Thursday, July 28, 2011

Next Year's Famine Victims Currently Being Groomed by Western Powers

If you look at the top 30 donors to the East African Famine, number one is the US. It is one of the richest countries in the world, although donations as a percentage of per capita income are nowhere near the highest.

But the US is also pretty good when it comes to land grabbing. This time it's Tanzania, where a substantial deal is being questioned by opposition MPs. But recently, it came to light that big, wealthy US educational institutions were snapping up land in various African countries that are, or have had, shortages of affordable food.

An estimated 162,000 Tanzanian smallholders stand to lose their land if the deal goes through. This means that more than half a million people would be impoverished as a result. And all so that some US energy company can produce what they refer to as food crops, but are much more likely to be used for biofuels.

'Affordable' food is the key term. There isn't a shortage of food in Tanzania as a whole (nor in Kenya or several other countries where people are starving). Indeed, some of Ethiopia's most productive land is also being grabbed, as millions there face starvation. Famines typically involve lack of access to affordable food, not lack of food.

One of the culprits mentioned in relation to Ethiopia is Italy, which also appears in the top 30 donor list, albeit at number 19. (The EC, number 2 in the list, is busy trying to ensure that India will no longer produce affordable drugs for HIV positive people by pressing them to sign an 'Economic Partnership Agreement'.)

The most generous also stand to reap far more than they sow. The UK is number 5 on the list and their history of land grabbing, which is still a huge contributor to the country's wealth, is legendary. They are one of the biggest grabbers in Africa, though they are more likely to boast about how much they 'contribute' in aid. Another big and long running land grabbing incident in Tanzania involves a British company called Sudeco.

It's interesting how a lot of the land being grabbed is being used for sugar cane. This can conveniently be referred to as a food crop but is far more likely to be used these days for biofuels. Western powers spend decades driving African sugar producers out of business by subsidizing their own producers and dumping their surplus on African markets. But now they seem to want African sugar again.

Canada is number 6 on the list. Much of Tanzania's gold, much of Africa's gold, is extracted by a Canadian company, which pays little or nothing in taxes or royalties. The US, UK and even South Africa, number 28 on the list, also extract gold at massive cost to ordinary Africans. Gold extraction puts huge tracts of land out of use, though direct contamination, water contamination and through forcibly excluding indigenous people, often people who once made a living from the gold.

Make no mistake, famines like the one currently developing in East Africa, are generally not 'natural' disasters. They occur and last because they are a consequence of large scale theft, government sponsored, multinational sponsored, philanthropic institution sponsored, even international institution sponsored, theft.

I don't wish to suggest that contributing money to the current famine is wrong, I would encourage people to contribute. But, bearing in mind what we are 'contributing' to next year's famine, giving money is not the only thing we can do. We can also ask public representatives tough questions about things that are often presented as 'business' or 'aid' or 'partnership', especially when they involve land and water use.

The majority of people in all East African countries depend very directly on land for their food and income. If that land is taken from them, or even if its use is dictated by those whose sole aim is profit, their lives and livelihoods are threatened. A famine is not an 'act of God', it's a consequence of human activities.



Joyful said...

Excellent points! People need to know the context in which things happen around the world. You mentioned Canada as being fairly high on the list of resource extractors from East Africa and yet it doesn't pay royalties and taxes.

I live in Canada so I just want to say that I'm surprised we are so high. Are you saying that this list is of corporate givers only or does it include individual contributions to aid? I ask because, Canadians in general are extremely generous and the aid in this recent effort is no exception though the start up in giving has been a bit slow.

Secondly, issues of royalties and taxes paid are the jurisdiction of the particular level of government within a given country; that is the level of government and department/ministry that oversees natural resources. Even in Canada,where we have a fairly developed system of laws and regulatory regimes, royalties and payments made to indigenous people or even to the provincial governments, rather than federal/national government, is not so straightforward. In fact, there has been much dialogue in this whole area for some time now. Both indigenous peoples and provincial governments, are making demands for new arrangements. These new arrangements raise constitutional questions (it seems like most things do in this country) and these talks and discussions can drag on and on. I can only imagine that in Africa where democracies are still in infancy or not even present, the issues surrounding taxes and royalties paid or unpaid and the rules and regulations in place, are still very much in infancy or not even really contemplated as of yet. The situation is very volatile in some areas like the Niger Delta in Nigeria where you do see some more radical efforts by Nigerians to take matters into their own hands and demand their share of the financial benefits. some call them thugs. Having examined the issue a little more I can readily see that they have a just cause. My concerns are their tactics and the fact that I am not so sure that if they get their way, the benefits will be reaped by all those who rightly should get them.

