Monday, April 30, 2007

Bureaucratic conspiracy

"The USDA is about to make it prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible for some hundred thousand small growers to maintain their organic certification—and importantly—to reap the economic benefits of organic prices, that can be as high as $.40/lb over conventional market price. This price (especially when combined with the Fairtrade minimum price of $1.26/lb), has saved many smallholders from financial ruin during the recurrent coffee crises.

Organic certification already comes at a high cost for smallholders. Not only do farmers have to invest more labor in weeding, pruning, and organic fertilization, they must first sacrifice three years of farming organically without certification in order qualify. They must invest their time to organize in cooperatives under one management and marketing system and maintain a strict, documented, internal control system to make sure all members in the grower group are in compliance with organic standards and production practices."

On art, activism and food

"Surely it's normal for an artist's personal passions and artistic expression to coincide. Most of my books have been about the complex ways an individual depends on community. Having grown up in a farming economy, I'm fascinated by the subtle antipathies expressed by our country's urban culture against rural concerns. I'm interested in how that disconnection translates into today's disastrous food policies and dangerous eating habits. A lot of important conflicts of our time fall into place around the subject of food production and consumption. It made perfect sense to write about it."

Really nice interview with Barbara Kingsolver.

Fairly drunk

"There are now more than 100 wines carrying the Fairtrade logo (see Most come from South Africa, where Fairtrade schemes are linked to the black economic empowerment policy of the South African government. Fairtrade producers from South Africa's winelands include Thandi, Fairhills and Stella Organics.

But compared with Fairtrade coffee, bananas and chocolate, Fairtrade wine has got off to a slow start. "Wine is a different commodity," says Jane Snell, business development officer for the Fairtrade Foundation. "People view wine as a luxury product and their primary concern is about quality. Fairtrade wine has now captured people's imagination and we are beginning to see some good Fairtrade wines at different price points."

By last year Fairtrade wine had started to catch up; more than 3m bottles were sold in 2006 compared with 800,000 in 2004, while total sales of Fairtrade products in the UK reached a value of £295m in 2006, up from £195m in 2005."

Live and die green

Coffins made out of recycled paper - like these ecopods - offer a green alternative to the traditional wooden casket. Photograph:
Not directly related to Food, Farming and Rural Society except that we all eventually die, but I couldn't help posting.
More in the Guardian article

Muzzling scientists over climate change

"The Union of Concerned Scientists found that 58% of the 279 climate scientists working at federal agencies in the US who responded to its survey reported that they had experienced one of the following constraints. 1.
"Pressure to eliminate the words 'climate change,' 'global warming', or other similar terms" from their communications. 2. Editing of scientific reports by their superiors which "changed the meaning of scientific findings". 3. Statements by officials at their agencies which misrepresented their findings. 4. "The disappearance or unusual delay of websites, reports, or other science-based materials relating to climate". 5. "New or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work". "

Consolidation in the free market

"How did a few corporations gain such dominance over food production and retailing? One response is: people want cheap food, and the market gave it to them. If low cost is the main goal of food production, consolidation makes sense. Big operations gain economies of scale. You can't argue with the results -- the U.S. has the world's cheapest food as a percentage of income.

But that reasoning is naïve. Agricultural markets don't operate freely; they're manipulated as a matter of course. The government subsidizes corn and soybean production, allowing farmers to sell at prices that don't even offset production costs. And taking animals off of pasture and confining them in cages -- the dominant production mode for our meat, dairy, and eggs -- only works if there's a cascade of cheap corn and soybeans to feed them."

Dont let them get away with it

My friend Rania sent me this:

"Here's another attempt by the neocons to steal our water by privatizing it and pushing for normalization so that Israel can have some of our water.
note: the 'scholars' who apply for this proposal will need to do some in-country research.
therefore, and given the mood of this country and the region of accepting "peace" and pushing towards "normalization" and seeing our conflict w/ Israel as a "no can win and so let's move it to the economic sector" - these proposals by Brookings and company become all the more dangerous
and, thus, the need to publicize this crap becomes all the more urgent.
so: publicize away. let's make it uncomfortable for any to cooperate w/ these 'scholars'"

Angry Farmer

Antoine Howayyek, president of the Lebanese Farmers Organization warns against Lebanon's policy of market liberalization over a background of continued disregard for the farming sector. He is an angry man, listen to him: "The agricultural sector has been traditionally neglected. There is no agricultural ledger where farmers can be registers, farmers do not benefit from social security, they do not have access to the state's health system, there is no fund for natural or human-made disasters, and there are no medium or long term agricultural strategy. There is no quality standard and control on the imported products,...and the export efforts have failed to reach new markets"

Sunday, April 29, 2007

This land is anti-capitalist land

"Since the 16th century, when the Portuguese crown conceded vast “captaincies” to early colonists, land and power have been distributed unevenly in Brazil. Landlords exploited their tenants' labour and, after democracy arrived, harvested their votes. They often left vast tracts idle. The last agrarian census, conducted a decade ago, found that 1% of owners controlled 45% of farmland.

The (Rural Workers) movement has become Brazil's most polarising force. Those who regard it as a lawless threat to progress are as passionate as those who extol its championship of the downtrodden.

EVERY year in April groups who organise Brazil's rural poor, headed by the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (widely known as the MST), sponsor a nationwide bout of land invasions, takeovers of buildings and other protests. Part revolution and part ritual, “Red April” commemorates the killing 11 years ago of 19 landless protestors by police in the Amazonian state of Pará and promotes the martyrs' cause, the redistribution of land.

But nowadays much of the activism seems to have little to do with land reform. This year it included taking over highway toll booths in the southern state of Paraná. Last year a rural women's group destroyed a paper company's research laboratory. In the past the main targets were local land barons. More and more they are big companies, be they Brazilian or foreign, and the “development model” they represent."

Economist article on the Brazilian Roral Workers Movement's fight to end rural feudalism is becoming a political campaign against agribusiness. Just remember one thing: In Lebanon, land inequality is worse than in Brazil: 0.5% of the people own 50% of the arable land. If you dont believe me, ask the FAO. And read well the first paragraph. Then replace "Portuguese crown" with "Ottoman Empire", and "Brazil" with "Lebanon" (or Syria, or Turkey, or Iraq, or Palestine). Same history. But will the Lebanese move?

India's been a good girl

"In a symbolic move to boost low levels of Indo-US bilateral trade, the first batch of Indian mangoes is due to arrive in the US this weekend, ending a 17-year-old trade dispute between the two countries.
After months of negotiations, the US has agreed to import Indian mangoes for the first time after clearing concerns about insect importation."

A small reward for India's pro-US stand.

Home-grown development and technical assistance

"European reconstruction worked, after the second world war, because finance was the only missing element. The homelands of the industrial revolution had a century's legacy of infrastructure of every category: finance was needed to repair, replace and renew. The Marshall Plan was successful because the recipient countries had the industrial and technical expertise, the administrative and managerial competence and the political integrity to see the thing through.
What dismays me is that after half a century of development aid, those who advocate more of the same, dressed up in a new rhetoric, have not learnt the simple lesson that the first requirement is to build up the recipients' capacity to use aid effectively. After 25 years' experience in this field, I would urge a more humble approach.
Development should be home-grown, not planned and directed from outside. Donors can help by the provision of suitably qualified technical assistants, placed in key ministries, to generate competence in planning at both the macro and the sector level."

An argument in favor of technical assistace. You dont see many of those anymore. But please beieve me the first requirement is a recipient who ACTUALLY wants development. Not the case in Lebanon. Just ask any technical assistant who has been seconded to, say, the ministry of agriculture.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The great Hermel caper

On using precious water to plant capers in Hermel. Because you know, caper is an important staple in Lebanon. If you live on a diet of smoked salmon. Like everybody in Hermel.

By the way, caper is a really interesting plant. The name originates from the Arabic "qabbar" the roots of which is "qabr", tomb. This thorny bush grows spontaneously from old walls and between rocks, especially in cemeteries, and bears the prettiest flowers. What we eat are the flower buds pickled in vinegar.

