..”.

Turn back time: August 2001. One month before 9/11

Why am I saying that? In one of my short stories “M- Requiem for Baghdad”, I wrote: In August 2001, I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.
That feeling was mostly based on something that happened a year before that:

Turn back time again: September 2000.

The US was in full presidential elections battle, and after years of a US (and an international) push for peace in the Middle East, there was less attention on “the Palestinian Issue”. “At last”, Sharon, the then leader of the hard-line opposition party Likud, must have thought, and he took the opportunity of the distractions to provoke the Muslim community, inspired by his political ambitions: In September 2000, he visited the Temple Mount, a site in Jerusalem sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. This visit was internationally seen as a direct provocation amidst a very volatile situation.

That particular day of his visit, was to me the start of re-newed trouble in the Middle East. Fighting started during his visit, resulting in several days of back and fro firing fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen. Amidst the fighting, there was one occasion where a young Palestinian boy, called Muhammad al-Durrah, and his father got caught in a cross fire..

Video footage, shot by France 2, showed the father and son hiding behind a barrel, until in the end both were shot. Muhammad died, and his father was seriously injured. There is a lot of controversy if this was all a clever media setup. Still, the picture of a father trying to protect his son, in the midst of a violent shoot-out, stuck in my mind forever. A father, who could have been any father, trying what any parent does: protect his child. And the overwhelming violence resulted in what must be the greatest sorrow of any parent: not being able to provide safety for your child. Muhammad died in the hands of his father, he himself half shot to pieces. In a conflict they had no part in.

That picture, those thoughts, did not only stick into my mind. The picture of Muhammad Al-Durrah and his father squatting for cover, was painted on walls all over the Middle East. They became a symbol of oppression. Senseless violence.
So, Arafat called for an intifada, a civil upraising, and the umpth Middle East civil war started.

Al Qaeda jumped onto the media frenzy, claiming to act on behalf of the oppressed Palestinians, and off we went. 9/11 here we come! After that, Bush took the opportunity to bash El Qaeda in Afghanistan, and while at it, went for the oil in Iraq.

We can all guess what would have happened (or preferably NOT happened) to the world, if Sharon did not visit Table Mount in September 2000. But to me, that one single act, and the attitude behind it, is one of the reasons why we still have 4.3 million Palestinians without a home. With millions of children without a future. Lost generations. Lost opportunities. And why? Because of political ambitions. International ill-meddling.

A sad state of affairs.

Suggested reading: Hanan Ashrawi’s Miftah site: a Palestinian initiative for the promotion of global dialogue and democracy.

Pictures courtesy UNRWA, Wikipedia

Written by Peter

June 4th, 2007 at 11:10 am

Posted in Articles

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UN, US? More Than a Letter of Difference?

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Once upon a time, I arrived at the Dubai International Airport, and showed my UN passport.
The guy looked at the cover, and said “Bot whot contry?”
I said: “United Nations!”
He shrugged and asked again: “Bot whot contry, Unatod Notions?”
I said: “Well, it is not a country, it is an organisation. It is really ‘All Nations’!”
He shook his head: “No, Unatod Notions, Unatod Notions. Unatod Steets, no?”
I was quit to reply: “No, no! Not United States, United Nations. Big difference!”
He laughed: “But wheer ees big office Unatod Notions?”
I said: “The big office? Well the main office is in New York”
He replied: “Ahhhh? New York. Unatod Steets.. You see?”

I guess he had a point. Sometimes I fail to see the difference too, to be honest.

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Written by Peter

April 19th, 2007 at 2:52 pm

Posted in Ranting

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