Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Somali Famine and Seed Business

August 17, 2011
My involvement with seed began with a desire to do something in response to the Ethiopian Famine of 1973. Though this seems to be an unlikely beginning, it led me to interests in plant improvement and the seed business.  
The connection between the current famine in Somalia and the seed business is not a strong one.  But famine is an example of how limiting the ability of people to trade and move freely can contribute to a disaster.  Somalia certainly has one of the world’s worst regulatory and security climates for business and simple trade. That poor business climate shows in the suffering of its people. A bad business environment in this case is just a bad environment for human beings in general.
Nearly everyone would like to do something to improve the immediate situation, but in similar situations some organizations have taken actions which secured the control of misguided governments and perpetuated poverty.
One of the fundamental rules of management is that it is not only important to perform efficiently; you must also be able to select the right thing to do.    

Government, Warfare and Famine

Description: Map of Somalia
Image from
The first thing that one needs to know about famine in Africa is that usually it is related to political failure and warfare.  This is hardly peculiar to Africa. The constellation of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse is frequently given as: conquest, war, famine and death.  Political failure as represented by warfare and famine are an old association, but how does this work in Somalia? 

My relevant experience in this was in Ethiopia during the Famine of 1973. I was a Peace Corp volunteer at the center of the draught which led to a famine, and I helped the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture do a survey of the situation after the drought and before the famine.  The current famine in Somalia has many similarities. 
To understand the situation, you have to understand traditional small-scale farming and animal agriculture in this part of the world. Understanding the role animals as wealth is key understanding.  In this part of the world, if you are a small scale farmer, you plow with oxen. The average farm family is going to have a pair of oxen.  But the oxen are not only a source of traction power; they are also wealth and insurance against this sort of disaster.  If crops fail, you can sell your oxen, buy food and then you borrow oxen when you need to plow after the drought passes. This is not the finance at level of credit default swaps, but it is market economics in action.
If you are a pastoralist, the role of animals as wealth is even clearer.  The whole of pastoralist society is centered on using animals to convert vegetation into meat, milk, and fiber.  The herding family are then able to sell some animals or animal products to buy grain. Traditional pastoralist may be inclined against selling their cattle in normal situations, but when disaster hits, sales provide insurance. Travel is very important to pastoralists, because they have to move to where the vegetation is best, and that tends to preclude tending grain fields.  They will probably follow an annual pattern, but it is also important for them to capitalize on scattered rainfall and go where the grass is greenest. 
Some of what I know about the pastoral life came out of my experience with the 1973 Ethiopian famine.  The survey in which I was involved was survey of the drought and situation in Wollo in northeast Ethiopia.  To reach one of the areas to be surveyed required going into the Afar area.  As it so happened when I was going in, an expert on East African pastoralism was coming out.  His name is Brian Hartley. We had a fine evening together.  He had been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture to do a survey to improve the productivity of the Afar pasturage.  I was to meet with him because he had employed a translator and I was to use his translator on this leg of my survey1.  It was an education speaking with Hartley.  Most people in their 60’s would have come back from several weeks in the desert complaining.  He was the complete opposite. He returned much impressed by the people and places he had seen: their skills with their cattle and the sparse beauty of the land2.  There is a most interesting biography of Mr. Hartley by his son, Aidan in: The Zanzibar Chest 3.
Even though these agricultural systems are described as subsistence agriculture, markets are central to their response to drought.  Markets allow residents to react to drought by selling animals and buying grain.  “Subsistence agriculture” is a much used and frequently misleading term.  People in most times and places carry out a certain amount of trading, buying and selling.  In more traditional African societies, the trade was more frequently local. The proportion of market transactions in the whole economic system will be different for some societies than others, but market transactions are always around and frequently important.  In Somalia now, warfare creates famine by limiting the ability of residents to sell animals and buy grain.  If they are forced to eat their animals, the amount of calories which is available to the owners is greatly reduced.  For example 100,000 calories worth of beef might buy a million calories worth of corn.  
Political limitations on movement are also very important to pastoralists.  If they cannot take their cattle to where the grass is growing, or take them to market, the cattle can die and the accumulated family wealth is destroyed. It is this point where the limitations on movement put in place by the leaders of the al Shabab militia become important.  They are sometimes put in place in the name of religious purity, but in the spirit of management of the militia’s own political and military power.
Those of you who remember the 1984-5 famine in Ethiopia, will remember pictures of the Bati Market. Batiis also in Wollo. As the famine developed the market was filmed and photographed repeatedly with starving people in the thousands, but before the moment of fame, or infamy, when its reputation was as a relief location, the Bati market was a place in where the low-land pastoralists and the farmers and traders of the middle elevations met. It was neutral ground in a culture clash between Christian farmers and Muslim herdsmen.  Change the word “herdsmen” to “cowboys” if you want to put the difference in the context of the American West.  The role of the place was as a market where people could sell cattle and butter, and buy grain, only when the people of the drought area ran out of cattle to sell did the nature of the location change to that of a refugee camp. The people of Southern Somalia have now run out of cattle to sell. 