Local Foods

On Local foods from the Worldwatch Institute. Local Foods are becoming increasingly popular throughout the world. But not in the Arab World. Please if you live in Lebanon support local foods. Make sure you buy local. There are many reaons for that. Food vendors should clarify the origin of the food we purchase so that we can have the choice to support local farmers. There are a few places where you are sure to find local foods: Souk et Tayyeb ( where small, local producers display their food every Saturday morning (Saifi), Sunday morning (Jbeil) and Tuesday afternoon (Dunes complex, verdun). You can also find local organic food from Healthy basket, lebanon's only Community Supported Agriculture program (

What is the greatest benefit of joining the local food movement?
Enjoying fresher and tastier food
Supporting your local economy
Limiting the effects of transportation costs on the environment and your wallet
Avoiding the risk of large-scale food contamination
Ensuring animal welfare

Wake up and smell the water. It may soon be gone

I am posting this link to attract attention to an excessively important issue. The Middle East and Lebanon in particular are moving ahead with big water privatization plans. My friend Rania told me of a project by the Brookings Institute to bring together Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and...Israel for planing the next phase of water privatization. The Sanioura government is committed to privatization, but it wont join a project in which Israel is a partner. Things aren't that bad in Lebanon (yet). However, one cannot help relating these projects with Israel's long standing insistance on purchasing water from Lebanon. Commodifying water will make this a trade issue rather than a national security issue, especially if the Arab-Israeli normalization plans go ahead. The situation in which privatized water won't be affordable by the Lebanese from the South because the Israeli are better payers may not be that far away.

We need to wake up to this issue immediately, and question the whole process of privatization, but especially the privatization of water. Especially in South Lebanon.

But the Lebanese opposition is too busy counting ministerial seats. When was the last time ayone heard them say anything of relevance?

And yes, I believe in conspiracies. The corporate world calls them "Strategic Planning".

Thursday, April 26, 2007

On eating in season

A beautiful article by Barbara Kingsolver (Thanks Rania)

"If many of us would view this style of eating as deprivation, that’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always; this may be the closest thing we have right now to a distinctive national cuisine. Well-heeled North American epicures are likely to gather around a table where whole continents collide discreetly on a white tablecloth: New Zealand lamb with Italian porcinis, Peruvian asparagus, Mexican lettuce and tomatoes, and a hearty French Bordeaux. The date on the calendar is utterly irrelevant.

I’ve enjoyed my share of such meals, but I’m beginning at least to notice when I’m consuming the United Nations of edible plants and animals all in one seating (or the WTO is more like it). On a winter’s day not long ago I was served a sumptuous meal like this, finished off with a dessert of raspberries. Because they only grow in temperate zones, not the tropics, these would have come from somewhere deep in the Southern Hemisphere. I was amazed that such small, eminently bruisable fruits could survive a zillion-mile trip looking so good (I myself look pretty wrecked after a mere red-eye from California), and I mumbled some reserved awe over that fact.

I think my hostess was amused by my country-mouse naïveté. “This is New York,” she assured me. “We can get anything we want, any day of the year.”"

Of GM crops and honey bees: the great vanishing act

"Certainly, honeybees are declining both in areas where GM crops are widely grown, and in other areas where GM crops are released in small test plots. Is there a common thread that links both areas? Yes there is, the universal use of systemic pesticide seed dressing in GM crops and conventional crops; in particular, the widespread application of a relatively new class of systemic insecticides - the neonicotinoids - that are highly toxic to insects including bees at very low concentrations. Systemic pesticide seed dressings protect the newly sprouted seed at a vulnerable time in the plant’s development. Seed dressings include systemic insecticides and fungicides, which often act synergistically in controlling early seedling pests."

After smallholders collapse

This is what happens when rural societies are destroyed instead of being supported. This is what happens when the Market establishes its rule on food production. This is what happens when large industrial farming swallows smallholders who have to re-skill and find jobs elsewhere. Do you know what they call GAP clothings in France: Gratuit A Produire-GAP (Free to Produce).

"Welcome to Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. These women work 10-hour days or more, making clothes in one of the sweatshop capitals of the world. I had come to find where the jeans I paid £9 (US$18) for in a British store came from. They came from women like these.

Aisha hems trousers, Akhi sews collars, and Miriam puts in zip fasteners. Day in and day out. "It's boring," said Akhi. "Officially, we get one day off a week, but if there is extra work we don't get it." Sometimes they are forced to work all night to complete an order.

The garment industry earns 80% of Bangladesh's exports. But the women earn just 1660 taka a month, which is a bit under US$1 a day, or 5 British pence an hour. "

By the way, the workers situation is the same in the Free Industrial Zones of Jordan, where garments are produced for a number of trans national companies, by...Bengladeshi workers who complain from the same type of mistreatment as in this article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why the poor eat badly

"A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow." Thanks Annie

Iraq'a food tragedy

They lied to the world, invaded the country, killed the people, destroyed the heritage, fueled sectarianism, fomented a civil war, stole the oil, created misery, then they forced free trade in, bankrupted the farming sector, and when there was no food left, they dumped food rejects at many times their real price. That's the neo-liberal economic package, the essential add-on to the US "military coercion". People of Lebanon, are you reading this?

A must read, thanks Rania

"Changes in Iraqi import laws introduced by former administrator L. Paul Bremer, dropped tariffs on import of foreign products, making it impossible for Iraqi farmers to compete. Countless Iraqi farms went bankrupt.

But now prices of imported goods have increased dramatically. And so most of the food in Iraqi markets today is imported, and more expensive due to skyrocketing fuel costs and lack of government regulation. Imported foods like chicken, fruits and vegetables now cost more than locally grown foods.

"Local agricultural production is almost nil," Majid al-Dulaymi from the Ministry of Agriculture told IPS. "The limited loans given by the ministry to farmers and planters are misused simply because it is not possible to maintain the agriculture production for reasons well known to everybody here. Now the private sector is importing everything, and the prices are too high to afford." "

One more nail in biodiesel's coffin

"The biodiesel debate is back (did it ever leave?) with a new study which, once more, suggests the green stuff may not be all it's made out to be. Published in Chemistry & Industry, this study suggests diesel fuel made from rapeseed (canola) oil may produce even more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional diesel made from crude oil.

Indeed, the researchers have found that per kilometre driven, biodiesel made from rapeseed emits roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas as conventional diesel."

Where does your money go?

How the banana splits

Share of UK supermarket retail price, according to ActionAid research

Supermarket 45%

UK importer/ ripener 18%

Transport 19%

Plantation company 15.5%

Plantation worker 2.5%

Milking them dry

"Today the National Federation of Women's Institutes is launching a Great Milk Debate with a conference in London and meetings around the country to address the crisis in dairy farming. The WI's 211,000 members voted the plight of milk producers their top priority last year, and want farmers to get a fairer share of the money spent on milk in the shops.

The price of milk in the shops has risen roughly 20% in five years, from just over 44p a litre in 2002 to just over 53p in 2007. Yet the price paid to farmers has fallen.

In 1995, producers got 24.5p a litre for their milk; the average today is 18p a litre, which represents a loss of more than 3p on every litre. Kemble Farms has been getting 19p a litre. The result has been a huge rise in supermarket profits from milk, but an exodus from dairy farming, which is still accelerating. On average three dairy farmers leave the industry every day; there were 35,000 dairy farms in the UK in 1995 and there are now only about 19,000. A further 3,000 dairy farmers told the Milk Development Council in a survey earlier this month that they plan to leave in the next two years."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Marine discrimination

"If these animals lived on land there would be a global outcry. But the great beasts roaming the savannahs of the open seas summon no such support. Big sharks, giant tuna, marlin and swordfish should have the conservation status of the giant panda or the snow leopard. Yet still we believe it is acceptable for fishmongers to sell them and celebrity chefs to teach us how to cook them. You respond with horror when you hear of Chinese feasts of bear paws and tiger meat. But these are no different, as far as conservation is concerned, from eating shark’s fin soup or swordfish or steaks from rare species of tuna. One practice is considered barbaric in Europe and North America. The other is promoted in restaurant reviews and recipes in the colour supplements of respectable newspapers."

Africa's cassava come back

"Mzee Hamis is a proud man. For half a century he fed his three wives and brought up 18 children on his 2-hectare plot on the island of Zanzibar in east Africa. His fields of cassava were his store cupboard, yielding food when other crops failed. Then one day, four years ago, the cupboard was bare. "The bushes looked healthy," he says. But when he dug them up to harvest the tubers, he found every last one had rotted away. "I had lost my entire crop. We were hungry and I was desperate.""

