Thursday, July 12, 2007

Beyond any drought

A new report discusses NGOs .

The Sahel has long been vulnerable to drought, impoverishment and food insecurity, as the droughts of the mid-1970s, 1980s and 2005 show.In the Sahel, shocks from drought and flood are inevitable, but unpredictable in terms of location and timing, andlargely uncontrollable. The people of the Sahel are thus intrinsically exposed to climatic shocks or hazards.This assumption equates vulnerability with inadequate food production as opposed to food access. The levels of malnutrition seen in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso in 2005 were out of all proportion to the drop in production levels and could not be explained on the grounds of climatic variation alone, [not even in combination with the locust invasion] . Climate does not cause vulnerability. Since independence, development agencies and development programmes have been promising real change in these three incredibly poor countries. Why has this development been unable to break the cycle of poverty ?

Inappropriate aid policies are partly responsible for the Sahel region’s poverty according to a strongly-worded report issued jointly by 10 international NGOs to be released on Wednesday in London. The report, which is called ‘Beyond Any Drought', is supported by a network of high-profile international NGOs including Oxfam, the British Red Cross, CARE International, Save the Children and Action Against Hunger, breaks with the usual positive image of the work of aid agencies to say donor-funded projects in the region are often based on “shallow analyses” that ignore common sense.

More specifically, the report says that donor pressure means aid agencies focus too much on measuring the production of heavy, nutrient-scarce staples like millet and sorghum while ignoring basic economic issues such as whether people can afford to buy them. Nutrition appears as a medical issue rather than an issue of access and power. Food security is too easily seen as a set of technical questions, but is in fact based on profoundly political issues.

The most vulnerable households are highly dependent on the exploitation of common-property natural resources,particularly during drought years. Examples include firewood collection for sale, collection of leaves and other wildfoods for human consumption and for medicine. In northern Nigeria the dependence on wild products is an effective indicator of low levels of wellbeing at household and at community level. Households unable to access common property resources, such as wild foods, are more susceptible to draw on their assets and get into debt.The capacity for local communities to manage common-property resources, such as village forests and water sources,has been eroded through the expropriation of many of these resources by the state. Government agencies put in place to take responsibility for the management of these resources have largely failed. In practice, government departments were reluctant to pass on authority over resources (such as timber from forests) that often provided a valuable source of income, and communities were expected to assume responsibility with very few benefits

The American government’s aid agency USAID is singled out for specific criticism. It undertakes what the report calls “risky” policies including the dumping of thousands of tonnes of American surplus food stocks on the continent. the US Government allocates a budget of $1.2 billion annually to purchase surplus grain for food relief, with the overt objective of creating export markets overseas. This food may be distributed in kind or “monetized”, sold on local markets in exchange for cash to be spent on activities related to emergency relief and recovery. The process is hugely costly and inefficient once transporting and marketing is taken into account. Further, the risks of flooding local markets, depressing the price of grain and thereby undermining local producers’ livelihoods is well known.The report says that CARE, another of the NGOs behind the report, is going to stop accepting USAID food on “ideological and practical” grounds.

In spite of rhetoric around learning, NGOs find it very difficult to apply lessons on the ground. In five or six years there could be a complete change of staff in all the major development agencies, leading to institutional forgetfulness and a lack of profound understanding of the issues. Socialists have a longer memory and know that attempts to tackle Third World poverty will often be thwarted by the international market system and will frequently be foiled by the national ruling class appropriation of the local resources and wealth . The majority of aid organisations develop their programmes “on the basis of their own priorities and their own visions” the report says and when designing aid projects the views of locals are usually ignored . It will be the democratic empowerment of the workers by socialism that will begin to genuinely address the needs of the people of Africa .

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