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Monday, December 22, 2008

What these capitalists need

More than any time of the year, the month of December is buoyant. It is a season of joyfulness, distinguished by an incredible urge to spend cash.

I just returned from the Lakeside city of Kisumu. The unkempt dusty side walks are festooned with colours so bright. Much of it used clothing and shoes from Europe and America as well as toys, travel bags and blankets from the east. Not to mention the dizzying array of hardware, meticulously displayed.

Men and women, young and old, sellers and buyers sift through the clothing, hold garments against their bodies, try the shoes and scrutinize hardware. Amidst random disorder, the chocking dust and stifling heat, a deal is struck and a sale is consummated.

Scenes like this have now come to typify life in a majority of African cities not only in the month of December, but all year round. Random and unregulated, informal, a private version of capitalism crying out for order, a need to found and build businesses that can scale up.

Africa is deprived place, starved for many things. But the longing for capitalists who can found and run legal businesses is foremost. Fewer foundations and more enterprises. Households, neighbourhoods, communities and indeed nations will escape from poverty when they create small businesses that generate employment.

Capital flows into Africa through big bilateral peddlers of big capital like the World Bank who lend money for civil service reform or from microfinance institutions lending out money to widows to buy a dairy goat or sewing machine.

Putting money in the hands of the bottom billion through microfinance is great and laudable. However, a majority of people including myself and perhaps you too, detest the hassle of own business. We covet the stability and security created by capitalist innovators. Consider the example of America or closer to Africa, India.

Today many talented entrepreneurs, men and women of all ages are trapped in the random chaos of the side walk. Many of these street vendors are disciplined and hardworking. A few of them are smart and have the acumen to run a formal business.

What these capitalist in waiting need is capital, “patient” capital. Patient capital as the name suggests is unwearied and its yoke is light. It has longer payback period and its return is in the range of 5-10 percent as opposed to the 35 percent that venture capitalist seek. Think of patient capital as the cash that pays the bills while organizations learn the ropes. However, patient capital still has the rigor of venture capital.

What happens on the dusty side walks of African cities bears striking similarity with the plight of millions of hard working small holder farm families across rural sub Saharan Africa who eke out a living from the parched barren earth. A majority of these farmers are wise stewards of the earth. This knowledge and understanding bequeathed through the steady hands and keen observation of generations past.

Like their urban counterparts, they too subsist amidst randomness, relying mostly on natural capital; rainfall and soil organic matter. A majority of smallholder farm families remain unconnected with modern technology, quality seed, capital and lucrative markets.

Where would one look for patient capital?

Acumen, a non-profit global venture fund uses philanthropic capital to make disciplined investments – loans or equity, not grants – that yield both financial and social returns. Acumen seeks to illustrate that small amounts of philanthropic capital, combined with large doses of business acumen, can build thriving enterprises that serve vast numbers of the poor communities.

And the good news is that we have a local example of how this might work.

Acumen Fund has invested in an interesting social venture, Advanced Bio Extracts (ABE), which contracts and trains smallholder farmers in Kenya and Tanzania to grow the green leafy herb, Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood). ABE transforms Artemisia into pharmaceutical grade artemisinin, the bioactive compound used to make the new anti malaria drugs known as artemisinin based combination therapies (ACT). This herb was actually used in Chinese traditional medicine for over 200 years to treat malaria fevers.

ABE has contracted with 7,000 farmers, most with small farms, to grow artemisia in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Artemisia offers to farmers, returns that are far greater to what they previously earned growing maize. Without having to work much harder, smallholder farm families could double or quadruple their incomes.

Nyanza Farms Limited, an agriculture and agribusiness company, incorporated in Kenya is another example. Nyanza Farms Limited works with a network of 8,000 contracted smallholder farmers in Western Kenya to grow African Bird’s Eye Chilli for export. About 100 local investors put in what ever savings they had. These individuals have put in personal contributions ranging between $500 and $5000.

Their contribution has helped purchase 25g of chilly seed (enough to plant 0.5 acres) for the 8,000 farmers as well as pay the salaries of 11 extension workers across Nyanza province.

A while back in village near Kisumu in western Kenya, I met a man named James Ogayi. He lives in a tiny house. Partially covered with corrugated iron, walls built from mud and poles and bare earth for a floor. He has grown maize all his life. Outside his house, was this tidy cage built from sticks. Inside this cage, beneath the grass thatched roof, James’ chilli seedlings formed in neat rows. James now in his mid 60s said to me that he would use the earnings from his chilli to improve his house.

Weaning smallholder farmers from subsistence maize production to high value export crops is something that must be done to extend the benefits of a globalized economy to the majority of Africa’s rural population.
We do not need the World Bank to fund a revitalization strategy to make agriculture work in rural Africa. We do not need another workshop to talk about rural poverty.

What organizations such as Nyanza Farms Limited need to better serve poor smallholder farmers is support/partnership from investors willing to take on risk/profit profile that most traditional financiers, and Africa has more than its fair share of these types, find unacceptable.

Ultimately, pioneering entrepreneurs who work with rural farmers must find the solutions to rural poverty. Poor people seek opportunity to earn a living, not dependence.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The 44th President of the United States of America

Barack Obama's resounding victory in America's 2008 presidential election is truly historic. Few moments and events leave me speechless!

For a majority of Americans, nearly 52%, this is an incredibly significant outcome. It is truly audacious. As a King dreamed, his children now live a nation where they are not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. This dream has become true.

In this election, in these truly momentous days, Americans have elected to turn the page and make history.

As Obama said, the journey that began on a cold winter day on the steps of the capital does not end in Grant Park. The election victory is not the culmination of the change America needed but a chance to make the change happen.

As a young African watching history unfold, Obama's victory is cause for great celebration and deep reflection for my generation. The fundamental problems that confront African countries and the continent's leadership need a new army of leaders who are not mired in the old politics of ethnicity, self interest and raw political ambition.

What is needed is a cadre of young leaders who perceive politics not as game that field's one ethnic group against another, harping on old stereotypes and using religion as wedge to divide society. But rather a generation that conceives politics as a platform for competing ideas, ideals, values and strategies for solving the most urgent problems of society such as poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, inequity and lack of opportunity for the majority. Politics like science must be amenable to proof; we must see, touch and feel the transformative power of a government that is responsible and accountable to the people. The ideal of democracy must be made real; government of the people by the people for the people.

My sense is that Obama set the back drop and context for his electoral victory. His speech was not celebratory. He reigned in the adoring and cheering crowds. He guided the mood toward the reality of the challenges ahead. He set the stage for a night of reflection and introspection. He spoke about the 106 year old woman who cast her vote in Atlanta Georgia. This African American woman got him thinking about the world he would like his daughters to live in if they were to live to be 106 years old.