The big picture

"Traditional agricultural practices are not inevitably more sustainable than new ones"

More about the ugly side of supermarkets

The low prices enjoyed by shoppers at British supermarkets are paid for by poor wages, job insecurity and a denial of basic human rights for workers in some of the world's poorest countries, a report has concluded.
The growing power of big supermarkets is the driving force behind a mode of doing business that is made possible by exploiting workers, particularly women, in developing countries, the report says.

Buzzing away

Today's posts come to you courtesy of my friend Rania. Here's a worrying one about vanishing bees. Story Highlights• Billions of bees have mysteriously vanished since late last year in the U.S.• Disappearing bees have also been reported in Europe and Brazil• One-third of the U.S. diet depends on pollination, mostly by honeybees• Some beekeepers are losing 50 percent of their bees to the disorder

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fair Trade goes hi-tech

"You know the price of a jar of fair-trade coffee before you reach the checkout, but how can you be sure of its ethical cost? Now techniques are being developed to tag goods with information about their entire production history, to reassure consumers that what they are buying has genuinely been ethically made. The researchers are exploring techniques to store information in barcodes, to be read by consumers using hand-held readers such as camera phones. Products would be tagged when they are made and further information added at each point in the production process, for example, how much the item cost the trader and how much it was sold on for."

More real scary stuff about black stem rust

"Scientists say millions of people face starvation following an outbreak of a deadly new strain of crop disease which is spreading across the wheat fields of Africa and Asia.
The disease, known as black stem rust, has already destroyed harvests in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Now researchers report that stem rust spores have blown across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula and infected wheat fields in Yemen. Spores have also blown northwards into Sudan.

'Varieties that had been resistant for many years were no longer resistant,' said Wafa Khoury, a plant pathologist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.
Within a year Ug99 was found in fields in Kenya and Uganda. The damage inflicted was severe but did not cause huge social problems because wheat is not a staple crop in either country. Nevertheless a field centre for Ug99 was established in Njoro and samples of wheat from around the world, including Argentina, Canada and Australia, were sent for testing. Virtually every single sample was found to be susceptible. 'That's what really caused the panic,' said Khoury.""

Friday, April 20, 2007

More biofuel controversy

"Environmental groups told a meeting on biofuels in Madrid this week that the EU move requiring all transport fuels to have a 5.75 per cent biofuel content by 2010 to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was counterproductive because rainforests were being burnt to clear land for the energy crops.
The carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires in Indonesia and Brazil could outweigh predicted emissions reductions from the use of biofuels in diesel and other fuels in Europe, the environmental groups said."

Organic? not organic?

"At a London briefing, Prof McKelvey defended intensive techniques and said alternatives such as organic farming would not cope with predicted growth in population. "There is a need to continue to intensify farming. Organic farming has a place but it will never feed the growing population of the world," he said."
"Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, said "business as usual" intensive farming would not be possible in future because of the fossil fuel costs and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with nitrogen fertilisers. Organic farming could equal and sometimes even exceed the yields of chemical intensive farming systems. "The challenge that global agriculture confronts today is to research and develop these systems, because we are on the threshold of a post-fossil fuel era.""

The right to...olive oil

A new brand of olive oil will soon hit the European market. The "Peace Olive Oil", a joint Israeli-Palestinain-Jordanian venture. Apparently this is the brain child of Shimon Perez. Media and traders in Italy are thrilled with the idea.

What a great opportunity for conscience white wash for the enlightened Northern consumer! Israel kills children in Gaza and Lebanon? No problem: instead of demonstrating and boycotting Israeli goods, let's buy "Peace Olive Oil".

Once and for all, readers from the North, West, East or South. The conflict in Palestine is one over rights: the rights of Palestinians to self-determination, sovereignty, territory, and to live in peace. And NOT over olive oil.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Coca or hash?

"Thousands of farmers are protesting against a toughening of the government's coca eradication drive.
President Alan Garcia has recently announced an open war against the production of cocaine, of which the coca leaf is the basic ingredient.
Peru is the second largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia.
In a few days' time, Mr Garcia will visit President Bush in Washington to try to ratify a free trade agreement which has been thrown into doubt by the Democrat-led congress."

I am in no position to discuss Coca production, Shining Path and Free Trade Agreements, but I can give you a story about Hashish in Lebanon, and you draw your own conclusions.

Hashish has been a traditional crop of the Bekaa since before Lebanese independence. It is well adapted to the Bekaa because it is a dryland crop (requires no irrigation), has no pests or diseases and needs little fertilization. The high altitude of the Bekaa (1000m and over) means that the UV load is higher, and that the THC content (the stoning ingredient) is high. But most importantly, Hashish does not have marketing problems, which, you will agree, is a significant boon. I mean this is a classic comparative advantage crop, meant primarily for export, in which the economy of scale is not important and neither is the capital investment, that uses local seeds, and gives jobs to men and women, rich and poor. The great equalizer. So why try so hard to replace it with sunflower (or other ludicrous replacement crops)?

Hashish continued to be a strong crop and to support the livelihoods of the Bekaa people until 1991, when a deal was struck between the Syrians (who oversaw and benefited from the trade) and the US. This was part of the great deal that followed the first Gulf war, and the US green light to Syria to oust Michel Aoun from Baabda.

As a compensation the UN started a five years "crop replacement program" worth 10 millions USD (if I remember well), which failed miserably. There are many reasons for that. One is the UNDP. The other is that it is stupid to expect to replace a crop that turns over billions of dollars every year with a couple of millions of dollars per year. These people have no sense of scale.

The Syrians kept their tight grip on the hashish growers, who became increasingly poor (and sad). This had serious impacts on children's education (schooling fees), standards of living, and...the state of the forests: in the absence of cash, people went back to logging the oak forests, and denuded them completely.

The people of the Bekaa kept planting Hash. The Syrian army would wait till the crop emerges then embark in a crop destruction campaign. Every now and then, when the relationship with the US would get tense, the Syrians would allow the crops to mature, and the world hash market would receive Red Lebanese (a bit like Beaujolais Nouveau). There were a couple of years like that in the Hariri era, when the farmers were floated back because the crops were harvested.

I'm not sure what the situation is going to be like this year. But the Bekaa people are getting increasingly restless. And the world hash market too.

Someone will need to tell me one day why the US is so adament on not letting the Lebanese plant hash when they allow it in some US states.

And why they turn a blind eye to Morocco, and give pharmaceutical licences to Turkey.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why we should NOT buy food from supermarkets

"On the face of it, Britain's food market works firmly against the interests of the farmer.
For more than 90% of the population, a supermarket is the main or sole place of shopping; supermarkets now corner the market not just in microwave curries and sun-dried tomatoes, but in basic commodities such as cheese and eggs.
This gives them tremendous bargaining power, says Stuart Thomson of English Farming and Food Partnerships, a quasi-government body which aims to make British agriculture more competitive.
"There's a massive chain between the producer and the consumer," he says.
"The farmer is the weakest link."
By focusing heavily on price, supermarkets have helped shunt aside many local producers: British farming output has actually fallen over the past decade, despite a near-50% increase in overall food consumption.

"Nor are supermarkets always sensitive in the way they wield this power, farmers say.

"I have never had to deal with such a penny-pinching bunch of bastards in all my life," says one Dorset farmer who does not want to be named.
"They see farmers as victims, not business partners."
Hyperbole aside, farmers have rational grounds for beefing.
The supply chains they sell into are troublingly opaque: for every pound's-worth of food sold retail, farmers earn on average 34 pence - a share that has dropped by 28% since the late 1980s - and accounting for the remaining 66 pence is far from easy."