Well I've said a lot and I thank you for the opportunity. As always you say some thought provoking things and sometimes I have time to really think about what you say.

Simon said...

Hi Joyful, always a pleasure to hear from you. I was a bit worried as I don't really have a huge number of suggestions for people, except that they see connections between poverty and wealth and also that what we give in aid is always outweighed, often vastly, by what we take.

I agree that Canada is a generous donor and as a percentage of per capita income I think they are probably a lot more generous than the US. And I'm talking about aid from the Canadian government, not corporate giving. But Barrick Gold is, unfortunately, Canadian. And what they do with Canadian resources and Canadian indigenous peoples is nothing compared to what they do in non-Canadian countries.

You're quite right that developing countries have their own governments, for better or for worse. But poor and badly run governments are put under a lot of pressure to accept inducements to give tax relief, to ignore national laws and protections, etc, just so multinationals can take what they want. In fact, developing countries are in such bad need of 'investment', they'll take anything they can get. If they worry too much about how their workers get paid or how little the country gets in tax revenue or royalties, they are held up as being obstacles to development.

So you're right, there are always several culprits involved. But extractive industries do make a huge amount of money, they could afford to pay some tax and proper royalties. They don't have to find the most malleable public officials in countries that have very low levels of democratic representation. Some would argue though that low democratic representation is a very good opportunity for various multinationals, especially extractive industries. I'm thinking of countries like DRC, in particular. We may cry out about how undemocratic some African countries are but at the same time make a very good profit from them!

I must admit, I'm in deep water already and I hope you have good sources of information about such issues. I try to reference sources that I use but with some issues, they are so controversial that it's hard to know what to believe. But it's good to hear from you and thank you for your questions.

Joyful said...

Thank you Simon. You've answered my questions and added valuable information by commentary.

I totally understand what you are saying. And, I agree that extractive companies, whether Canadian or not, do not generally operate with the best interests of others in mind. Let's face it, business of any kind are in it for the money and the more money/profit, the better. Though I do recognize there are a few businesses around the world (mostly small business) that try to run their companies on values that uphold social justice and human rights in addition to the bottom line. I wish there were more of them. Sadly, these days even big companies try to market themselves as caring for social justice, human rights and even environmental concerns when their practises if you investigate a little further, show otherwise. How many of us have the time,ability or other resources to really investigate these things? Most of us do not.

In the continent of Africa there are huge governmental interests like China and probably Canada and the USA and many other developed nations in Europe that are taking advantage of the precarious situation of many African countries. It is deplorable. Simply deplorable. I applaud anyone like you who is trying to raise awareness of this important issue. The rest is up to us as individuals to care and to investigate a little further. Even a little more information in each of us, will move things a bit forward. I pray to God that the African people can stay strong. They have suffered so much at the hands of 'imperial' nations and often at the hands of their own nationalistic governments.

Simon said...

Hi Joyful
I don't fault commercial enterprises for making a profit, I just think they don't have to maximize their profits at all costs. The way resources are plundered in developing countries is not just 'making a profit'. You're right about companies trying to present themselves as 'socially responsible', often the ones who ride roughshod over people and environments. I also agree about the lack of time and opportunity to investigate things that are vital. It's especially a problem when data are presented in formats aimed at professionals with specialist knowledge and are impenetratable to non specialists, also data held in repositories only accessible to specialists or people with tenure or a position in the right sort of institution.