As Barack Obama walked away from the podium and turned around to acknowledge the wild and ecstatic cheers from an adoring crowd, I can almost swear that I saw his shoulders re-align and re-calibrate to bear the inestimable enormity of the burden of Leader of the Free World.

The election of Barack Obama as America's next president is an endorsement of youth, audacity and the refusal to settle for the world as it is, but to fight to re-make the world as it ought to be.

And yes, we also can.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New Instittutional Arrangements For African Agriculture

In most of sub-Saharan Africa government agricultural departments were set up beginning in the early 1900s, initially to conduct crop improvement research and extend technologies to large-scale commercial farmers. Commercial farmers widely adopted hybrid maize seed, fertilizers and tractor mechanization in the 1950s and 1960s.

Similarly, public investments were then expanded to diffuse hybrid and fertilizer technologies to smallholder farmers. Extension departments experimented with various models to persuade smallholders to give up traditional practices and adopt science-based, modern production technologies.

Significant investments were made in extension services. Some experts have suggested that the share of extension expenditure in total government agricultural spending was higher in Africa than in Asia. But today, smallholder agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa is lagging behind those of small-scale farmers in Asia and Latin America.

This early extension effort was not entirely without merit. Government-led extension programs were effective in getting farmers to adopt first-generation technologies such as tillage, improved varieties, planting methods, crop rotations and use of animal manure. However, these programmes were not effective in promoting the adoption of information and knowledge intensive technologies such the use of, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and value addition and markets.

As currently instituted, national research and extension programs are for the most part top-down. They are often designed without consideration for smallholder farmers, concentrating instead on the resource-endowed large scale farmers. These national programs also tend to be supply driven rather than demand driven and donor funded project based. Operationally, national programmes are expensive with high overheads and often crippled by managerial slack, bureaucratic bloat and shear indulgence in opulence.

In 2005, I presented a paper on the application of reflectance spectroscopy for rapid and inexpensive soil testing at the annual meeting of Soil Science Society of East Africa. During the question and answer session, most participants were over awed by the robustness of the technology. However, they pointed out that cost of the spectrometer was beyond the budgets of national programs. I was anticipating this comment. And I was ready with a simplistic answer; that the cost of purchasing and operating a Near Infrared Spectrometer was several orders of magnitude lower than purchasing and running a state-of-the-art SUV for the director of a national soils programme.

It is no wonder that one of the best examples of the ineffectiveness of the national research and extension systems in Africa is the uncontrolled haemorrhaging of soil nutrients across sub-Saharan Africa.

Starting about 1995, several countries have been implementing World Bank led agricultural sector reform programs to restructure public sector research and extension organizations. The intention was to encourage national programs to focus on areas where they have a comparative advantage, privatize non-core functions, commercialize and introduce cost recovery for services.

This policy shift was expected to catalyze progress towards private sector and public-private-NGO partnerships for research and extension, input supply and output marketing. While this transition occurred in earnest in Asia, Latin America and Europe, and North America, we see in sub-Saharan Africa is an unprecedented, universal decline in agricultural production and non application and adoption of science-based technology.

Donor assistance in agricultural research has also declined as priorities shift to, environmental protection, health, water and sanitation, gender equality and education. African governments have also cut public spending in agriculture, questioning the value of research and extension given the lack of improvement in agricultural productivity.

In the wake of cuts in public spending and neo-liberal reforms in the agriculture sector, governments are disengaging from provision of inputs, extension services, credit, and price supports. Consequently farmers, especially smallholder farmers have trouble accessing credit, obtaining information on market opportunities or new technologies, purchasing certain inputs and accessing product markets.


Smallholder production systems in sub-Saharan Africa have remained trapped by poor access to input and output markets and to new technologies. Financial services for both credit and insurance for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are under developed and where they exist, they are largely inaccessible to smallholder farmers.


Local product markets remain weak, uncertain and inaccessible, with high transaction costs arising from poor market information and poor infrastructure. Furthermore, owing to high transportation costs, lack of credit and storage facilities and risks in supplying small-scale farmers, agricultural input manufacturers and rural traders have not expanded their investments.

The frustration among farmers, public policy makers and private sector managers in the credit, input, crop management technology delivery and output markets is how to substitute or supplement public organizations with new public-private-NGO structures to reduce transaction costs, improve the efficiency or research and extension for smallholder farmers in order to attain profitability and national food security goals

The trend of market-oriented reforms following multilateral trade liberalization and structural adjustment programs in developing countries have led to the increased integration of world markets. Especially important will be understanding the institutional response at the smallholder farm household level to this globalization.

There is need for bold and deliberate institutional innovations to address the twin challenges of declining public sector support for agriculture, diminishing per capita land holding as well as liberalization and increased vertical integration of agricultural value chains.

The New Institutional Economics (NIE) predicts that private sector participation through contract farming can create incentives for private sector to expand investments in technology delivery linked to improving competitiveness in domestic, regional and international markets and for farmers to adopt new technologies.

The vast majority of farms in sub-Saharan Africa are, and will continue to be less than two hectares in size. This trend presents a daunting challenge in terms of integrating smallholders into global value chains to link smallholder farmers to high-value markets in the wake of globalization and market liberalization in developing countries

Contract farming can overcome most of the challenges facing smallholder farm families and deliver the scale benefits typically associated with large-farm production systems. Economies of scale benefits that accrue from contract farming will decrease the cost of inputs and transport, leverage comparative advantage in market access and the deliver technology transfer, and product tradeability and quality. From a poverty-reduction perspective, contracting smallholder farm families can be profitable: small farms are generally owned and operated by the poor, often use locally-hired labour, and often spend income within nearby locales, creating multipliers.

Contract farming is however not a universal panacea for African agriculture. Contract farming carries substantial risks for the smallholder families. Contract farming can contribute to loss of control and autonomy by smallholder farm families over farm enterprises. Exclusive purchase rights by firms can depress producer prices. But most importantly, the strong gender dimensions in household resource control means within household distribution of labour/income tend to disadvantage women.

The risk to agribusiness firms is also considerable. There is significant risk of smallholder farmers side-marketing inputs and produce: fertilizer can be sold by farmers for cash and post harvest produce can be side-marketed to facilitate faster access to cash or to seek higher pro¬ducer prices or simply to avoid repayment of input credit.

Conjoining contract farming with collective action organizations such as producer organizations or cooperatives could offer the best safeguard measure against agribusiness malpractice. Hence, of producer organizations or cooperatives must be unequivocal in their mandate; providing a platform for arbitration and striving to ensure stable incomes for smallholder farm households.

Governments also have a key role to play in regulating the agribusiness contracts market place. Instances of such roles are the enactment of competition policies, the introduction of special contract law and the provision of low cost arbitration options.