And the situation is exactly the same in Lebanon. When we still thought that selling organic food to supermarket was going to improve the livelihood of the small producers, we engaged into a broad marketing campaign with a number of large outlets. We eventually settled on Monoprix which has, in France, a policy of support for sustainable development (no doubt to attract customers in need of a conscience white wash). The experience was terrible. I used to take the produce myself sometimes, and I can vouch that farmers (me included) were treated like dirt. The guy in charge of purchasing would make us wait for hours outside, in the rain or in the sun, until he finished his lunch and all his burps. He would then come out and say "today I'm only buying so much". There would be more merchandise than he needed, and he would use that to drive the prices to the ground. He would also look at the produce, declare it spoiled or rotten, and give his price, often well below market price. The farmers who had come a long way, and who did not want to lose the business, would sell for the cheapest prices. Note that the supermarket sale prices are also very low, because the sale of cheap fresh produce is an attractant for families to come and buy other food stuff, ususally imported manufactured food where the profit margin is way higher. Supermarkets deal differently with large providers, usually middle men themselves. They agree on prices, but every now and then they impose "promotion" prices on them. They ask them to sell their produce way below market prices so that they themselves can offer it as a promotion item and advertise it widely. This also attracts customers. They also ask them (as they did for our organic produce) to pay an initiation fee so that they display our produce.

Needless to say, we stopped selling through supermarkets very quickly. Today we have a small shop and a stall in the farmer market and 100 subscribers to a CSA program and farmers are doing much better.

Chairman Mao said: "Each solution carries its own problems"

"A computer model set up to simulate air quality in 2020 found that in some areas ozone levels would increase if all cars were run on bioethanol.
Deaths from respiratory problems and asthma attacks would increase with such levels, the researchers reported in Environmental Science and Technology. "We found that using E85 will cause at least as much health damage as gasoline, which already causes about 10,000 premature deaths annually from ozone and particulate matter," said Jacobson.
"The question is, if we're not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels." "(Thanks Rania)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Farming USA

"The two companies announced Monday that they were forming an alliance to produce and market diesel fuel made from pork, poultry and beef fat. It was another sign that farmers and agribusinesses, which are now producing corn for ethanol, will be playing an increasingly large part in the country’s energy future. The new brew should be available at the neighborhood filling station by the end of the year."

Try convincing me there is no conspiracy against the poor!

"The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued this month, confirms that global warming puts large parts of the world at risk from the biblical woes of famine, flood and disease. The places most at risk are those that are already poor – sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. "

Ethnic food consumption diaspora communities

I've always thought that the Lebanese diaspora should be the best market for exported Lebanese produce (I know the whole concept of long distance trade and export is very controversial and I have written about it elsewhere (Roots of inequality), but when there has to be trade, then trade should benefit the poor and the small holder). Export of Lebanese produce should target the diaspora, and the diaspora should require assurance that the produce they buy is fairly produced and fairly traded (good, clean and just). This only requires a small push: this report from the UK:
"A decision by supermarkets to stock eastern European food to cater for the UK's fast-growing Polish community has paid handsome rewards, with Tesco reporting Polish food to be the fastest-growing ethnic minority range it has ever launched.
Tesco, along with Sainsbury and Asda, introduced Polish foods last year to cater for Polish immigrants, who have been pouring into Britain since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Official figures put the number of Polish immigrants at 350,000, although at least 600,000 are believed to be living in the UK."

How to destroy a country with WTO

"Now, after centuries of surviving on fish such as the tuna and shrimp that thrive in Pakistan's coastal waters, many traditional fishing communities are facing ruin as the sea is stripped bare by foreign trawler fleets and industrial overfishing.
According to trade campaigners, it is a story that is being replicated in poor fishing communities in developing countries across the world. And as the current round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations splutter back to life, the demise of Pakistan's fishing communities is being held up as a warning of the impact that the moves to further liberalise global fishing could have on some of the world's most deprived communities."

Read this absolutely frightening account of how the fishing stocks of Pakistan are being depleted by the joint action of a corrupt and subservient government, WTO trade rules and World Bank development projects. By the way, the situation in Yemen is exactly the same, but there is no ActionAid working there! Yemen has one of the richest fish stocks and it is quickly being depleted by industrial fishing and trawling, many of which originate from China. When I visited Socotra a few years back, I was told by the local fishermen that their fish takes have declined by 100% in a few years, since the "rediscovery" of Socotra and its transformation into a nature reserve. Similar stories were told to me in Hodeidah where the trawlers drag their nets over the coral reefs and destroy them. They remove large quantities of fish, but they only keep the "precious" species that fetch a high price on the market. They throw the dead "cheap" fish back into the sea. So one trawler may bring in 100 tons of fish, but to do that, they will have to kill 300 tons of fish, not counting the irreparable damage to the corals. Corrupt Yemeni politicians issue permits to the trawlers who act in impunity.

Fair trade and climate change

"Tesco's announced last month that it would try to reduce air-freighted produce from 3% to 1% of its total. Much of this comes from developing countries which stand to lose billions from our new-found concern for the planet. About £7m every day, or £3bn a year, from our supermarket shop goes to developing countries - twice as much as the UK gave in debt relief last year. Most fairly traded products arrive by ship; but we shouldn't necessarily base our ethical buying choices on how goods arrive."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

They admit it, but they won't change!

Speaking to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings this weekend, François Bourguignon, the bank's chief economist, said a long-running debate about whether aid was effective had led to an emphasis on delivering aid to countries with stable governments and ignoring others."The community has to some extent been obsessed by the effectiveness of aid and there has been a move towards making aid selective and allocating it to countries where aid would work. But in making progress in that direction, we simply forgot countries where governance is weak," he said, adding that the challenge now was to help fragile states.

New book on the future of farming

here's an exerpt from a review of Colin Tudge's new book: Feeding people is easy. Highly recommended. tudge is a frequent contributor to New Scientist, and he argues here for "enlightened capitalism" but against "the devil-take-the-hindmost variety" that prevails today. According to Tudge, the only way to overcome this malign ideology is to circumvent it - by producers and consumers who co-operate until enlightened agriculture attains critical mass.
"What we must do, he says, is to adopt what he calls ”enlightened agriculture”. This means traditional mixed farming. With minimal mechanisation and use of artificial chemicals, such farms are more efficient - in terms of energy inputs and outputs - than modern high-tech farms. By joyous coincidence, the output of an enlightened farm closely matches the ideal input of the healthy human: ”plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety”. This mix in turn is the basis of the world’s great traditional cuisines; feeding people can indeed be easy. And because enlightened agriculture is labour-intensive, it gives people something more worthwhile to do than crowding up mega-cities."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Trickle down economics at work in Bengladesh

"Amal sells his black tiger prawns to middlemen for 500 Taka (about £3.50) per kilo. But just 10 kilometres away the middlemen sell them at a wholesale market in Khulna for 700 Taka (about £5). Needless to say, if Amal tried to bypass the middlemen, the musclemen would come knocking."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lebanon's WTO accession: more poverty (for most), more wealth (for a few)

Didn't I tell you that Howayyek was a man to watch? Here he chastises the Lebanese Government for excluding the farming community from the WTO preparation meetings. He also exposes ultra liberal policies and market fundamentalism for what they are: policies aimed at making the poor poorer, and the rich richer.

Similar article in French from L'Orient-LeJour (Thanks MsLevantine!)

More people grow their own food in Britain. Less people allowed to grow food in Lebanon

The world is moving. People are changing. New lifestyles are emerging. More and more Europeans (and Britons!) are trying to break free from the gfrip of the super market, and are becoming small producers (many of them organic) on allotments made availeble to them by local government. "The reasons given for the shift to vegetable growing in the most urbanised country in Europe range from a political desire to not be beholden to large supermarkets, to a new awareness about healthy food and the environment, and deep dissatisfaction with industrially grown food.
"It's the fact that chefs are beginning to take up the idea of healthy foods and concern over chemicals," said Mr Stokes. "Fifty years ago people turned to vegetable gardening to save money. Now it's for fresh food and lifestyles.""

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the government and the merchant ruling class are still trying their best to destroy the small farming sector. Growing one's food is blasphemous in Lebanon. It goes against the precepts of the Market God.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Roots of Inequality

Lebanon’s cultural and environmental heritage is deeply rooted in its rural society. Our food traditions, our folklore and our landscape are kept alive by small family farmers. As rural people become impoverished and marginalized, they leave their lands, and our culture, society and environment erode. This has tremendous implications: poverty creates despair, which is conducive to political violence. The dissolution of the ties between people and land creates nations of passers-by, countries with employees but without citizen. This is a great part of Lebanon’s problem.