East African Famines are Predictable

Description: Map shows unimodal and bimodal rainfall regions in East Africa.East African rainfall is seasonal. 4
The next thing that one needs to know about the Somali famine is that it was predictable, well in advance. When the rains fail in one main rainy season, people are vulnerable in the next. Rain fall in this area is bimodal.  In more northern areas in East Africa “(Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea), the main rainy season occurs sometime between March and September, and the minor rainy season occurs sometime between October and February” (   But bimodality is not so important to the story of famine.  It is weak main rainy seasons which are important.  At the end of the main rains in September of last year the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) was fully able to predict that many people could be in trouble in Somalia 6-9 months later.  That is how long it takes the food and wealth reserves to run out.  The difference between “could be in trouble” and “would be in trouble” in the situation of the Somali famine depends on the willingness of governments and institutions with means to do something to replace the missing food.
Because of the survey which I did for the Ministry of Agriculture in 1972, in October I had information an impending famine in Ethiopia.  I knew that it was going to be difficult to get the Government of Ethiopia to act adequately.  The traditionalist Government of Haile Selassie was still in place.  Being traditionalists, the Government had a fatalistic view of famine as God’s will, and at the time the government was not very kindly disposed to the people area in which the famine was occurring, due to some of its history, and ethnic and religious background5.  I decided to get in touch with OXFAM.  I made an appointment to see Toby Gooch, who was an OXFAM coordinator for East Africa. He lived in Nairobi, but was visiting Addis Ababa. 
One Saturday morning, I made my way to the little house on one of the city’s hills, in which Mr. Gooch stayed and worked when he was in Addis.  I made my presentation about the drought, and my estimates of the number of people who were going to starve if something was not done (those estimates proved correct within 10 or 15 percent of reasonable estimates).  I described the methodology which I had used to make the survey and tried to give him confidence in the estimates.  After a half hour or so, I paused to get Mr. Gooch’s reaction.  He told me that, although OXFAM had once been the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, OXFAM was not involved in famine relief any longer.  They were involved in development.  He wished me well in my efforts to do something about the famine, but emphasized that it really wasn’t OXFAM’s current area of activity.
I was deeply troubled and frustrated by this response, and quite frankly, I remain so.  OXFAM did become involved in the Ethiopian famine of 1973-4, and I suspect that they were quite proud of their role in response to it.  They started just as late as any of the other groups who were involved. Subsequently, following the next Ethiopian famine, OXFAM has partnered with Bob Geldof of Band Aid fame to make famine relief into an industry of sorts.