The future of African agriculture lies with smallholder families. If agriculture is to be the engine for rural development and prosperity for the millions currently ensnared in the poverty trap, we must build new institutions that reach the invisible, under served smallholder farmers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A New Partnership for African Agriculture

The world’s poorest nations are reeling under the burden of high food and fuel prices. Volatility in the food commodities and fuel markets has profoundly destabilized their already fragile economic situation. Millions of families have been pushed deeper into hunger and poverty.

On September 24 2008, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the government of Belgium have committed US$76 million to a new initiative that could change how World Food Program procures food in developing countries.

WFP is the world’s single largest purchaser of food for humanitarian operations that include relief and safety net programs such as school feeding.

The new initiative, Purchase for Progress (P4P), is expected to guarantee hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers access reliable markets for their surplus produce at competitive prices, increasing household incomes and bolstering fragile local economies.

Transformation in WFP’s local food procurement policies and practices, which are central to the agency’s new business model, aim to strengthen the role of low-income smallholder farmers in local agricultural markets and enable them to prosper from supplying food for WFP’s global operations.

Developed in partnership with the foundations, P4P will be launched in 21 pilot countries over the next five years. Speaking of the initiative, Gates said ”This is exactly the kind of innovative public-private partnership we need to advance the Millennium Development Goals and address extreme hunger and poverty around the world.”

With this partnership, WFP will align its efforts with organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that are focused on helping small farmers increase their productivity through the use of improved seeds and farm management techniques.

The majority of the world’s poorest people lives in rural areas, and most rely on agriculture for their food and income. Transforming the way WFP to purchases food therefore represents a momentous leap toward a truly sustainable change that could eventually benefit millions of poor rural households, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The expectation is that through P4P, WFP will explore different ways to use its enormous purchasing power in developing countries to maximize gains for small farmers while alleviating any distortion to local markets.

By supporting small farmers’ ability to produce and supply food to WFP’s global operations, P4P will help them increase their incomes, which is critical in addressing rural unemployment, hunger and poverty at their roots.

We hope that P4P initiative will also seek to promote local food processing projects to provide food of high nutritional value, enabling farmers to reap maximum benefit from their crops. Besides supporting farmers to capitalize on the market offered by WFP, P4P must also connect them to other local and regional food markets.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Which way for Africa's Agriculture?

There is what is hip in just about every sphere of life. It is not surprising that even in development policy there a “flavor of the day” just like soup of the day at a lunch counter. After two decades in the doldrums, agriculture is back in vogue Africa.

At the food summit in Rome in June this year, the world discovered that for thirty years food production sub-Saharan Africa failed to keep pace with human population growth. Nearly 240 million Africans are malnourished and more than 25% of the population is chronically hungry.

Attention shifted away from agriculture partly because making it work seemed such an improbable mission. Agricultural development models were founded on on egotistical state-backed schemes like the attempt at large scale irrigation schemes or Mwalimu Nyerere’s Ujamaa villages. At the same time, traditional forms of land ownership seemed to constrain attempts at rationalizing land use and agricultural production.

In Africa, rainfall is both erratic and highly variable while soil conditions vary enormously. In most countries infrastructure (roads, railway, water, and electricity), markets and financial services are weak, broken or non existent. Political and civic governance is patchy and are shamefully mired in the financial orthodoxy of international institutions that froze public funding and support for technology, science and research that ensures American and European farmers keep up to date with the latest developments.

In his book Starved for Science, Robert Paarlberg, a leading scholar on smallholder agricultural development in Africa attributes withdrawal of donor support for modern agricultural science in Africa plus outright opposition to new farm science on the part of global pressure groups has contributed directly to hunger and deepening poverty.

There are good reasons to expect agricultural growth to reduce poverty. Agricultural development raises returns to land, the only real asset that the many rural poor in Africa own. Moreover, growth of food output should push down the price of staple foods, to the immense benefit of the poor who even in rural areas are overwhelmingly net buyers of food. It is argued that 1% growth in agriculture produces a 1.5% growth across the economy. Farming in sub-Saharan Africa tends to be labour-intensive, creating low level, local jobs.

But African agriculture is not an irredeemable disaster. It has great promise. According to the latest UN report agriculture contributes at least 40% of exports, 30% of GDP up to 30% of foreign exchange earnings, and 70 to 80% of employment.

Therefore, targeted investments in food production and high value market-led produce should pay off both in terms of food security at a time of soaring food prices, and in terms of household income and national economic development. The debate now focuses on where that investment should go.

At the dawn of the 21st century there are big players with deep pockets: there is the Alliance for an African Green Revolution backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation and championed by Kofi Annan and Ngongi Namanga, a former Deputy Executive Director of World Food Programme; there is also the Millennium Villages Project spearheaded by Jeffery Sachs and Pedro Sanchez both of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York.

Past agrarian revolutions proceeded through land reforms, culminating in displacement of people from the land. Larger farm holdings mean economies of scale and high productivity and hence better returns on investment

There are voices urging a similar approach in Africa. A battery of big private investors plan to consolidate small plots of land into more productive large ones, to introduce new technology and to provide capital to modernize and maintain grain elevators and fertilizer supply depots.

But most African governments are deeply suspicious of any move that aggregates small land holdings takes people off the land. The critical failure of other sectors of the economy to grow means there are few alternative jobs for the landless. The destabilizing effects of a jobless populace living in slum towns in both inner city and on the outskirts of major urban centres capital cities are all too familiar is worrisome.

In many parts of Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda, the system of land is a tribal inheritance, passed down from father to son. Historically, tribes through ties of kinship one generation to the next making any commercial acquisition and accumulation of land problematic if not impossible.

The challenge therefore is how to increase productivity among subsistence smallholder farmers. The opportunity and innovation lies in the role of policy, technology, research support and institutional arrangements that can aggregate production of small farm rather aggregating the land resource base. My sense is that traditional focus on large holdings as a pre-requisite for modernization and profitability of African agriculture is misplaced. In Europe, the economic viability of small farms has been sustained through a supportive policy framework, the Common Agricultural Policy.

Market-oriented production of high value crops through contract farming can enlist a strong network of smallholder farmers. Contract farming can expedite technology transfer, capital inflows and provide assured markets.

Contract farming can be defined as a system for the production and supply of agricultural produce under forward contracts between producers or suppliers and buyers. The essence of such an arrangement is the commitment of the producer to provide produce of a particular type, over a period and at an agreed price, and in the quality required by a known and committed buyer.