If it’s any consolation, all countries of the Mediterranean basin (and most countries of the world) have experienced the same deruralization phenomenon, coupled with the fragmentation of farm property and the decline of rural society. Countries of the North Mediterranean (Spain, France, Italy…) have developed and implemented policies to deal with the problem, with a certain measure of success. Countries of the South Mediterranean are still struggling with the issue, and their situation appears to be desperate. They have been unable to reduce the number of the rural poor in spite of the adoption of policies that favor agriculture. Why?

Analysts have studied the causes underlying the breakdown of small holder family farming and the resulting impoverishment and migration in many developing nations (see International Commission of the Future of Food and Agriculture). There is general agreement that these can be attributed to a set of interdependent national and international issues. Prominent among them are: poor governmental support services to agriculture, especially to the small holder; insecure land tenure; and the adoption of the neo-liberal economic policies package built around free trade and market fundamentalism. All of these apply unquestionably to Lebanon.

Trade-based agriculture, based on “comparative advantage” and “export-oriented agriculture”, has been Lebanon’s approach to food way before the IMF adopted the approach as part of its structural adjustment package. The founding fathers (mostly bankers and merchants) saw Lebanon as a big trading agency. They fought in parliament for minimal taxation on imports of food and other products, in order to increase the volume of trade and their own profits. Although they looked down at rural people, they were not opposed to farming per se: they invested in silk production, which required the planting of large areas of mulberry trees to replace the traditional food systems. They imported wheat and other foods and sold them to the farmers. And when the “allied” blockade was imposed on Beirut during WWI, and trade routes were cut, tens of thousands of rural poor died from famine and malnutrition because, unlike silk worms, they could not eat mulberry leaves. This caused a massive wave of migration and immigration which heralded the new urban Lebanon. Eventually, the silk trade died, and so did the mountain. Sometime in the 1950’s apple orchards started replacing mulberries as a crop for export to the emerging oil economies. This was successful in the 1960’s and 70’s, until global trade intensified. Today, Lebanese apple growers compete with US apple producers on the Lebanese market!

One would think that food export would be a good way to even out the hopelessly ailing import-export balance of Lebanon, and to inject hard currency into the country. This is only partly true. While the potential impact of food exports on the balance is likely to remain small (the gap is several orders of magnitude wide), there are many disastrous drawbacks to an agricultural strategy based on export. Producing efficiently for export requires a critical mass of assets including land, capital and knowledge that is beyond the vast majority of the small landholders, family farmers. Large-scale, export-oriented agricultural production is built on monocultures, which cause tremendous environmental damage due to the abuse of agrochemicals and to their impact on biodiversity. It is also a major cause of social dislocation, as poor rural people are driven out of farming to become underpaid farm workers who do not benefit from any form of social security, and to whom labor laws do not apply. It favors large, dehumanized agribusinesses at the expense of small farming communities. Export-oriented farming is good for business, but only that of a few people.

Intrinsic to the concept of export-oriented production is the notion of “comparative advantage”. This is something we love to brag about in Lebanon, without really capturing the implications. Due to a combination of environmental, technical and economic reasons, some countries can produce food commodities more competitively than others. The country in question is then encouraged to produce more of this specific commodity for export, while importing basic food commodities produced elsewhere. Syria has standards of living and incomes that are lower than Lebanon. It has mountains, plains, water, cheap labor and state subsidies for agriculture. It is mostly a rural nation. Syria therefore has serious comparative advantages over Lebanon. In principle, we should not complain about the “dumping” of food products from Syria, because we practice a liberal trade policy. Cheap imports from Syria (or Jordan) reduce the cost of food, which is, in theory, good for the consumer. In fact, it turns out that Syria is not one of our major food import partners. It is however one of our main food export partners (we export to and through Syria). Our 3 main food import partners are: The US, France and Germany (FAO data, country profiles). They are the countries that have the most comparative advantage over us. They sell us most of the food we eat.

Farmers in industrialized countries such as our major import partners acquire their comparative advantage through state subsidies. The EU and the US agricultural subsidies are widely recognized as the biggest source of distortion to the world food trade; resulting in the catastrophic collapse of smallholder farming in developing countries (Oxfam has a long standing campaign on the issue). For example, in 2005, the EU paid €300m a year to tomato processors mainly in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, representing 65% of the value of the entire crop. This enabled them to be the world’s leading exporters of tomato paste. The EU also subsidized its fruit-juice processing industry, mainly in Italy and Spain, at a rate of more than 300%, or €250m a year. Growers from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and South Africa could have earned $40m a year more if the EU removed its subsidies and the world juice price rose by just 5% (Oxfam data).

Yet, both governmental policies (when they exist) and international aid to developing countries, including aid to Lebanon, continue to base their projects on the production of commodities for export based on “comparative advantage”, while promoting imports from the industrialized countries. Recently, the Lebanese agricultural private sector (represented by the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, to which most small farmers do not have access), together with the Ministry of Agriculture agreed on a six points program to revive agriculture. Each one of these points is about improving exports, with not a single mention of the small holder family farmer. Needless to say, the large agribusiness operators are thrilled!

Civil society activists in the Industrialized North are constantly lobbying for a fairer trade environment for the developing nations. The final declaration of the Euromed Civil Forum in 2006, included a strong call to give the Mediterranean Partner Countries (Lebanon included) the right to protect their food security, instead of insisting on “reciprocity” in on-going and future trade negotiations. Meanwhile, we in the developing nations enter into “reciprocal” trade agreements that cannot be advantageous to us. Take the European Partnership Agreement, which Lebanon signed 5 years ago. The agreement opens up our markets after a grace period of 5 years to food products from the EU, with taxes not exceeding 5%, while the EU opens its markets as soon as the agreement is signed (reciprocity). With a small proviso: Lebanese products have to abide by EU quality standards and to work around Brussels’s bureaucracy. No small producer can satisfy these requirements! But wait, there is worse: the EU is not one of our main food export partner, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are. The EU is however our second most important food import partner! So we have agreed to open our markets to countries from which we already import food by the billions. In return, they have agreed to open their markets to us, a country that does not, and will not easily, export to them. That is a sweetheart deal! No wonder they gave us 10 million Euros to “improve the sector” in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture! They’ll get their money back in one week, and the large Lebanese agribusiness companies will be able to increase their wealth. Meanwhile, the small holder farmers will continue to get poorer because these policies do not target them directly and effectively.

Herein lies the great paradox of agriculture, farming and rural society: support to agriculture as an economic sector via market-fundamentalist policies, without distinguishing between poor and rich can increase the returns from the sector, but it will creates more inequalities. As a matter of fact, research (by the World Bank!) has shown that in countries where land is distributed unequally (as in Lebanon), policies to increase agricultural income can cause more inequality in income distribution, if the poor are not adequately targeted (Adams, 1999). This is attributed to the fact that inadequate land distribution pushes the poor out of the agricultural sector and into the non-farm sector, and leaves the rich to benefit from sectoral support. Indeed, the beneficiaries of such policies are often big landowners producing crops aimed at mass marketing and for export. They are those who have most benefited from IDAL’s Export-Plus program and the Kafalat government supported loan programs. In Lebanon, we use the taxes from the poor to subsidize the rich. No wonder the poor are upset!

This article was previously posted on Ms Levantine.

US food aid: OK, as long as it serves business

"Representative Tom Lantos, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, warned last year at a food aid conference in Washington that decoupling food aid from American maritime and agribusiness interests was “beyond insane.”
It is a mistake of gigantic proportions,” he said, “because support for such a program will vanish overnight".

Over the past three years, the same four companies and their subsidiaries — Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge and the Cal Western Packaging Corporation — have sold the American government more than half the $2.2. billion in food for Food for Peace, the largest food aid program, and two smaller programs, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Shipping companies were paid $1.3 billion over the same period to move the food aid overseas, the department’s figures show. Nonprofit groups received over $500 million in donated American food, which they sold at market rates in developing countries to raise money for antipoverty programs, according to the international development agency, and a recent study by Emmy Simmons, a retired agency official."

NYT article, complements Disillusionment in Development.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The true face of Lebanon's WTO accession

"...Lebanon will begin its third round of negotiations for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva next month, but civil society groups fear that the costs of accession could far outweigh the benefits of increased access to Western markets in the absence of a clearly defined national development strategy." ..."Last November the United States signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement- essentially a memorandum of understanding for a future FTA -with Lebanon under what Oxfam believes to be a broader strategy to establish a consistent trade regime tilted toward US interests in a base of middle-income countries, said the NGO's policy officer for the Levant, Aiman Mackie." Read also how Minister of Trade Sami Haddad is trying to sneak Free Trade Agreements with the US behind the backs of the Lebanese people. Full story in this good article from Daily Star staff writer Lysandra Ohrstrom.