Good Intentions of Charitable Organizations

Description: OXFAM logo

This brings me to point number three, which I will put in the form of a question.  If these famines are predictable, and organizations such as FEWS Net do a good job of predicting them, why don’t organizations like OXFAM succeed in preventing death by starvation?  The superficial answer would be that bad governments block them from doing so, but I suspect that there is something deeper happening here. 
I am not going to propose that I have a complete answer.  I have not done sufficient research on the subject to make that presumption, but I will offer a hypothesis which could be studied.  My hypothesis is this:  relief organizations like OXFAM have enough ideological sympathy with some of the governments in question that they will not oppose those governments.
I had always assumed that the rejection of OXFAM’s need for action in Ethiopia at the end of 1972 was due to the combination of short sightedness and the need for charities to have pictures of pitiful people before they were (or are) able to collect money.  I let this go for 4 decades with some resentment of humanitarian professionals like Mr. Gooch who were willing to be paid out of donations when there were images on film to be sold to the public.  Please forgive my bitterness.  It turns out that there is more to this situation than short sightedness or the willingness to make money off charity.  OXFAM was led Fabian Socialists and it was inclined to advancing socialist society internationally. 
In the case of Toby Gooch’s refusal to get involved in preparing for the Ethiopian Famine of 1973, I support my position by interpolation from a recent book.  That book is Surrogates of the State: NGOs, development, and Ujamaa in Tanzania by Michael Jennings6.  The development which interested OXFAM in 1972, for which they had in theory abandoned Ethiopian famine relief, was the radical socialist ruralism of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.  The resettlement program in Tanzania was not as brutal or deadly as the ones in China, Cambodia or Ukraine (in the 1920’s), but it was bad enough, and it was supported whole heartedly by OXFAM.  In October of 1972, Tanzanian socialism was supported by OXFAM to the extent that they were willing to let people starve in Ethiopia in order to keep their part in the Tanzanian resettlement program going.
Of course, the case of the Ethiopian Famine in 1984-5 is much more famous than the one of 1973. The 1984-5 famine was far larger, and it had a larger government component.  Band Aid has been accused of letting famine relief money be used by the rebels and the government for military purposes.  This charge has been rejected by Geldof.  There is a good review of Band Aid’s action in an article in the Guardian by David Rieff 7.  In short, the article asserts that Geldof is right that the majority of funds were not diverted, but wrong to fail to recognize that a significant amount of diversion is inevitable.
The socialist Derg came to power in Ethiopia in 1974.  It is frequently claimed that the 1973-4 famine was one of the reasons for which Haile Selassie was removed by the Derg.  In reality, Haile Selassie was getting feeble, was no longer capable of maintaining the balancing act which he had maintained all his life, and had not made preparations for transfer of power.  For famine, the radical Marxist action of the Derg proved worse than the traditionalist inaction of Haile Selassie’s government.   Action provoked a larger famine than inaction8
Description: Oxfam Logop by Rudi Gunawan. Photo: Jim Holmes/Oxfam
Image from, Photo: Jim Holmes/Oxfam

The second part of Rieff’s article is about the use of OXFAM and Band Aid’s funds in the Derg’s resettlement program.  Band Aid was clear that they were support the resettlement program at the time, and according to Reiff, Geldof has not renounced the use of these resourcesin the Derg's forced resettlement program.  As in the case of the aid to Tanzania in the early 1970’s, OXFAM agreed with the objectives of the resettlement programs.  In Ethiopia the resettlement programs were more brutal than those in Tanzania and people died.  Millions of people were displaced and between 50,000 and 100,000 killed9. But in the eyes of OXFAM and Geldof, this was alright because the intentions were good, they were advancing the creation of the new African with a heightened sense of social justice.
Sympathies of today have changed.  The left is now multiculturalist.  Somalia is excused in some quarters because it is successfully rejecting the cultural domination of neoliberalism.  If not, the U.S. and others might have had enough support to go in and fix Somalia at the time of the battle of Mogadishu in 1993 after the last major famine, rather than waiting for the current one.  The problem with multiculturalism is that it allows the development of factions to promote mutually assured social destruction, when respect for individuals would require a solution which overrode faction.   Excusing the inability of factions to put something above their factional interests, leads to situations like Somalia today. Multiculturalists fail to recognize that tribalism is the great bane of Africans, be it ever so natural to humankind and traditional to Africa. They propose that tolerance of other cultures can prevent conflict, but this does not seem to correspond to human nature.  In practice within cultures, leaders perpetually thrive by pointing to the frictions between cultures as the reason for which their leadership is needed.   Identity politics leads to polarization; leads to warfare.  Somalia is just a recent example of how the failure to put something above faction turns out badly.    
At a very basic level, people like Geldof refuse to accept that good intentions are not enough, regardless of how they are framed or made narrative. For his time in the mid 1700’s, Adam Smith made the radical assertion that the self-interest of buyers could result in overall benefits to society.  He asserted that we do not depend on the good intentions of the butcher or the grocer for our food10.  The Geldof’s position is the rejection of the contrapositive of Smith’s: any valid good intention cannot do harm to society.  So if resettlement is assumed to be a step on the way to a more perfect world communitarian society, then we don’t have to question the means that might be used to achieve those ends.
I don’t know much about Somalia itself.  What little I know comes mainly from Aiden Hartley’s book.  In addition to the story of his father, the book includes the story of the doomed love of a British colonialist in Aden for a local girl, and the story of Hartley’s own life as a Reuters correspondent reporting on the Rwandan Genocide and Somalia in the 1990’s. Aiden Hartley has written on the current famine in Somalia with far more experience than anything I can manage: Drought didn’t cause Somalia's famine11.  Be forewarned.  Although the Spectator is generally a conservative magazine12 and pro U.S., Mr. Hartley is quite pessimistic about the U.K. and U.S. role in supporting the nominal Somali government against al Shabab, and very pessimistic about famine relief in this situation. 

