What Do I Think of Agriculture Development? Pt. 3

The following is part three of a three-part post on agriculture economic development.  Read part two here.

Aid, as I have discussed in this blog, is one of the three D’s of foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development.  It is the hearts in the phrase “winning the hearts and minds.” Being so, the work is certainly not borne entirely, or even at all, out of altruistic motives.  Instead, it is one way of winning sympathy and gratitude from people whose governments we need to provide favorable trade agreements and ally with us against our enemies.  In East Africa, for example, Uganda has moved up in stature with the U.S. government for its willingness to send troops and lead AMISOM – the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia.  Al-Shabab is one of the more pressing threats in the eyes in the U.S. state department, given its ability to operate freely in the lawless country and its track record for recruiting disaffected youth from American cities like Minneapolis.  Kenya, on the other hand, is viewed as relatively weak, as its military has done little in the region, save invade Somalia six months ago and fail to take full control of the key Al-Shabab stronghold in Kismayo.  When a country scratches the back of the U.S., it is more likely to scratch back in the form of government-to-government aid and development funding through mechanisms like the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

With this in mind, it is no surprise to me that foreign aid – particularly within the agriculture sector – is ineffective.  The incentives are completely misaligned.  In the zero sum game of global commerce, a stronger domestic agriculture sector in a country dependent on imports from the U.S. will adversely affect our own farmers.  If donor countries really wanted to end food insecurity once and for all, it would be relatively simple: eliminate import tariffs on African agriculture products, end agriculture subsidies for maize and other crop productions, and regulate commodity speculation more closely.  I am not necessarily advocating any of these things, and I understand why they exist.  I’m just saying that it would work.  Instead, the most important thing about these projects is that every single piece of literature, sign, poster, or whatever else have the following words displayed prominently: “From the American People.”

Aside from the fact that agriculture is a global business and donor countries must look out for their own interests above all else, the execution of agriculture development projects is generally poor.  I once had a discussion with some friends in Ghana about looking at the impact of projects like ours on the hospitality sector.  I wouldn’t be surprised if 25% of the $30 million allocated to the project I worked on went to hotel rooms.  With per diems of $100-150 per day, people could do a lot of damage with very little oversight.  This frivolous attitude toward spending was a bit troubling in my mind, particularly since the young field staff were required to ride motorbikes, which resulted in the death of one person and multiple broken bones to others, some of whom were good friends of mine.

Most of the emphasis in these projects seems to be on placating congress more than anyone else.  The monitoring and evaluation department called the shots most of the time, demanding that the field staff just “get the numbers.”  In other words, if congress says to train 1,000 farmers, then go train 1,000 farmers, regardless if that is in the best interest of the people being trained.

I have one particularly vivid memory of arguing fiercely with the head of one of the sub-contractors responsible for the horticulture segment of the project.  I said that we were wasting our time by working with small-time juice processors and needed to focus our attention on the big guys.  He insisted that working with small processors – none of whom had the business acumen, capacity, or capital to scale – was the only way.  After we reached an impasse, he walked inside and brought back a piece of paper, which he slammed down on the table in front of me.  It was a list of the indicators and targets given to him by ACDI/VOCA, which ultimately came from USAID and the U.S. Congress.  All of them pointed to helping the small guys.  “In this world,” he said, “there is what is, and there is what should be.  Until someone starts paying me for what should be, I am going to give them what is.”

That, for me, summed it all up.  It wasn’t as if this man did not get it.  He knew that what we were doing didn’t make any sense.  It is just that his financial incentives were not aligned with doing what works.  So, unfortunately, he has to do what doesn’t work.

That moment represented the turning point in my opinion of government aid projects.  I detailed my frustrations in a post comparing the emphasis on stats to that of the police department in the TV show “The Wire.” From then on, I began looking for something new.  I wanted to return to something more organic and grassroots, where people were motivated and given the freedom to be creative and proactive.  I decided that Kenya – more specifically, Nairobi – was the place where I could find all that.  So I booked a flight, quit my job, travelled around Ghana for a month, boarded a plane, and set out to become inspired again.

In the next few posts, I will talk about my thoughts on education, social enterprise, and the contrasts between East and West Africa.

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