If the western mainstream media told the truth about Africa, stories in our newspapers would be much different.
"Market ideology causes Ethiopian Famine," the New York Times headline would blare. "130 years running and imperialists still mix with bad weather to kill millions," the Globe and Mail would report.
Instead, when the mainstream media decides to take notice of the 12 million Ethiopians who are currently desperate for international food aid, we get simplistic reports about bad weather and the kindness of Western aid agencies.
Interestingly, the only mainstream media outlets that come close to telling the real, more complicated story about Ethiopia and other African countries are business newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.
Stories found in the business press are a bit more helpful in explaining the causes of famines. (Capitalists seem to value honest reporting when it comes to knowledge about where to invest their money.) Over the past couple of years â€˜aidâ€™ institutions controlled by Western governments have pressured Ethiopia to eliminate government intervention in the agricultural sector. The WSJ reports that, "the government, under pressure from international lenders and aid donors, was pulling out of the grain markets in favor of an under-funded and inexperienced private sector.
However, little provision was made to support this fledgling free market with storage facilities, transport and financing." (July 1, 2003) At first sight reductions in government involvement doesnâ€™t appear to be a problem since Ethiopian "grain harvests in the latter half of the 1990s averaged 11 million tons annually, about four million tons more than in the 1980s. In the bumper years of 2000 and 2001, harvests hit more than 13 million tons. (WSJ July 1)" Improved harvests concealed the wrongheaded nature of market-based policies. Larger harvests also exacerbated the eventual food shortage.
As the state reduced its role as a price stabilizer, farmers began to produce less, since big yields brought less income. "A 220-pound bag of corn that could go for $10 in good times was getting as little as about $2â€”and that was less than half of the standard production costs." (WSJ, July 1) Farmers who produced for sale decreased their production or focused on subsistence crops.
Foreign â€˜aidâ€™ itself helped fuel the drop in grain prices. Since Ethiopiaâ€™s much-publicized famine in 1984 (which was itself, in large part the consequence of inhumane internal politics) countries have given the country significant amounts of food aid. Too often, however, domestic interests in the donor nations appear to trump the interests of Ethiopiansâ€™. The WSJ reported that "AID [US Agency for International Development], for example, has provided an average of about $220 million in food aid annually in recent years, compared with only about $4 million in agriculture-development aid."
(July 1) American aid is not used to purchase local foods for the starving, something that would stimulate the long-term viability of local agriculture.
Rather U.S. agribusiness views Ethiopia as an ideal dumping ground for their excess stocks.
Similar to the situation in Ethiopia, last year there was an ongoing discussion about famine in Southern Africa. Most of the media concentrated on the role of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. While Mugabeâ€™s policies clearly exacerbated the famine situation in Zimbabwe, it is indisputable that in Malawi the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union deserve a large part of the blame. In 2001, at the request of the World Bank, IMF and EU the Malawian government reduced its grain reserves from 167,000 tonnes down to 30,000 tonnes to, in part, pay off a $300 million loan to a South African bank. (Financial Times WHEN). The sell-off caused a drop in local prices, reducing many farmersâ€™ ability to produce.
Furthermore it resulted in a smaller drought reserve. In human terms, these "market" policies resulted in the unnecessary deaths of countless individuals.
A pattern of outside pressure to reform agricultural security has developed across Africa. "The [World] bank has long prodded poor African governments to privatize their agriculture sectors and abandon any type of farming subsidies." (WSJ, July 1) Likewise, IMF structural adjustment programs attempt to remove the state as the food security guarantor. Commodity boards that fixed producer prices and collected farmerâ€™s produce are being abolished and the task handed over to an incapable or unwilling private sector. In addition, subsidies to small farmers are being curtailed.
The supply of food, however, is too important to be left up to the market.
This is why most countries in Europe and North America have supply management systems and plan for food security. Many African nations are under immense pressure to follow food policies that no industrialized country follows.
Unfortunately, unnecessary famines exacerbated and even brought about by forced economic liberalization is nothing new. Mike Davis in his book titled "Late Victorian Holocaust" recounts the circumstances surrounding a number of horrific famines in India, Brazil and China between 1870 and 1900.
In the late 1870s and 1890s somewhere between 30 and 60 million people died during famines in those three countries. Most histories have explained away these famines as a result of ecological devastation, which is one of the causes that Davis highlights. Davis, however, is unsatisfied with this simplistic analysis. He argues that these countries were also ravaged by imperialist imposed "free" market reforms. At that time, British imperialists undermined domestic agricultural security for their own self-serving interests. They consciously destroyed China and Indiaâ€™s long established food security systems. Intertwined with their strict ideological adherence to "free" market ideology was their stated goal of "modernization".
So called modernity brought with it incredible death and devastation.
Thousands, if not millions, of people starved to death right next to the very symbols of modernity, the railways that linked ancient agricultural areas to the new international market. The stated British mission of civilizing India actually curtailed Indiaâ€™s economic growth. In addition to the roughly 20 million Indians who died from starvation (British estimates), Indiaâ€™s economy stagnated. In 1800 Indiaâ€™s share of the worldâ€™s manufactured product was four times that of Britain. By 1900 India was almost totally under British control and the ration was 8-1 in Englandâ€™s favor. Moreover, according to a British statistician, who analyzed Indian food security measures in the two millennia prior to 1800, there was one major famine a century in India. Under British rule there was one every four years.
An underlying problem with the actions taken in the name of modernization then and now is that too often they fail to consider the concerns of common people and their communities. While outside forces prodded the Ethiopian government to reduce its role in the agricultural sector, similar forces pushed the expansion of Addis Ababaâ€™s Bole international airport. Between 1999 and 2017 the $130 million plan is projected to create a "twelve-fold increase in capacity to handle 6-7 million passengers annually from its current capacity of 500,000 passengers (www.airport-technology.com)."
According to its boosters, "the provision of easy international connections at Bole is a key element in the ambition of Addis Ababa to become one of the most global cities in East Africa. Good air connections are believed to be essential in attracting a lot of business to the capital." (www.airport-technology.com)
The Ethiopian government, with the help of numerous foreign sponsors including the Arab Development Bank, OPEC and the Nordic Development Fund, are funding the airport improvements. The largest source of foreign funding comes from the African Development Bank, which seems to have the same ideological leanings as the World Bank. It has a partnership with that body and a third of it is controlled by 24 of the richest nations, such as the U.S. and Japan (53 African nations control two-thirds of it).
In a country where 12 million people are at risk of starvation does the expansion of an airport seem a priority? Certainly the vast majority of Ethiopians never fly. There are beneficiaries, however. The Ethiopian corporate sector will probably benefit. According towww.usatrade.gov the top spot for Ethiopiaâ€™s "best prospects for non-agricultural goods and services" is the aviation sector. In short, there are bound to be numerous international investors and domestic businesses who will make a buck from this project.
The unnecessary death of millions from starvation 130 years ago is a scar on humanity. Todayâ€™s unnecessary deaths from starvation, while not as numerous, are a fresh wound on our humanity. Itâ€™s time to heal the wounds by following policies that serve the interests of ordinary Africans.