Renewed attention on African agriculture carries an inordinate risk of hailing tired ideas and presenting false choices for instance, large vs. small scale, biotechnology vs. organic, input credit vs. large foreign capital, indigenous technical knowledge vs. new farm science. In my view progress in African agriculture will depend on active private sector participation that enable smallholder farmers gain access high quality inputs, research and extension support as well as assured lucrative regional and international markets.

Ultimately for smallholder African farmers, the future of African agriculture will be determined by the household balance sheet. What model works or does not work will be determined by the farmers check book.

Monday, August 25, 2008

America's Moment

Barring any disaster, Senator Barrack Obama of Illinois will accept the Democratic nomination for the presidency on August 28th 2008. This date is phenomenal. On this day four and a half decades ago, a King revealed his dream. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a nation where his four little children will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. In this election, and in King’s words, “this must become true if America is to be a great nation”.

Millions across the world will watch, and will be moved and numbed with emotion as Mr. Obama delivers his most important speech to America and the world. Without a doubt, the oratory will be skillful and powerful.

This moment comes through great toil and inspiration. Senator Obama ran a splendid campaign. Using the internet and his experience in community organizing the Obama campaign harnessed unprecedented energy and donations of a legion of supporters in nearly every state.

Political pundits have lauded the choice of Senator Joe Biden of Delaware as Mr. Obama’s running mate. In Obama’s word’s Joe Biden gets it! Joe Biden connects well with the working-class and the Catholics, groups that most Democrats and especially Senator Obama have immense trouble connecting with. Joe Biden also brings tremendous foreign policy experience to the ticket.

Senator Obama has very little Washington experience but full of promise and potential. He is truly in step with the problems that will confront America and a globalized world in the years to come.

As the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, Senator Obama is “unconnected with the tired old fights that constrict America’s politics. Obama is in sync with the 21st century.

In his remarks on Monday at the DNC in Denver, Senator Edward Kennedy said “Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race and gender and group against group and straight against gay”.

Oprah Winfrey in her endorsement of Obama said “He is the one”.

After Iraq, Katrina and an economy in crisis, this election is the Democrats to give away to Senator John McCain. But after a long and bitter primary contest that saw Mrs Hillary Clinton lose to Barack Obama, the Democrats must unite behind the Obama/Biden ticket.

This is America’s moment!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Are the poor really poor?

ASome basic assumptions have dominated the discourse on development assistance and poverty reduction among rural communities:

i) Poor communities are poor because they lack resource. Hence, aid is viewed as a substitute for locally generated resources;

ii) Aid to poor communities for specific projects, typically infrastructure, would reduce poverty.

The notion that poor countries and communities are poor is misguided. More of than not, poor communities are asset-rich and capital poor. Local capital formation is constrained by dysfunctional markets and lack of appropriate institutional and financial service arrangements.

Poor communities might be rich if we factor in trapped assets. All forms of foreign investment in poor communities whether through FDI or philanthropy are but a fraction of the potential for capital that is trapped in these communities.

We must begin to see the poor as “undercapitalized and unsupported entrepreneurs,” and view poverty as the absence of capital markets and growth. Key to the evolution of capital markets is the need for a transparent market for capital, knowledge, land and labour. Ownership and transfer of ownership must be enforced. Under such a system, a market-oriented ecosystem will emerge. A market-oriented ecosystem is platform that permits private businesses and civil society actors to co-create wealth in a symbiotic relationship.

I believe that attention must shift towards building market-based ecosystems for broad-based sustainable growth and wealth creation. Only then can we tap into the vast and trapped resources, innovation, enterprise and purchasing power of local communities.

What is needed is the capacity to bring the largest segment of smallholder farmers to the market system. With assured markets and competitive prices, local capital poor communities can increase their productive capacity and mobilize the essential capital and local or international investments to free the vast trapped resources.

The private sector, in its quest to leverage smallholder agricultural production and gain market access, can invent novel systems depending on the nature of the production and market for the crop.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Science and Society: The pendulum phenomenon

When research and findings touch on issues of public interest the news media and commentators of all stripes dig in. Under incessant comment and analysis, contradictory conclusions can cause news coverage and reporting to swing from one extreme to another, creating a kind of journalistic pendulum for the reading public.

This has been true for decades in the coverage of HIV/AIDS and other globally significant health concerns. But more recently this pendulum phenomenon has been glaringly manifested in the climate change and global warming debate.

Incongruent findings have been generated in multitudes. However, scientists see disputation as the path to discovery and knowledge. What is worrisome is the haemorrhage of publication of inchoate findings in highly visible and accessible media. Each new paper seems to repudiate something that was emphatically asserted in a previous paper.

The general public does not view this as the hard and narrow road that leads inevitably to dispassionate scientific understanding but as a proliferation of contradictory opinions.

There is growing evidence that the general public is divided and confused over what is happening and what action is needed. But scientists have pointed a finger elsewhere. They have blamed energy-dependent industries and the popular media for the paralysis on climate policy. But more often than not, the science community fails to differentiate between what is well understood and what is tentative.

Part of the problem also is that news media reports are often marred with reinforcing loops of sound bites that often oversimplify complex findings. What is needed is for scientists to work with journalists to report, with clarity, the evidence-base behind new advances.

Reporters have also been blamed for sacrificing accuracy for impact. Words that scientists use to express uncertainty are often omitted to give stories more sting. At a time when specialized reporting is declining and instant opinion is growing, scientist must take responsibility for communicating.

Scientist must take their message straight to the public. To dampen the pendulum phenomenon, scientist must address the implication or “so what? of their findings, instead of “farming” this out to reporters and politicians.

Momentous scientific issues of should be explored in an on-going fashion rather than in response press releases and peer reviewed journal publications. The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity for the scientific community to re-take and guide science communication.

One would hope that an argument back with solid scientific evidence and communicated will clarity will prevail.

But ultimately, the general public must rise to the occasion with regard to policy and scientific literacy. This must be demonstrated in terms of commitment to education and strong and a listening political leadership.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

HIV/AIDS: State of a Global Epidemic

HIV/AIDS: State of the Global Epidemic

Excerpts from Lawrence K. Altman article in the NYT –July 30, 2008

A report financed in part by the Ford Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, provides a startling new perspective on an epidemic that was first recognized in 1981.

Nearly 600,000 African-Americans are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and up to 30,000 are becoming infected each year. When adjusted for age, their death rate is two and a half times that of infected whites, the report said. Partly as a result, the hypothetical nation of black America would rank below 104 other countries in life expectancy.

If black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with the AIDS virus, the Black AIDS Institute.

In a separate another report, the United Nations painted a somewhat more optimistic picture of the worldwide AIDS epidemic, noting that fewer people are dying of the disease since its peak in the late 1990s and that more people are receiving antiretroviral drugs.

The United Nations report said that in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, changes in sexual behavior had led to declines in the number of new H.I.V. infections.

