Politics of Food Aid and Our Lords Of Poverty
By M Haji
Yesterday a section of Wajir County residents protested against what they claimed was a Governor distributing expired relief food. Some 3 years ago the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, that was controlling large swathes of Somalia banned Aid organizations and proscribed relief food distribution. The world led by mainstream media was in uproar terming the group murderers and anti-development for banning the distribution of relief food. The militants did not budge and surprisingly local farmers who welcomed the ban managed to expand their small scale farming. Fearing they will go out of ‘business’, some of the Aid agencies began helping the farmers with elementary farming tools. Farming regained its currency and production went out of the roof. Prices of maize and other products improved and farmers economic well-being picked in 6 short months. After the militants were rooted out by Amisom and Somali national army forces, the ban was lifted and relief aid organizations were allowed to import food again. This led to dropping of prices and lose of market. In 3 short months, farmers who were until that point food-resilient, went cap in hand begging for relief food.
A year ago, Kitui governor, Charity Ngilu stopped World Food Program (WFP), a behemoth of the food aid business, from relief drive targeting 22,000 families and instead help the county become food-resilient. The organizations and some governments raised a storm but the iron lady did not budge too. H.E. Ngilu had previously visited India to seek market for barley and other products and embarked on meeting that market’s demand by focusing on making Kitui farmers not only food independent but exporters of surplus. In Ukambani, there was uproar some 10 years ago when residents were reported to have been killing dogs for food as the biting drought got harsher and relief aid could not reach more people. In 2 short years, Kitui is gearing up to become the food basket of Ukambani if not the whole country. Farmers are producing surplus that they sell to the County government at a decent price for export.
The politics of relief aid is one that is laced with a lot of humanitarian hypocrisy. Relief aid, while essential during emergencies, has been turned into an exercise where the Western and agricultural exporting countries dumb surplus production from their farmers and as such are usually reluctant to help recipients build their own capacity to grow food. Instead of helping farmers with farming tools and new technologies to increase production, relief food organizations flood the market with exports. According to the Institute for Economic Democracy ”highly mechanized farms on large acreages can produce units of food cheaper than even the poorest paid farmers of the Third World. When this cheap food is sold, or given, to the Third World, the local farm economy is destroyed. If the poor and unemployed of the Third World were given access to land, access to industrial tools, and protection from cheap imports, they could plant high-protein/high calorie crops and become self-sufficient in food. Reclaiming their land and utilizing the unemployed would cost these societies almost nothing, feed them well, and save far more money than they now pay for the so-called
cheap imported foods”.
Whenever a county or a national government shamelessly flags off relief food, it is a grotesque acknowledgment of its failure. Inviting the cameras to parade trucks carrying relief food has almost become a ritual of county governments. This is a shameful failure of a government’s policy and an indictment of the humanity of those who lead it. Governors glamorize begging and aid foreign organizations condescendingly put down their residents. If relief food is inevitable it should at least be done in silence or in secrecy. It is inconceivable politicians rejoice at relief food distribution and sell it as a development. This demonstrates more than anything the crisis of our political imagination and dearth of development policies.
Instead of going to the national government or relief food organizations, the local government should assist farmers grow their own food and provide the services that could help them graduate into surplus production entities. Farming is viable in dry northern counties, contrary to national government assertions or relief food merchants’ propaganda that residents in drylands can only feed themselves at the organizations’ mercy. Local governments should stop relief aid organizations from distributing food or paying cash to people who would have otherwise fed themselves through small scale farming. People who set up small farms in places like Kinna of Isiolo county, Sabena of Habaswein, along the Tana River of Garissa and Manders farmers who grow all varities of food crops in Rhamu and along the River Dawa have very limited assistance from their governments. Agricultural Extension Officers do not visit let alone train these farmers on how to expand planting or increase production. Agriculture CECs ought to more actively involve local farmers in their planning, assist them with market access for their produce and train them more on new technologies that may improve their production. The Northern Counties do not need to trade with Nairobi to realise a profit as much as this will provide a huge market. With the construction of the Nairobi-Mandera road at a slow pace, farmers find market access difficult and so much of their produce may be going to waste. Local governments could assist these farmers access local markets while putting pressure on the Nairobi-Mandera road contractor and the national government to speed up its construction. They need to open up borders for their local farmers and access markets of neighbouring countries like Ethiopia and Somalia. There is a huge market potential in this countries and instead of the national government building walls between neighbouring countries, it should open borders and assist local farmers sell their surplus to these countries. The national and county governments should instead pursue a foreign policy of regional integration and not of separation.