WTO or bust! Haddad strikes again

Throughout the world activists are opposing WTO rules as unfair and detrimental to food, farming and rural society. Then comes Minister of Trade Sami Haddad who never misses an opportunity (see previous posts for his latest achievements). He is now trying to convince the poor that joining the WTO, which he predicts will be for next year, will mainly benefit... the poor. Except, he says, some people employed in the non competitive sectors who will lose their employment. Read this Al Safir article for more details.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Bumper winter crop in Jordan

Farmers from Jordan's bread basket, the Ghor valley (200 m below sea level) are happy: due to late rainfall, this has been their best year in the past 10 years, and harvests are exceeding expectations. The relatively higher prices of produce in Jordan (see post below) mean that small (and large) farmers will actually make some extra money this year, which will allow them to repay their debts. I wonder: bumper yields in Jordan, at lower production cost than Lebanon; does this mean the Lebanese market will be flooded with Jordanian produce? Not if the agricultural calendar holds. But trust Minister of Trade Sami Haddad to find a way to remove the trade restrictions graciously offered by Jordan to protect the Lebanese farmers. All this to please the Market God.

China: corporate agribusiness vs small farmer

"...the introduction of industrial agriculture raises difficult questions about the status of land ownership in rural China. This has become an explosive issue in recent years as property has been seized to make way for factories and apartments. If farmers are bullied off their land to make way for larger operations, the advance of agribusiness could add to already simmering social tensions and accelerate migration to the fast-growing cities." Industrial agriculture has started to boom in China, at the hands of international corporations. This article in the Financial Times looks at how "the introduction of agribusiness could open the way to further abuses of small farmers that might aggravate rural poverty and social tensions". It does not however address other very critical issues associated with industrial agriculture, such as the dilapidation of resources and other deleterious environmental impacts. Worth reading.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Aid: quality or quantity?

"Donors also remain intrusive, cumbersome and rivalrous in their giving. Far from slipping money quietly under doors, they are forever inviting themselves in to nose around." Read this article from the Economist to complement Disillusionment in Development.

Support to the Lebanese farmers? Not this government! Part II

I'm in Amman. Could someone please inform minister of trade Sami Haddad that the Al Ghad newspaper is running a front page article about the high prices of fruits and vegetables in Jordan. Maybe he negotiated without realising it an agricultural calendar for Jordan too?

Support to the Lebanese farmers? Not this government!

A few weeks ago, the Arab Socio-Economic Council agreed to exceptionally lift the GAFTA free trade rules on Lebanon and to allow the Lebanese government to place some seasonal restrictions on the import of fruits and vegetables (the Agricultural Calendar). This was meant as a show of solidarity with Lebanese farmers after the Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006. Minister of Trade Sami Haddad gloated about this achievement in the media and attributed it to his unique negotiating skills. I thought then that this was really a (welcome) surprise as Haddad would rather be crucified than commit blasphemy against the Free Market, and provide any form of support to the farming community. Sure enough, he reneges his own doing at the first opportunity, and blames the Calendar for the food price hike in Lebanon (caused by his hoarding merchant pals). But Antoine Howayyek, the head of the farmer's union wouldn't let him get away with it. A man to watch, Howayyek.

Agriculture/Environment linkages

Yes, farming can protect the environment. Yes farmers can be the stewards of the environment. But not ALL farming is envvironmentally sound, and not ALL farmers practice stewardship. Pity that this FAO review did not clearly differentiate between farming systems and small producers vs large agribusinesses. Stil worth a read.

Nomad's land

"No one is saying we should all be nomads, but the lifestyle has its advantages. Nomadic herders, such as the Maasai in east Africa, make better use of the land than their farming cousins, says a report released last week by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The pastoral lifestyle also helps combat climate change."

Where do you stand on GMOs?

Are GMOs the future? What are the potential dangers? Is European campaigning against GMOs just another face of the agricultural trade dispute between the US and Europe? A continuously updated report by John Pickrell in New Scientist. Check also the archives and the links.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

How fair is fair trade?

Fred Pearce looks at the reality of fair trade coffee direct from mount Kilimandjaro. Is it fair to buy a pound of coffee for $1.46 from the small producer when the retail price in britain is $ 12? Is it fair to use the fair trade label when the difference in purchasing price between the "Fair Trade" labelled coffee and the regular coffee is only 20 cents per pounds (coffee market price is $1.26 per pound)? Is fair trade only a conscience white wash?

Pray to Robigus

ck to enlarge picture to see how Lebanon is on the path of the Black Stem Rust fungus. The fungus can destroy whole fields of wheat and caused famines throughout history to the extent that Romans prayed to a special Rust God, Robigus. The fungus wiped out 40% of US wheat production in 1954, and was stockpiled as a biological weapon by both he US and the USSR during the cold war. Green Revolution scientists bred Rust-resistant wheat varieties, which became used thoughout the world. A new, virulent and resistant strain was discovered in Uganda in 1999, moved to Yemen, and is now expected to show up in the Levant. The famines that were banished by the advent of disease-resistant crops in the Green Revolution of the 1960s could return, Borlaug told New Scientist.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Disillusionment in Development

Disillusionment in Development

A talk given at the Sociology Café by Dr. Rami Zurayk

In limbo

If you Google “Disillusionment in Development” you get more then a million hits. Most articles, posts and analyses raise similar issues. The following is a typical account by the disillusioned, excerpted from an interview with David Korten, a leading anti-globalization activist, at a conference on Local Living Economies in the US in June 2006

“I spent 30 years in international development in Ethiopia, Central America and Southeast Asia on a mission to end rural poverty by disseminating U.S business methods. And what I came to realize was that every place development seemed to touch, it was excluding more people, deepening poverty, resulting in environmental destruction and breaking down the social fabric. And the more I reflected on that, the more I came to realize that’s actually a consequence of development models driven by corporate interests. One of the most basic aspects of economic development is that every project needs to be evaluated on which design choice will maximize financial return. As I began to look at development projects, they usually involved driving poor people off their land and giving the resources to people who were already better off.”

Korten addresses key issues here, all related to the central tenets of the neo-liberal economic model: US business methods, corporate interests, and maximal financial rates of return. Because of this, he says, development projects often worsen poverty. This made him move towards Local Action.

My own experience in Yemen, Lebanon and the other countries where I have worked (Algeria, Bahrain) seem to confirm Korten’s as well as other reports. Over time, I have found that:

1. Project benefits ended with project’s end.
2. In most cases, only the local elite who were already endowed with assets and capital could really benefit from our interventions.
3. The number of TRUE beneficiaries was dismally small.
4. We developed professional expertise in management, report writing, massaging statistics, evaluation and self evaluation, but lost commitment and motivation. It became a job, but one that held high moral grounds.
5. In 20 years, our projects have “touched” hundreds, impacted tens and changed the lives of a few. This is the scale we work on.

And we have learned very little: each time we get offered money to “do development” we end up doing the same type of projects, knowing full well that it will only make a small difference at the end.

Neither Korten nor I are the first to look critically at development and development aid, and ask whether it actually serves any purpose. In a recent book on the topic, Chakravarti (2005) reports that aggregate data from studies in over 100 countries between the 1970’s and the 1990’s show no significant effect of development aid on growth. Other horizontal studies report some very small positive effects, mostly in countries with a strong policy framework.

Things are so bad that vanguard academic institutions are already looking for a replacement. The following quote is taken from the promotion web page of a program called Beyond Development at Brown University in the US:

“Development is Dead-or so it is often said. Post-modern and Post-colonial scholarship of all kinds argues that the entire development enterprise was little more than an extension of control from the powerful elite to the rest of the world. Globalization advocates and the powerful Bretton Woods institutions claim that only worldwide free markets produce increases in wealth and that any other attempts to create development are doomed to fail. Aid practitioners and policy makers admit that development aid tends to become part of deeply political processes of exclusion and violence, thus failing to produce development.”

Development is dead. No wonder we’re in limbo.

Why this talk?