However, the report found that progress remained uneven and that the future of the epidemic was uncertain.

These reports come in advance of the 17th International AIDS Conference, which begins this weekend in Mexico City.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What would Jesus do?

The simplest way of describing the rupture at the heart of the 80million strong Anglican Communion is to say that the socially conservative religious traditions of Africans, traditions are at odds with socially liberal mores of the rich world, especially over the issue of same sex unions or homosexuality. This adherence to the traditional fundamentalist strain was bequeathed to the early African church by the Victorian missionaries.

Led by the fiery Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the traditional conservative wing of the Anglican Church took the first steps towards forming an alternative pan-Anglican forum. Bishops from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda are among the 230 or so prelates who are staying away from the Lambeth.

I find the position taken by the African Bishops self righteous. This seems to me like what the pious Pharisees would do. It departs from the fundamental tenets of love, forgiveness.

What would Jesus do?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Global Addiction to Crude Oil

This is an excerpt from Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times today.


....."We are addicted to dirty fossil fuels, and this addiction is driving a whole set of toxic trends that are harming our nation and world in many different ways. It is intensifying global warming, creating runaway global demand for oil and gas, weakening our currency by shifting huge amounts of dollars abroad to pay for oil imports, widening “energy poverty” across Africa, destroying plants and animals at record rates and fostering ever-stronger petro-dictatorships in Iran, Russia and Venezuela."

"When a person is addicted to crack cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up. His problem is what that crack addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction."

"Ditto for us. Our cure is not cheaper gasoline, but a clean energy system. And the key to building that is to keep the price of gasoline and coal — our crack — higher, not lower, so consumers are moved to break their addiction to these dirty fuels and inventors are moved to create clean alternatives."

Friedman really nailed the global oil crisis. Friedman is an incisive global thinker. I highly recommend his book "The World is Flat".

I view the current energy crisis wrought by high crude oil prices as opportunity begging at our door. The time to innovate is now. As a global collective we can and we must.

Read Al Gore's bold and visionary plan to end addiction to oil. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92638501


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Genetic variation increases HIV risk in Africans

A genetic variation which evolved to protect people of African descent against malaria has now been shown to increase their susceptibility to HIV infection by up to 40 per cent, according to new research. Conversely, the same variation also appears to prolong survival of those infected with HIV by approximately two years.

The discovery marks the first genetic risk factor for HIV found only in people of African descent, and sheds light on the differences in genetic makeup that play a crucial role in susceptibility to HIV and AIDS.

The research, published today in Cell Host & Microbe, was co-authored by Professor Robin Weiss, UCL Infection and Immunity, who worked with colleagues in the US to analyse data from a 25-year study of thousands of Americans of different ethnic backgrounds.

The gene that the research focused on encodes a binding protein found on the surface of cells, called Duffy Antigen Receptor for Chemokines (DARC). The variation of this gene, which is common in people of African descent, means that they do not express DARC on red blood cells. DARC influences the levels of inflammatory and anti-HIV blood factors called chemokines.

Discussing the findings, Professor Weiss said: "The big message here is that something that protected against malaria in the past is now leaving the host more susceptible to HIV.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, the vast majority of people do not express DARC on their red blood cells and previous research has shown that this variation seems to have evolved to protect against a particular form of malaria. However, this protective effect actually leaves those with the variation more susceptible to HIV."

Lead author of the study, Professor Sunil K. Ahuja, from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, added: "It turns out that having this variation is a double-edged sword. The finding is another valuable piece in the puzzle of HIV-AIDS genetics."

HIV affects 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa today, an HIV burden greater than any other region of the world. Around 90 per cent of people in Africa carry the genetic variation, meaning that it may be responsible for an estimated 11 per cent of the HIV burden there. The authors observe that sexual behaviour and other social factors do not fully explain the large discrepancy in HIV prevalence in populations around the world, which is why genetic factors are a vital field of study.

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Free Schools may be a barrier to Education in Africa

Governments across Africa are scrambling to introduce free education. The abolition of school fees is largely owed to the Millennium Development Goals, which sets as one of the goals that every child should be able to complete an elementary education by 2015.

Word that education was free spread swiftly from child to child. Undeterred by poverty, million of children, many of them barefoot, clothed in rags and dizzy with hunger, streamed into schools across the continent.

The explosion in enrollments has put enormous pressure on over burdened, often ill-managed education systems. Children hurdle together on the concrete floor, rocks or out on loose dirt in the school often jostling for space. Their laps and the floor are their only desks.

Free education initiative has sent expectations soaring. But can we make it deliver for the millions of eager supplicants of knowledge? Can we make it deliver for a Kezia, a single mother who makes $0.7 a day breaking rocks but dares to believe that when her daughter in second grade finishes school and gets a job she will rest? Can we vindicate Johanna, a son of a crab trapper who quit his job as a herds’ boy, denying his family the needed income, to go to school?

Experts now worry that the drive to expand access has eclipsed the focus on learning outcomes. Cramming children into classes and thinking that is education is clearly not working. A school teacher in Kenya estimated that 100 of her 250 students would have to repeat the grade. In Malawi four out of ten of first graders repeat the year. Even Uganda, often held up as a model, also found that achievement fell as classes swelled with highly disadvantaged students.

Following the introduction of free primary education, enrollment has surged to 7.2 million in 2004 from 5.9 million in 2002. Kenya has an average ratio of one teacher for each 39 students. In the most crowded schools the ratio is one teacher to 111. Kenyan officials estimate that an additional 20,000 teachers need to be employed to address the teacher-student ratio.

The World Bank, the largest international donor supporting Kenya's education initiative, is pushing for teacher transfers as opposed to costly new hiring. Kenyan schools suffer from a severely unequal distribution of teachers. This will require not money but political will. Transferring large numbers of teachers to understaffed schools will mean taking on teachers' union, as well as communities and their political patrons who are beneficiaries of the inequitable teacher deployment.

There is a worrying gap in standardized test scores between private and public schools. Of the top 100 students in Kenya’s national standardized test for primary school leavers, only 17 % were from public schools. Conversely, 83% of the best students were from private schools and yet they comprised only 4 % of the primary student population. As long as a vast majority of children are trapped in dysfunctional, failing schools, free education we will not deliver for Kezia and Johanna.

What hangs in the balance is the future of a generation of African children and their parents desperately reaching out for education as the escape route from poverty.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Breakthrough in fight against malaria

Malaria is preventable and curable, but can be fatal if not treated promptly. Malaria kills an estimated 3000 children each day in sub-Saharan Africa according to AMREF. The CDC estimates that there are 300-500 million cases of malaria each year, and more than 1 million people die.

Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne Australia have identified a potential treatment to combat malaria by pinpointing the process that helps the disease hijack red blood cells.