The Seed Business has Little Connection to Somali Famine, but Basic Business Conditions are Important

I am including this post in a blog about seed because, in a very general way, I am defending the notion that, in pluralistic societies, seed business and other business is not evil and needs to be defended.  People, including draught victims, can use markets to manage and mitigate the impact of drought on their lives.  In this real world of ours, this is an example of some self- interest and self-management promoting the greater good.  We have to ask how a government for Somalia government will assure basic human rights; including the right to protection of property (in this case the ownership of animals); and how a government for Somalia can provide basic security. Perhaps there is no contribution which we can make, but we need to think about the impact of actions to this end.      
If it is true that self-interest can do good, then it is not surprising that good intentions can also, from time to time, do harm.  Relief efforts in East Africa have frequently gotten in the way of developing long-term organizations and institutions which will support the greater good.  Relief organizations frequently support giving away free seed in ways that inhibit the development of local seed businesses, or radically distort the market for commercial seed13. This seem market impact will probably not occure in Somalia.  I would be surprised if there were any local seed businesses to be impacted.  The negative impact of seed distribution on seed market development is not a serious problem like the negative impact of misguided resettlement programs, but when we make our gifts to famine relief organizations, it is good to ask ourselves if those organizations are conducting themselves in ways which are really in the long-term interests of the people who they purport to help.  Proclamations about good intentions should not be accepted.           
Paul Christensen
Christensen Consulting 


1 The life of the translator was a story in itself. He was an Afar.  He had been in the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, had killed a man in a fight, and then returned to the desert life in Ethiopia.  Hartley employed him because he spoke Arabic.  I employed him because he spoke Amharic.  He spoke French also, and a couple other language.
2 Like T.E. Lawrence commenting about liking the desert because it is “clean,” if we can believe the movie. 
3 Aidan Hartley, The Zanzibar Chest. Riverhead Trade (2004)
5 There had been a minor rebellion in 1972 in the Raya Kobo area of Wollo.  The military had been sent in to assure that the situation did not get out of hand.  This again points to the use of famine as a tool of political control.
6 Michael Jennings, Surrogates of the state: NGOs, development, and Ujamaa in Tanzania, Kumarian Press, 2008. ISBN 1565492439, 9781565492431. There are excerpts from the book available at Google Books. 
7 David Rieff, The Humanitarian Aid Industry's Most Absurd Apologist, The Guardian, November 29, 2010.,1. The Guardian is generally a social democratic newspaper.
8 Inaction might be too strong a word. The Government of Haile Selassie was a feudal government.  There is a response to famine in feudal systems, but the response is local.  The local Lord is responsible to do what he can with his resources.  When his resources are exhausted through charity, the traditional obligations are largely fulfilled.
9 Cruel to be kind? by David Rieff. The Guardian, June 24, 2005.
10 To be fair to Adam Smith, he also thought that sympathy was a basic part of human nature and that sympathy may well be fully compatible with donations for famine relief: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.   
11 Aidan Hartley, Drought didn’t cause Somalia's famine: War did. And food aid may well make it worse. The Spectator (UK), August 6, 2011
12  Conservative in the modern British sense of “conservative.”
13 For example, limiting seed purchases by governments and charities to certain favored sellers.  The general solution to this challenge is the use of vouchers which allow local seed producers to participate and charity recipients to choose the best seed for their needs.

Keywords:  Seed, Somalia, business environment, OXFAM, Toby Gooch, seed business, Ethiopia, East Africa, Africa, famine relief, resettlement, Adam Smith, intention, drought, Paul Christensen, Hartley, Aidan Hartley, Tanzania, management. 

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