Food Security or Just Plain Old Regular Security?

Now that Obama is on the move he is starting to touch on his chosen themes one of which is Food Security. Senegal is a good place to start as it has signed on to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and presumably this will be developed as the last leg in Tanzania approaches where TZ’s membership in the alliance has just been reiterated at the Nutrition Summit preview to the G8.

I recently posted a discussion of some big picture goals Obama could work on during this trip, and another about the lack of alignment in the interests of the parties of the G8’s “New Alliance”.  This weekend’s agriculture related press releases seem to highlight his lack of room to maneuver or perhaps simply the lack of imagination America brings to the issue. I am sure this approach seems the practical and political path from the Oval Office and they would be the people to know how it will play in the States. But from my perspective in Northern Tanzania in the middle of a community of small and commercial farmers, and with a desk full of agricultural business plans and concept notes to donors, it seems dangerously detached.

Saturday’s briefing to the press and the White House Fact Sheet brought together many narratives in the effort to obtain food security and improved nutrition. But let’s take just one of those strands and follow it through to how it actually affects farmers. When describing the Feed the Future Program the White House says: “7 million smallholder farmers adopt improved agricultural technologies or practices”.  This is a view from the top statement of the type Congress requires.

Feed the Future is a multi-million dollar, multi country initiative so there is considerable planning in Washington how the program will be run and organized. These decisions ore passed down the hierarchy to country USAID offices. These offices set up a management and monitoring and evaluation structures and they interact with contractors. Contractors make proposals on the various aspects of the initiative the country offices have requested project proposals on. The successful applicants set up their projects which most often give sub-grants to commercial entities, NGO or farmer groups. These sub-grantees will be the ones who actually do the interaction with farmers on the ground.

At each of these steps the target for the number of small growers and the number of technologies is divvied out. And at each of these steps the condition for fitting into the plan is to deliver on these numbers. So many farmers and so many technologies delivered through an agreed reporting system. This may seem and effective way of establishing accountability but by the time you have climbed down the long ladder of planning and sub contracting this accountability distorts all it touches.

A small grower market chain like any other business needs to be created, nurtured and encouraged to grow. An insistence on achieving high numbers on day one, which this system most certainly does, is like insisting businesses start with loosing strategies. Similarly with technology. All these small grower schemes want their growers to learn to grow better but quality trumps quality here every time. How can they succeed when required to think how many technologies are deployed rather than whether they work?

It’s true that some good work has been done recently at the level of contractors. While typically these are beltway operations with their country offices in their areas of expertise, there has been an effort to develop local NGOs and private companies with the capacity to develop, pitch and carry out projects to the standard required by USAID. The reforms in the regulations and this decentralization may have reduced the cost to the American tax payer but adding the local operators at the contractor level isn’t likely to change the inefficiency of delivery on the ground because they too are now bound to a system of accountability which has no place for the beneficiary.

This glaring gap between what is said and what actually gets done on the ground works through all the parts of the package being presented. Feed the Future, New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and other initiatives. These are good ideas that will only work if the present system goes in for an urgent overhaul.

The fact that the bus Mr. Obama is inviting everyone to ride on is in reverse is a well known and much discussed problem in the Aid industry. Other models work better but there is no consensus on what’s best. Meanwhile at each level people remold their strategies to accommodate and bring in the funding. That being the case it’s not Africa that’s going to rise up and insist on change. Africa is going nod and say yes most politely. It’s you Mr. Obama that needs to unravel this tangle. What is being said may indeed be satisfying to Americans and it’s not be in the interests of Africans just now to discount it, but to the relationship between Africa and America it’s very damaging.

It’s damaging because this is so commonly understood that the American Government and Administration must get it. But they don’t change and the rhetoric stays the same. This plays in the States but doesn’t stay in the States. Here in Africa it makes no sense to claim for yourself what your host is too polite to correct, leaving African’s to conclude that for America Africa is not the Global Partner of Promise but rather just another borderland to keep stable for America’s security. And that, I believe, is quite a dangerous foundation upon which to build a future.


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