They have found the key to an adhesive that stops the parasite being flushed out to the spleen where the parasites would be destroyed. The removal of just one of these compounds is enough to bring the process to a halt.

Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have identified eight proteins that allow this glue-like substance onto the surface of a hijacked cell. Proteins are nature's building blocks. They are large molecules that are essential for the function of cells in the body. Targeting those proteins could be a key to fighting malaria.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Africa: Governance League Table

The World Bank’s 2008 political report on the political state of Africa is out.

The report suggests that Africa’s economic policies are improving, economies are growing faster, the region is more politically stable and governance is getting better. These assertions are rather audacious given the uneasy political calm in Kenya following a chilling wave of post election turmoil and the discredited poll in Zimbabwe.  

But the regional figure for government effectiveness has deteriorated some 17%, as has regulatory quality and the control of corruption. Africa's performance as regards rule of law has barely changed since 1996.

The report however notes that African aggregate indicators worsened some 7.6% between 1996, when the governance indicators were first compiled, and 2000. There has been a modest improvement since then, but the total index is still 5% lower now than in 1996.

Country performances are varied. Most of those in the top ten have made handsome gains since 1996, although Benin and to a lesser extent Namibia, Tunisia and Lesotho have all lost ground. Similarly, governance has deteriorated, usually substantially, in most of the poorest-performing countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan are reported to have made some headway although it is not clear exactly how,

The resource curse plays out. The more endowed a country is in terms of natural resources, the worse its governance ranking. However there are exceptions, such as Botswana and Namibia-both in the African top five in terms of governance performance-, but most resource-rich countries are down the league table: the DRC, Sudan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Congo (Brazzaville). Nigeria and Angola are all ranked between 34th and 46th in the World Bank's regional rankings.

The more resources a state has, the less likely it is for the ruling class to take governance reforms seriously. This observation is also supported by governance gains made by Liberia and Rwanda, two resource-poor countries emerging from political crises. For instance, they have certainly outperformed Angola, a resource-rich country whose governance record is deplorable. 

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sanitation: The Unsung Killer

This week at the G8 summit in Hokkaido Japan, WaterAid, launched a report on sanitation. The report presents evidence that suggests sanitation may be the biggest killer of children in the world and yet it is the most neglected development sector. The hope is that this report will remind the world’s wealthiest and most powerful that without addressing sanitation all other development efforts will be undermined. In Africa, not just health, but also education and economic growth are all held back by governments' neglect of water and sanitation.

It seems ironic to be discussing sanitation at a luxury resort hotel in Japan, a country where toilets have electronic sensors and heated seats. It's a different planet, light years away from the 2.6 billion people who still have no access to even basic sanitation.

In 2002, an MDG target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to sanitation was agreed by the UN for achievement by 2015. The WaterAid report suggests that the sanitation sector is in crisis. The report indicates that 40% of the world's population lack access to even basic sanitation. At the current rate of 'progress' this global target will not be met, and in sub-Saharan Africa it will not be reached until 2076, 61 years too late.

It is clear that that investing in hygiene and sanitation offers the greatest public health returns of any development intervention. For instance investments in sanitation will bring massive gains to other areas of development too; more girls in school, less money spent on treating diarrheal diseases, more resources in hospitals to deal with other health issues.

The WaterAid report claims that poor sanitation kills more children than HIV/Aids, Malaria and Measles combined yet it remains neglected. Most donor and aid-receiving governments in developing countries have no clue about how much they spend on water and sanitation. The report asserts that lack of investment in sanitation reveals a blind spot in development policy: a failure to recognize sanitation’s integral role in reducing poverty.

The report concludes that sanitation is the single most cost-effective major public health intervention to reduce child mortality and will accelerate progress and reinforce investments in other MDG targets and goals.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Achieving sustainable development in Africa: Why cities matter

Prominent economists and policymakers seek to catalyze an African green revolution that mimics East Asia’s rise in agricultural productivity in the 1970s. But over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans currently live in urban areas.  According to the UN Population Fund’s State of World Population 2007 report, that figure may swell to over half the continent’s population in the next thirty years.  My view is that if there is any hope for sustainable development in Africa, cities must play a crucial role.

 It is time to end the “urban bias”. This notion of the 1970s does not square with the reality of poverty in Africa.

 The urban concentration found in many developing countries does not have the same economic and institutional foundations that one observes in cities of developed economies. The rapid growth of cities in Africa is associated with absence of many of the benefits of accelerated growth in cities in the West. Many African cities cannot boast high levels of economic development or high standards of health, life expectancy or education.

 Poor agricultural performance, the lack of coherent national policy that integrates economic and spatial planning; poor municipal services and a fragile fiscal base are symptomatic of ‘urbanization without development’. Yet today, millions of Africans continue to be drawn to cities in pursuit of better job opportunities, education and health services.

 Cities in Africa suffer severe fiscal distress. The fiscal crisis of African cities is compounded by failure to solve the central government-local government jurisdictional tussle. Central governments have tended to institute and maintain significant governance, financial, legal and regulatory controls, leaving little room for innovation and entrepreneurship by local authorities.

 City authorities lack powers required for effective political and economic decision making, particularly in such critical areas as revenue generation, investment in urban infrastructure, and service delivery. Where central governments do not allow municipal authorities to collect tax revenue or borrow capital, and yet hold them responsible for provision of services, non-delivery is the end result.

 Many African governments view urbanization as a problem to be stopped rather than an inevitable trend that calls for policy changes. This view was bolstered by a 1999/2000 development report from the World Bank. The report concluded that African cities are part of the cause and a major symptom of Africa’s economic and social crisis.

 More recent academic research, including studies from the World Bank itself, debunk this assertion, concluding that many aspects of urban poverty are caused by limited political and institutional capacity.  Cities are centers of innovation by the very fact that they are home to the very forces that shape or drive productivity and growth -innovation, finance, manufacturing, marketing, information, and knowledge production.