Only a handful of the million or so hits from Google originate from, or address issues in, the Arab world. The aim of this talk is to contribute to the global debate, through a critical self analysis of nearly 20 years of development action in Lebanon and the Arab World; and to pave the way to a larger-scale introspective exercise by the Arab development community, with the ultimate goal of coming up with alternative ways of doing things.

Why is the Arab World (and especially Lebanon) interesting?

When I refer to “the Arab World” in the talk, I will mean the countries of the Mashrek and the Maghreb, in addition to Yemen. Other countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Gulf countries) will not be addressed: their economic environment is too different. The countries I am focusing on have many shared characters: There is a dearth of real social policies, especially since most have adopted the International Monetary Fund’s package of structural reforms. Thus, they rely on aid money for development, which increases their dependence on the North. Arab nations are often economically and politically manipulated and their leadership subservient to the North. Corruption is rife, and nepotism is the rule. Our nations are in the crucible of the New Middle East, according to the Bush doctrine: Democracy without Sovereignty and Order without State. Added to that is the existence of strong religious currents, many of whom are involved in development (but that I will not address here).

Of more specific relevance to this talk is the observation made by Samir Taher - an Iraqi writer and poet living in Sweden - about the Arab Left and Development (Al Aadab Jan-Feb 2007). Taher quotes the Arab Organisation for Culture and Science on the number of illiterate people in the Arab World: 70 million in 2005, twice the world average. The largest number of illiterate people is in Egypt followed by Sudan. This is especially interesting when one considers that Egypt is the second largest recipient of US development aid after Israel (nearly $1 billion a year not counting another billion and a half in military aid). Taher blames the passivity and the detachment of the Arab Left from development issues for the current disastrous situation.

Lebanon, a sectarian state, is especially interesting because it is a country of hidden inequalities. It is little known that Lebanon has one of the highest inequality ratios in the world for land (Gini Coefficient of 0.69) and income (Gini Coefficient of 0.57). Moreover, in Lebanon, 0.5% of the people own 50% of the arable land; 30% of the Lebanese live in poverty; and 10% are destitute (approximately 400,000 people). There are 200,000 farmers, representing at least one million people, of whom 40% are too small to even get on the Lebanese market (data from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Development: a hold all concept.

It is not the purpose of this talk to debate the meaning of development. Academics and development institutions have invested massive amounts of time doing that, and the general outcome of their cogitation has been that development is a hold all concept. For the sake of simplicity, I will use Barbanti’s (2004) approach, which refers to development interventions as those actions that are intended to move societies and people from a situation in which they are believed to be worse off, to situations in which they are assumed to be better off, while acknowledging the controversy on what determines who is "worse" and who is "better”. I will also focus specifically on those development actions aimed at improving the lot of the rural poor. In Lebanon, as in the rest of the Arab World, the rural poor have, throughout history, traditionally been the most marginalized sector of society.

The Development Triad

I realize that the title of this section carries a value judgment. It is intended to.

Three main actors are involved in doing development. They are: the State, the Donors and the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). There are also other stakeholders like the academic sector, international organizations, and, of course, the local community - which is supposed to be the main actor, but which in reality, is often a passive recipient.

The members of the triad are connected through a variety of linkages, but also via hybrid entities that provide the interface. For example, branches of international NGOs, working alongside national NGOs, often provide mentoring, supervision and control on behalf of donors. The United Nations system, which specializes in technical assistance, is also often an intermediary between donors, state and local recipients. Donors and state can also be linked in projects implemented directly via international consultants placed in ministries. Moreover, the State is connected to the NGO sector institutionally through specialized outfits that manage any subcontracts, such as the Council for Reconstruction and Development (CDR) in Lebanon.

However, the state is also linked to NGOs via a special type of NGO I will call “Ruling Class NGOs”. These include the Hariri Foundation, Issam Fares Foundation, Makhzoumi Foundation, Moawad Foundation, etc… While these are non-governmental organizations or foundations, their main purpose is to promote the image of wealthy politicians, usually members of the government or of the ruling elite. This is Lebanon’s answer to Syria’s oxymoronic Governmental NGOs (GONGOs).

One way to understand our developmental predicament is to look at the role, functions and duties of these 3 main actors and try to see where (and if) things are going wrong. I have reviewed recent obituaries of development from Lebanon and other countries, and I have identified a few pointers that may be of use for us to initiate a debate.

The State: hijacked from the citizen

The Lebanese State (like other Arab states) is sectarian and discriminatory. Politicians and state employees are not accountable. The state also fosters bureaucracy, corruption, clientelism and nepotism. It is incapable and weak. Its employees are incompetent and unwilling to learn. This is the essence of the discourse of both the Left and the NeoLibs. I don’t buy that.

There is no doubt that the Lebanese State gave up on the needy long ago. The rich and ruling go about their business accumulating wealth, which they call “economic growth”. We somehow convince ourselves that trickle down works. Those who are left behind are expected to be picked up by NGOs, sometimes subcontracted by the State. In the best case scenario, the state sees its role as a supervisor, a neutral referee, providing stability and an enabling environment. To what extent does it succeed at that? I leave you to judge.

The problem is not that the State has failed to provide an enabling environment for those who are only too happy to fill in for it. The problem is that the State is increasingly divesting itself of social welfare and basic needs, along with support to the sectors of the poor, like agriculture, or to the marginal regions, like Akkar, Hermel, Baalbeck and the South. These have become the responsibility of NGOs.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the State has no choice, and that, because of its alleged weaknesses, it is not responsible for what it is not doing. In reality, the State is strong in the areas it chooses to be strong in, and weak in areas it treats with disregard. This same State was able to impose the appropriation of the Beirut Central District by a private company. It was able to impose a Value Added Tax and to collect it with a large degree of success. There are many other examples that demonstrate that the neglect of the poor is not caused by an inherent weakness, but by a conscious decision. I do not believe that the state can be exonerated and declared “irresponsible”. It would be too easy.

Donors: money to act but not to think

Before I start this, let me say that not all donors are alike. There is bad and there is worse. I also believe that, to a large extent, we are responsible for the way donors act and operate and impose their visions and their agendas in our countries.

In this talk I will only address the classical donors, those originating from the North or from international organizations such as the United Nations. Although there has been a recent flurry of activity of Arab donors, their interventions are still too fresh to be properly evaluated.

Development aid is the profession of donor organizations. They see development as a set of rational managerial prescriptions. For many beneficiaries in Lebanon, development is a direct transference of Western values, synonymous with “modernization”. Many recipients are trained to think this way: this is part of the package deal. The World Bank, the USAID, the EU and even the UNDP have been known to impose expertise and authority. They have also been accused of silencing alternative voices, promoting a dependent path to development, and keeping their eyes closed to the power imbalance they create. The job needs to be done, and often, these power imbalances are part of the job, and not just an externality.

Donors operate according to a semi-declared agenda related chiefly to politics (USAID) or politics and trade (EU). They impose strict conditions on the employment of consultants (international becomes a euphemism for “from donor country”). They recycle the funds in purchases and employment, and use aid to dump excess food production and distort local markets, with total disregard to citizen’s preference and health.

But things can get more dramatic and more sordid. In the 1980’s, I resigned from my post of country representative of a British NGO in Yemen in the wake of the first Gulf war. I had repatriated all my British staff and hired Arabs to train the Yemenis (which made more sense as they could speak Arabic). The British Ambassador called me and invited me to his office. He reminded me that the British government funded a great part of our projects, and asked me to report to him on any fundamentalist Islamic activities in the villages and in the countryside. Yemen was aligned with Iraq at the time, and the Saudis had retaliated by expelling over a million Yemenis, many of whom had never set foot in Yemen. I resigned from my job. I found out later that many of the British project workers had kept formal and informal contacts with the embassy, which was always informed of the state of restlessness of the natives.

Donors’ generosity is part of a political and ideological offensive. They bring their catechism with them. Some of the chapters are entitled Governance, Gender and Participation. Others are called Marketization, Commodification, Privatization and Liberalization. Many are useful and desirable, at least in some form, but it is the way they are shoved down your throat that makes you gag. Eventually, we end up swallowing them. Perhaps we are convinced with them. Perhaps we are worried about losing a funding opportunity. Perhaps we are too lazy to argue with the donor and come to an acceptable compromise.

