Monday, April 19, 2010

Aid is But a Tiny Fig Leaf

While the Icelandic volcanic cloud means that people in Europe are having to cancel or postpone trips or find alternative ways of returning from trips, Kenyans are worrying about what is going to happen to their perishable produce, such as flowers, fruit and vegetables. Europe is their biggest market. Although owners of these industries make huge profits when things are going well, the employees, who make a pittance, make nothing at all when something prevents produce from getting to market.

At the same time, the BBC comments on a report that finds that the UK imports a lot of its water from other countries in the form of produce such as flowers, fruit, vegetables and other goods. Much of this imported water comes from developing countries, such as Kenya, where clean water and sanitation problems are responsible for high rates of avoidable mortality, especially among infants and children, and numerous treatable and curable illnesses. The report estimates that two thirds of the UK's water use is imported.

The mass production of non-seasonal food and non-food crops by developing countries results in much of the starvation that the UK and other rich countries seem to see as 'natural disasters', to be remedied by a sticky plaster, some handout or even a 'deal' of some kind that is calculated to do more harm than good (it benefits the donor, of course). Yet the industries that claim to be such a great source of foreign currency, fruit, vegetable and flower industries, are mostly foreign owned, British owned, in fact. They pay little or no tax in Kenya and, being offshored, little in Britain either.

When a country like Kenya starts to realise that their 'cash crops', such as tea, sugar or coffee don't make them much money, they seem to reach for another cash crop. The Kenyan cotton industry (along with that of many other developing countries) was wrecked many years ago by the US cotton industry successfully lobbying for subsidies to support them so that no developing country could compete. Subsidies are bad, according to the US, except when they are US subsidies. Sadly, Kenyans are calling for their government to help them return to cotton production. But this is unlikely to fly because US cotton is still subsidised to such an extent that no developing country can produce it as cheaply. And this is despite Kenya having pay and working conditions that would make Bill Gates proud.

But cash crops have always made very little money. Many of them here are grown as part of a kind of agreement that was formed with British land 'owners' after independence. They were allowed to keep their land and those Kenyans producing their (the colonial's) crop, tea, for example, were bound to go on producing tea. The law is slowly changing so that people may be allowed to stop producing tea and produce some food instead (God forbid!). But with sugar, the factories are demanding that even more land be given up to it so they can produce biofuel. Never mind that those whose land the sugar cane is planted on make little or no money from it.

It may well be wondered why farmers produce a non-food crop when they are starving and these crops don't make any profit for them. Well, aside from the promise to keep producing crops that only profit foreign companies, such as Unilever, farmers can't afford the inputs to grow food. They could make a lot of money from growing food and feed themselves at the same time. But as the government does little to support subsistence farmers, only being able to help the rich industrialists with tax breaks and other preferential conditions, farmers have to accept the generous offers from the likes of sugar companies to meet some of the costs involved. In the end, the farmer does all the work and gets little remuneration, if any. And they and their families starve.

Biofuels, like all the other luxury and non-food crops produced in developing countries, effectively export unthinkable amounts of water, along with vast tracts of land. The 'natural' disasters of flooding, drought, famine and the rest, are not as natural as they are painted. Rather, they result from explicit policies and agreements that keep things cheap for people in rich countries, profitable for foreign companies, and if any of those people in developing countries start complaining we can always point to the aid money we send them, whatever aid money even reaches the majority of people.

It's no secret that rich countries steal water from developing countries, preferring to feed ourselves luxuries and run our cars than allow undernourished and starving people to eat. But we steal a lot more than that. The majority of people in Kenya are subsistence farmers or workers. Even those who have jobs usually work for very little so that those in rich countries can afford cheap raw materials and goods. Many people have next to nothing, and that seems to be the way we in the West like it. And in return for extracting what we can, we send a little money every now and again and think of ourselves as very philanthropic indeed.

There is an alternative to rich countries sending ever increasing sums of money to developing countries. That is to identify some of the ways they extract even larger and faster increasing sums of money. That way, Kenya could be assisted to develop its own flower businesses. They could produce and process fruit and vegetables, thereby making more money from them. They could choose what crops to grow and in what quantities, especially crops that could be used to produce high value goods. In fact, the list of things that constitute extraction of wealth by rich countries from countries like Kenya is very long. Then Kenyans will be in a position to tell us what to do with our aid.


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