Some of the specific issues for policy makers may include:

  1.  What are the forces driving urbanization and how do they differ from one region to another?
  2. What is the link between urban infrastructure, employment, service provision and poverty reduction?
  3. What are the gender dimensions of urbanization and urban living?
  4. How do urban spaces affect interaction between different ethnic, racial and religious groups? This question has significant implications for social cohesion and nation building especially for ethnically diverse countries.
  5. Does demographic concentration exacerbate political conflict or promote engaged state-society relations?
  6. Is our urban future to be characterized by poverty and “service apartheid”, fear and violence, or sustainable and prosperous urban spaces characterized by inclusiveness and cosmopolitanism?
  7. How can urban planning and urban development strategies be integrated into and help inform national and rural development policy?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Americans and oil: Lifestyle, culture and politics

Evidently, the primary motivation for lifting the ban on offshore drilling is high gas prices at the pump. Do not be fooled. This has nothing to do with freeing the US from dependence on foreign oil. America’s appetite for oil will still continue to fund terrorist organizations. A strategy that would bring down gas prices fast and furious is to bring on stream part of the nation's strategic oil reserves. This is the most potent short-term leverage available to the US. The other option is to reduce consumption, especially at the individual car owner level. I am mindful that the vast majority of the low income segment of the society must drive long distances to work. Then there is the whole culture of suburbia and the SUV. But Americans can still demand, through tough legislation, better fuel efficiency standards from the automobile manufacturers. This is what Bush should be pushing right now. American household must now make some real hard lifestyle choices. Essentially it is a choice between taking a curative but awfully bitter pill versus the Bush-McCain “lift the ban” placebo. 20 years is a long time to wait before oil prices come down as a result of offshore drilling. But there are concrete and smart legislative steps that we can take now to bring relief at the gas pump in less than three years. America, what will you take, the Pill or the Placebo? 

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Africa Arise

That Africa is lagging behind in all spheres of human endeavor is not due to lack of good ideas or smart people or policies or its water or soils or benign neglect on the part of the international community.

Africa’s problems are largely due to a fatal failure of leadership, a preponderance of a brand of politics that is visionless and uninspired by the desire to solve the myriad problems that continue to trap millions of Africans in an existence that is miserable, short and brutish.

The poet William Woodsworth wrote "the works of peace cannot flourish in a country governed by an intoxicated despot… commerce, manufacturing, agriculture, and all the peaceful arts, are of the nature of virtues or intellectual powers; they cannot be given; they cannot be stuck in here and there; they must spring up; they must grow of themselves; they thrive better with encouragement and delight in it."

Abuse and misuse of power and authority by Africa’s political elite is not due an inherent lack of capacity for good governance. African leaders have been tyrannical and ineffective not because they are incompetent or ignorant. Neither has the lack of administrative or intellectual expertise to formulate and properly execute growth enhancing policies been the major problem. Quite simply, African leaders have no intention or desire to govern for the collective good of their people.

Similarly, the wrong-headed economic policies and practices of African governments are not as a result of a lack of understanding of sound fiscal policies and management. Africa’s nobility has reaped bountifully from the economic plunder of their nations. They prefer to maintain the status quo as chaotic and desperate.

Poverty is not Africa's tragedy. Africa’s real tragedy is that it lacks political leadership that is committed to protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, solving practical problems and creating opportunities for its citizens to innovate and thrive in free enterprise.

South African writer Ruth First in her book The Barrel of a Gun published in 1970 wrote "There has been eloquent, inexhaustible talk in Africa about politics, side by side with the gaping poverty of political thought. Politicians are men who compete with each other for power, not men who use power to confront their country's problems."

The post-colonial nation-state has not been liberating and protective of its citizens: on the contrary, its gross effect has been to constrict innovation and exploit its citizens. In a large measure, the post-colonial state has simply failed to operate in any rational way at all.

I often ask myself two questions: How can I encourage people around me to think like problem solvers? How do I harness my own potential to catalyze the emergence of a “new age African leadership”?

It is time to turn the page. A new generation of leaders must now rise in Africa and take the mantle of leadership and deliver economic prosperity and social justice for all of Africa’s people.

See related article in TIME http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1813508,00.html


Thursday, June 5, 2008

The global food crisis could catalyze Africa's Green Revolution

The global food crises could trigger massive investment inflows into Africa's struggling agricultural sector.  A battery of big private investors plan to consolidate small plots of land into more productive large ones, to introduce new technology and to provide capital to modernize and maintain grain elevators and fertilizer supply depots. These new investments will accelerate the modernization, technology transfer and enhance the efficiency of Africa's agricultural production systems. This could herald a green revolution in Africa.

Perhaps the most ambitious plans are those of the london based Emergent Asset Management. Emergent is raising $450 million to $750 million to invest in farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where it plans to consolidate small plots into more productive holdings and introduce better equipment. Emergent also plans to provide clinics and schools for local labor. The money will go into Emergent’s new African Land Fund (ALF), to be managed in a joint venture with South Africa-based Grainvest.

The fund's aim is initially to invest in 12 countries including South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya and grow a variety of crops including wheat and maize. The fund also plans to invest in jatropha, an oil-seed plant useful for biofuels that is grown in sandy soil unsuitable for food production. This will be a source of fuel for farming operations.

See http://africa.reuters.com/business/news/usnBAN949887.html

BlackRock fund group in New York is also planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture, chiefly farmland, from sub-Saharan Africa to the English countryside. Last October, the London branch of BlackRock introduced the BlackRock Agriculture Fund, aiming to raise $200 million to invest in fertilizer production, timberland and biofuels. The fund currently stands at more than $450 million.

Why Africa? Land values in Africa are very low, compared to other agriculture-based economies. There’s accessible, cheap labour. Africa has a broad range of agro-ecologies. This provides a diverse range of microclimates which permit cultivating a large diversity of crops. Logistics will present some huge challenges. But there is opportunity here to improve and expand road and railway networks as well as modernize Africa’s sea ports.

These big investors could bolster food production at a time when the world needs more of it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Barack Obama: A defining moment in history

 At the 2004 Democratic National Convention on July 27th Obama said “Lets face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely”. He went on to say “that in no other country on earth is my story even possible”. And with this speech Barack  Obama  erupted on the American political scene.

On October 19th 2006, David Brooks wrote “It may not be personally convenient for him, but the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you should hope Barack Obama runs for president”.

On February 10th 2007 at the Illinois State Capital Senator Obama announced that he will be seeking the Democratic nomination for president. On this auspicious day he said “I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness in this -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement."

On June 3rd in St. Paul Minnesota Senator Barack Obama said to his supporters and the American people “Because of you, tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America”.

Few things leave me speechless. 

On August 28th 2008 in Denver Colorado, Senator Obama  will address the DNC and accept the Democratic Party nomination. On this day 40 years ago, a young African American, a Baptist Minister stood at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream. “In the face of the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”. King went on to say “ I have a dream the my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

On the night of June 3rd Obama said “So it has been for every generation that faced down the greatest challenges and the most improbable odds to leave their children a world that's better, and kinder, and more just. And so it must be for us.”

I was particularly moved by what he had to say about Hillary. “I am a better candidate for having had the honour to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton." Senator Obama's words for John McCain, his Republican  rival were equally magnanimous. “I honour, we honour, the service of John McCain, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine." In an interview with Charlie Rose, Obama referred to George W. Bush, as " a decent man." He also said he was a great admirer of President Clinton's ability to frame issues and thought George H. Bush executed an effective foreign policy.