Take the issue of cooperative work, a noble goal in itself. However, for some reason, agricultural cooperatives have been very difficult to sustain in Lebanon. But a coop is often a precondition for accessing development aid by small farmers. Driven by our donors’ agendas, we, development workers, coerce poor farmers into creating a cooperative, and they usually passively obey. Once we stop injecting it with funds, the coop dissolves and fades away. Of course, there are some successes, the exception is necessary to prove the rule. But out of the hundreds of coops that were created in the past 10 years, only a few are still functioning. The response of some organizations, like the UNDP, has been to declare forfeit: the Lebanese do not know how to cooperate; it’s not part of their culture, so let’s not support any project requiring people to work together. We fail the participation test.

However, farmers in villages cooperate, but in distinct and specific tasks that have a beginning and an end, like harvest, repair of a roof, or building of a house. With the coops, we have been trying to engage them in long term, open ended cooperation with duties and responsibilities defined by laws. When it did not work, we just gave up. Nobody explored the third way, based on indigenous practices.

There are two other areas in which donors strongly impinge on the development process: de-development (also called undevelopment) and the issue of food and agriculture. Both are highly relevant to this talk.

The concept of de-development must be quite old, probably since Tamerlain burned all of Baghdad’s libraries (along with most of the city) in 1258 AD, heralding new dark ages. But we only started writing about it in the wake of the first Gulf war, when the US bombed Iraq with the intent and purpose of destroying its economic and industrial infrastructure. In his memoirs, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf reveals that Richard Armitage who was then US deputy secretary of state threatened to “bomb Pakistan 20 years back” if Pakistan did not join the war against the Taliban in 2001. Yehuda Olmert, not someone known for his creativity, used the same formula when threatening Lebanon in July 2006. With the help of Lebanon’s main development aid donors, the US, the EU, and the complacent UN, he nearly achieved that. This, of course poses the great question of whether net development aid should be calculated as the sum of positive development aid (funded with millions of USD to Lebanon) and negative development aid (funded with billions of USD to the Israeli war machine), in which case simple arithmetic will reveal why the development balance is always negative. Of course, similar, but more dramatic, analyses can be made for Palestine: after the second Intifada, the Israelis went on a rampage, systematically destroying all the small industries and service companies that had been set up with aid or private investments.

But it is in the sector of food and agriculture development that the contradictions of the industrialized North become most flagrant. This is where they drop all pretence of market liberalization and free trade. The North’s agriculture, our main source of food imports (a bill of billions of USD) is heavily subsidized. But the North prohibits countries of the South from even thinking about farm subsidies, whatever the cost may be in terms of poverty and social dislocation. Heavily subsidized agriculture produces surpluses which are dumped on the world markets, distorting prices and preventing small holders in the South from constructing decent livelihoods. Rural development aid from the North is conditional on denying poor farmers any subsidies. Instead, they are encouraged to go swimming into the big World Market sea where the capitalist sharks roam freely. No wonder they get devoured! With the current terms of trade, the small holders cannot even compete in their own country. The Industrialized nations did not develop by treating all economic sectors equally, on the utilitarian basis of rates of financial returns. But this is precisely what they impose on us, with aid as the carrot and sanctions as the stick. “Do as I say not as I did” is the North’s mantra.

NGOs: pleased to oblige

Clearly, NGOs are not one homogeneous body. One can distinguish: 1) local branches of international development corporations, such as World Vision, Mercy Corps and others. They are in the development industry, and to them Lebanon is a business opportunity; 2) the Ruling Class NGOs, and other party political NGOs such as the Hariri Foundation and Jihad al Bina’a. They are aimed at enhancing the image of politicians and at rallying political support in exchange for services; 3) the religious foundations, often an off shoot of a mother organization located elsewhere (Caritas for example). They have their own policy and strategy aligned with the goals of the mother institution, but they can sometimes genuinely engage in pro-poor action; 4) civil society NGOs. They include all organizations that do not fit any of the other 3 categories. Some may be secular (like Green Line), while others may have confessional or sectarian inclinations and may be influenced by local politicians. They are the subject of this talk.

There is no doubt that over the past 20 years, NGOs have significantly contributed to the expansion of the democratic space in Lebanon. Their work has set the stage for action towards a fairer society. In war - as in peace - NGOs have stepped in to replace the State where the State has failed or been absent.

Today there are hundreds of NGOs in Lebanon. Because donor money is the only source of funds, many are affiliated with one or more international development corporation, sometimes to the extent that they lose their independence. In recent years, the most successful among them have become akin to small private businesses, with increased professionalism (which is good), but with decreasing internal democracy and unelected leaderships.

Many NGOs are well meaning in intent and action, but they tend suffer from ideological deficiency. Many describe themselves as apolitical, which allows them to seek and obtain funds from any source. Because they shy away from political analysis, especially from class analysis, they tend to address issues divorced from their cause. But how can one combat poverty just by addressing its symptoms and without challenging the root causes of inequality?

The apoliticisation of NGOs is one of the main hindrances to effective development and change. It pushes NGOs towards the path of least resistance, which is single issue campaigning. This limits their capacity to develop holistic vision, to create effective action networks, and to build solidarity with other movements, such as the workers’ unions, that share the same ultimate goals.

In today’s Lebanon, and at a time when sectarian polarization is at its apogee, the disappearance of NGOs from the political scene is especially worrying.. When a group of 12 NGOs called for an anti-war protest in Beirut on March 3, 2007, only 200 people showed up. Where were the secular NGOs? Why aren’t they mobilizing against sectarianism? A few weeks ago, the Paris-3 reform document, a neo-liberal manifesto, was passed without raising a single NGO eyebrow. How many of the NGOs working to alleviate rural poverty have taken a position on the Paris-3 reform package? How many are campaigning for progressive taxation on the rich, and for wealth redistribution through increased provisions for the poor? How many are aware of and oppose the unequal trade agreements our governments have signed on behalf of our children? These are the real issues and the real problems in combating poverty.

Many NGOs have been very active in development action. But many are also driven by donors’ agenda and obscured by their apolitism. These have become, willingly or not, advocates of the neo-liberal economic package of trade liberalization, market fundamentalism and the commodification of resources. We know, by looking at the industrialized North, that this package cannot help the poor and the marginalized, and that affirmative action has to be taken to seriously address issues of inequality. It is impossible to support the poor while at the same time supporting the very policies that make them poor. NGOs will have to make a choice here.

It is time for us, who work in development, to review and redefine our principles and our core beliefs. We have to decide where we stand on the crucial issues that are shaping today’s world: globalization, free trade, protectionism, dumping and market distortions. And we need to harmonize our actions with our principles. Civil society activists in the Industrialized North are constantly lobbying for a fairer trade environment for the developing nations. The final declaration of the Euromed Civil Forum in 2006, included a strong call to give the Mediterranean Partner Countries (Lebanon included) the right to protect their food security, instead of insisting on “reciprocity” in on-going and future trade negotiations. Meanwhile, development NGOs in Lebanon and the Arab World go about their work in expanding economic opportunities without daring to challenge the neo-liberal agenda of their donors.

Conclusion: towards an action agenda

We, in Lebanon, are going through the same prise de conscience other activists are experiencing in Seattle, Rio, Dakar and Bangkok following their disillusionment with corporate development. This has to be looked at positively in order to use it as a catalyst for change. New paths have been cleared by the new development community, and they appear to be promising. The focus is today on international solidarity based on equality of status between organizations and people, rather than on the classical paternalistic donor-recipient relationship. Development action is being refocused towards strengthening local economic networks, defending the right to produce food and the right to fair markets. In this new vision, for example, smallholder farming is not an economic nuisance, but an environmentally conserving activity and a social safety net for the rural poor. Development action is also being harmonized with political activism. The rationale is simple: if we are fighting poverty, we cannot partner with the system that creates it. We need to oppose such systems and confront them and to lobby the State to adopt appropriate policies.

We cannot afford to give up on the state, for it is the only entity that can take our pilot successes and upscale them into successful programs. We need to scrutinize donors and donors’ agendas, and make decisions based on principles rather than opportunism. For that we need to review our experience, and develop our new paradigms, in collaboration with like minded activists and militants around the world. We must fight disillusionment with action rather than with despair.

Rami Zurayk
March 15, 2007