Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The UNDP’s surprising, alarming, Africa view, lurid with green manipulation

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In mid-May 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (the UNDP) released its Africa Human Development report for 2012. Entitled ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, the report is unremarkable for its assessments and language – these have changed but little where Africa (indeed where the recalcitrant South is concerned) is concerned over the last 30 years – and remarkable for the subtext of the agriculture and food focus to human development.

Houley Dia ran out of food a month ago and is now existing on water. A 60-something-year-old widow, she lives in Houdallah, a village of the Fula ethnic group in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal. Photo: IRIN / Nils Elzenga

The UNDP today, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and their cousin multilateral lending agencies, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, all incestuous, all unscrupulous, all functioning as think-sinks for mendacious economists who lie with flash charts and sophisticated ppts), is softly softly peddling an industry line. The industry in this case, in the 2012 for Africa case, is food and agriculture, land and poverty, the provisioning of specials foods and the provisioning of the money with which to purchase this reconstituted manna.

For most of Africa south of the Maghrib (or Maghreb, if you prefer, it is impossible to render adequately the flowing Arabic, the Ar’biyy’a, into l’Anglais, into the stilted Roman alphabet) wherever white settlement occured in quantity, the pattern in land expropriation and the use of labour was set by the Union of South Africa. So said Basil Davidson in ‘Let Freedom Come’ (Little, Brown & Co., 1978). This pattern heralded a long period of rising white prosperity still continuing in the 1970s, if with some checks and hiccups (hiccoughs too, the uprising kind) in the 1920s and 1930s, remarked Davidson. He pointed out that South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 provided a model that abolished all African land ownership (i.e., ownership by ‘native’ Africans). Labour supply was increased and the wage rate was lowered and Davidson went on to say that “the same system of proletarianising self-sufficient peasants and of driving them into a labour market where they could have no bargaining power, was used elsewhere with local variants”.

Now, almost a century after that Land Act come into being (providing the precursor to apartheid) an African Development Report from the UN’s development experts has said that “addressing hunger is a precondition for sustained human development in sub-Saharan Africa” (who writes such sentences, I wonder, for do they truly not see the puppet of hunger in Africa and the South) dancing from the threads in the hands of the grain marketeers of the North and their local agents?). “Food security must be at centre of continent’s development agenda,” the report observes magisterially.

A Malian refugee woman in Mangaize, northern Niger, ponders her future. In January, she and her family fled Menaka, a town in Mali, because of the general insecurity and fighting between the army and Tuareg fighters. Photo: IRIN / UNCHR / H.Caux

Pithy statements of concern are duly provided (and recirculated by the world’s press) by the UNDP public relations robots. Hence UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is quoted: “Impressive GDP growth rates in Africa have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. Inclusive growth and people-centred approaches to food security are needed.” Hence Tegegnework Gettu, Director of UNDP’s Africa Bureau is quoted: “It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments.”

And that is why this report, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, is replete with paragraphs like the following, appropriating the language of fairness to conceal behind it the naked greed of the globe’s industrial food networks, their agri-biotechnology partners, their unreliable allies the commodity exchanges, and the political brokers who stitch together, for huge commissions, the whole wreck of an exploitative opera: “Breaking with the past, standing up to the vested interests of the privileged few and building institutions that rebalance power relations at all levels of society will require courageous citizens and dedicated leaders. Taking these steps is all the more pressing as new threats to the sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa’s food systems have emerged. Demographic change, environmental pressure, and global and local climate change are profoundly reconfiguring the region’s development options.”

This is the sort of hearkening to ‘green capitalism’, a disgusting notion, that the UNDP is steering dangerously close to. Why must it be so? Why should this UN agency err on the wrong side of propriety? A closer reading of Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may answer these questions. Underlying the pregnant concern in the UNDP’s prose is an environmentalism that conforms to “weak sustainability” (as Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, has called it) and that is the marketing of “rights of access to the planet’s resources.” Great regiments of conventional economists have openly rallied to this position, proposing “the auctioning of world resources” (fisheries, pollution permits, forests, watersheds, and of course land). As Amin has said, this is a proposition which simply supports the oligopolies in their ambition to mortgage the future of the peoples of the South still further.

In villages in Mangalmé District, Guéra Region, central Chad, women have resorted to digging up ant nests in search of the grains of food ants leave behind. Some 3.5 million Chadians are food insecure this year (2012). Photo: IRIN / Oxfam / Stephen Cockburn

As the World Bank knows, the borrowing of an ecological discourse provides a very useful service to Imperialism Version 2.0. I find it impossible to imagine that the phalanx of authors who contributed to the Africa Human Development Report 2012 were all unaware of this capture, this mangling of the ecological discourse, this driving of a weak sustainability doctrine, this marginalising of the development issue and the diminishing, the ruthless diminishing, behind a sequined screen of consensual politics, of the agriculture and food rights of 53 countries that we have come to call Africa.

‘Towards a Food Secure Future’ has said, with the air of heavy pronouncement, with the air a cardinal of the curia adopts perhaps during a papal succession: “With more than one in four of its 856 million people undernourished, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s most food-insecure region. At the moment, more than 15 million people are at risk in the Sahel alone – across the semi-arid belt from Senegal to Chad; and an equal number in the Horn of Africa remain vulnerable after last year’s food crisis in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.” Is there a hint of opportunism in these words? Is it possible that the Rockefeller of this era – in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has subtly (or forcefully, for the era of subtle manipulation is as firmly buried as the Bandung cooperation and the Warsaw Pact) influenced the UNDP’s authors? This is, to my mind, a manifesto for the feeding of Africa which extends ambitiously the ecologist discourse in the direction of the merchants of nutrition, the brokers of grain, the doctors of plant DNA.

The UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may prove to be a turning point for the agency, or it may prove, I hope, a bridge too far, too dangerous, and saner counsel will pull it back into the realm of the familiar damnation of the world’s majority that Frantz Fanon spoke about, which ended not with the withdrawal of formal colonial rule, which continues for Africa in the razorwire-bounded transit camps, in rural pauperisation (Asia too, South America too, East and Central Europe too) and in shanty towns where odes to Steve Biko are still sung.

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