While he extols magnanimously the virtues of his opponents, Senator Obama can be  amazingly self deprecating. On June 3rd he said “I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations.” He once said of himself “Even if people find me disappointing, ultimately, they might gain something.”

I think Senator Obama is a remarkable, outstanding individual. He embodies what is the best in all of us, black white, Asian, Latino, Catholic, Protestants, Jew, Buddhist, and Moslem. David Brooks said “Obama has a mentality formed by globalization. With his multiethnic family and his globe-spanning childhood, there is a little piece of everything in Obama.Thomas Friedman said. “It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: it is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rising food prices and the poverty conundrum

This week world leaders gather in Rome for the United Nations food summit. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will issue an urgent plea to world leaders at a food summit in Rome on Tuesday to immediately suspend trade restrictions, agricultural taxes and other price controls that have helped fuel the highest food prices in 30 years. The meeting is aimed at forging a common international response to the food crisis.But will rising food prices, on balance, help or hurt the poor? 

Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president asserts that the increases in food prices will drive an additional 100 million people below the poverty line. 

But a much cited World Bank publication by Hartel and Ivanic published in 2007 showed that although freer farm trade and higher prices may raise poverty rates in some countries, it will reduce them in more. The study concludes that since a large proportion of the poor depend on agriculture, national poverty falls in 13 out of 15 countries focus countries in the wake of rich country agricultural liberalization.

Evidently, there are two sides to the food crises. However, the nuance of Mr. Zoellick’s assertion seems to me rather one sided and at best a very broad generalization.  The danger is that such generalizations, especially from the World Bank, tend to bias public policy and opinion and may very likely obstruct structured analysis of the implications and opportunities presented by rising food prices, especially for poor countries.  The result is that the interventions and policy responses will be wrong-headed and at best sub-optimal. 

My view is that higher food prices could be a boon for the small scale rural agriculture. Higher farm incomes spur demand for rural labour, boosting wages for the rural landless. The surge in rural income could outweigh the initial price effect. More importantly, increasing revenues for the agricultural sector and rural economies could attract investments in infrastructure and human services. However, low income urban households, households in the non-agricultural sector, as well as households dependent on transfer payments or remittances from low income urban labourers, may wind up poorer before the benefits of higher food production lead to lower local food prices.

Shifts in national poverty outcomes as a direct consequence of rising food prices will therefore depend on the relative weights of rural versus low income urban populations in the national demographics. It will be helpful to know how these key groups are represented in the figures provided by Robert Zoellick. 


Maros Ivanic and Will Martin. 2008. Implications of Higher Global Food Prices for Poverty in Low-Income Countries.  World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No 4594, April 2008

Thomas Hertel, Roman Keeney, Maros Ivanic and Alan Winters.2007. Distributional Effects of WTO agricultural reforms in rich and poor countries.  Economic Policy, April 2007

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Global Food Crisis

Excerpts from an OP-ED from The NYTimes by Amartya Sen, whose vision, clarity and wisdom I admire much. Published May 28 2008

It is a tale of two peoples. In one version of the story, a country with a lot of poor people suddenly experiences fast economic expansion, but only half of the people share in the new prosperity. The favored ones spend a lot of their new income on food, and unless supply expands very quickly, prices shoot up. The rest of the poor now face higher food prices but no greater income, and begin to starve. Tragedies like this happen repeatedly in the world.

Much discussion is rightly devoted to the division between haves and have-nots in the global economy, but the world’s poor are themselves divided between those who are experiencing high growth and those who are not. The rapid economic expansion in countries like China, India and Vietnam tends to sharply increase the demand for food. This is, of course, an excellent thing in itself, and if these countries could manage to reduce their unequal internal sharing of growth, even those left behind there would eat much better.

There is also a high-tech version of the tale of two peoples. Agricultural crops like corn and soybeans can be used for making ethanol for motor fuel. So the stomachs of the hungry must also compete with fuel tanks.

Misdirected government policy plays a part here, too. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. This law combined with a subsidy for this use has created a flourishing corn market in the United States, but has also diverted agricultural resources from food to fuel. This makes it even harder for the hungry stomachs to compete.

Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it. Ethanol use could be curtailed, rather than being subsidized and enforced.

The global food problem is not being caused by a falling trend in world production, or for that matter in food output per person (this is often asserted without much evidence). It is the result of accelerating demand. However, a demand-induced problem also calls for rapid expansion in food production, which can be done through more global cooperation.

What is most challenging is to find effective policies to deal with the consequences of extremely asymmetric expansion of the global economy. Domestic economic reforms are badly needed in many slow-growth countries, but there is also a big need for more global cooperation and assistance. The first task is to understand the nature of the problem.

Amartya Sen, who teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard, received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998 and is the author, most recently, of “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Teach For America

From the New York Times Editorial Published: May 16, 2008

To maintain its standing as an economic power, the United States must encourage programs that help students achieve the highest levels in math and science, especially in poor communities where the teacher corps is typically weak.

The National Academies, the country’s leading science advisory group, has called for an ambitious program to retrain current teachers in these disciplines and attract 10,000 new ones each year for the foreseeable future. These are worthy goals. But a new study from a federal research center based at the Urban Institute in Washington suggests that the country might raise student performance through programs like Teach for America, a nonprofit group that places high-achieving college graduates in schools that are hard to staff.

Teach for America started in 1990. By next fall, it will have more than 6,000 young teachers working nationwide. These teachers, many of whom come from elite colleges, commit to two years’ teaching. Besides their salaries, they receive modest federal grants and the right to defer loan payments while teaching.

Critics have challenged the program’s usefulness, pointing out that the teachers it places are neophytes and that a majority leave the classroom after two years. But the new study suggests that talented young people can have a lasting effect even if they do not make a career of teaching. According to the study, Teach for America participants who worked in North Carolina between 2000 and 2006 had more impact on student performance than traditional teachers did, as measured by end-of-course tests. The difference was observed in several areas of science and was strongest in math.

The findings are especially significant because Teach for America teachers worked in schools with the neediest students. The results suggest that states that want students to do better in math and science need to focus recruitment on more selective colleges instead of on traditional teacher education programs, which are often little more than diploma mills.

I think this is absolutely innovative. A majority of teacher training programmes in Africa are populated with 3rd and 4th tier high school graduates who failed to meet the grade for more competitive degree programmes.

One of my Biology teachers in high school was a PhD candidate. You can imagine the effect of this on the mind of an impressionable teenage boy. This teacher provided me with a search image that I could relate to.  I ended up with a PhD in Ecology. I never asked him why he took three months away from his research to teach high school Biology. I am so grateful he came by. 

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