China is an interesting one. It's very hard to get accurate data about their work in developing countries, such as Tanzania, where they do a lot of work. Apparently they do a lot of work and not all of it is conditional on some kind of quid pro quo, which can not be said for the work of many Western countries, who are unquestioned and unanswerable as long as they shroud their work in aid related terminology. I've met volunteers here who seem to think that China is up so something that most rich Western countries never did, which is not true. There is little chance China will every be able to rape and pillage like Westerners!

Joyful said...

Hi Simon, I just have one more long comment and that will end my input on this post.

I don't put China in a different category than any other country when it comes to development. It isn't that I have something against China in particular but their human rights abuses in their own land leads me to question their motives and devices in a continent like Africa which is vulnerable to outside investors and unscrupulous businessmen and governments. In stating this, it doesn't mean that I think other countries have more honourable interests and intentions in Africa.

I've read that China has done some done some good things in Tanzania; for example, building the first railway for Tanzania and Zambia which has been a great benefit to the people. But when I checked on the internet, I read that Tanzania has no laws or regulations that limit or prohibit foreign investment. My guess is that this is true in most of the African countries. Tanzania's governmental website on mineral matters states that since the mid-80s, the country had a clear shift in revising policies to ensure economic stimulus after years of financial and economic instability. While I understand the need for this kind of focus, I worry that it might be too short sighted an approach to the long term interests of the country and it's citizens. It seems to me that there also needs to be government action in ensuring a measure of protection for the long-term interests of the country and its citizens (eg. land security, environmental and health issues).

As a counter point to the positive stuff that is going on in Tanzania, I just want to mention the Sudan and Kenya. China has been accused in recent history of selling tens of millions of dollars' worth of weapons to the Sudanese government despite their stated principle of non-interference in the affairs of other nations. These weapons were used to assault civilians in the region. China also used its veto on the UN security council to delay and dilute action against the government in Khartoum. China supported Khartoum because of it's oil interests. I read that in 2008, China purchased 60% (though one source I read says 40%) of Sudan's oil. Perhaps that percentage is even higher now. The significant interest China has in the Sudan is much like the USA's interests in the oil in the middle east. Of course, now that South Sudan is an independent nation, I expect both north and south will attract and even higher level of foreign interest and investment since the entire area is extremely resource rich.

Chinese firms/businesses (not governments) are also investing heavily in Kenya and there a lot of people who believe they do well on government contracts due to bribes (Wiki leaks). No doubt, there is much more I can learn about what is going on in Kenya and across the continent but I can't add more here because I've already take up too much space. Suffice to say if the accusations are true about what is going on in Sudan and Kenya, the jury is still very much out on China's legacy in Africa.

Thanks again for your indulgence and for your thought provoking post.

Simon said...

Hi Joyful
I neither wish to exaggerate the harm that Western countries are doing nor do I wish to give the impression that I think China is that much different. But a lot of volunteers come here with the view that China, as opposed to their own countries, are only in it for what they can get. The view is so prevalent that Tanzanian people will tell you 'the Chinese are building roads so they can get all our gold', 'the Chinese are building roads so they can get all our fish', 'the Chinese are building roads so they can get all our natural gas', etc. People read such nonsence all the time and seem willing to believe all sorts of things about the Chinese without thinking that there are many countries trying to get their gold, fish and natural gas, and many of them have been a lot more successful in doing so than the Chinese. If Tanzanians are willing to accept a sop from the US or the EU, even though they have to allow a lot more to be extracted in 'exchange', they should accept a sop from the Chinese just as gracefully. China has been involved in human rights abuses, like all the others. But we are much more likely to read about China's human rights abuses in the mainstream Western press, than we are about Western excesses.

Tanzania does have some pathetic laws to protect people but there is little or no mechanism to ensure they are followed. All wealthy countries take advantage of this, while at the same time pointing the finger at others who do so, especially China. China itself probably didn't become wealty (in parts) and powerful by having strong laws to protect its workers. Quite the contrary. But it's only in recent decades that wealthy countries have introduced such laws, once it because evident that foreign workers in poor countries are far more easily exploited than ones at home.

Thank you for your comments, I'm not disagreeing with anything you say, just responding to it the way I do when people here seem to be fixated with what China is doing and oblivious that that is just 'foreign policy'.