“We are not helping Africa and Africans. It is a great self-deception of people with good intentions”. Economist Benny Dembitzer spent 35 years working for official and non-governmental organizations, which empowers him to maintain fierce criticism against dysfunctional governments and rivalry between international organizations. He has just published: The Famine Next Door: Africa is Burning, the North is Watching. Interview. (Translated from Spanish by Alissa D’Vale)
Reading the beginning of your book, J'accuse (I accuse). Is the solution for Africa to be left alone, because of the damage perpetrated by the West from colonization to the present days?
There is no simple solution. We live in a world so complex that even non-intervention – for example on the issue of climate change – will be worse. I make it clear that leaving Africa alone is not the solution. Instead, there should be a change to the way we approach Africa, avoid confrontation.
Is it possible for the West to change the way we see and treat Africa’s countries?
It is possible to change the way you approach them, the way you address them. I advocate a change in understanding: in trying to comprehend that the situation in Africa, its challenges, growing poverty, malnutrition, the number of children born with low weight and who do not recover to live... have an origin and they are perpetuated. That relationship won’t change in a year or two, but it can be done.
What are the first steps?
Make a very clear difference between emergency aid and long-term development because the two are often confused. What the International Red Cross does is wonderful, just like other organizations, but if you give food, you have to accept that people will not grow it, unless you tell them that you are going to buy their harvest or that you are going to help them develop their own food. If you keep giving them, you change the way they have always lived. Furthermore, a distinction must be made between the short-term, which is desperate, and the long-term aid, which must be approached differently.
Doesn’t the existence of international organizations that seek to eradicate hunger help?
The World Food Program (WFP) provides food, but it was not created to help the poor, but to get rid of excess American food. In my book The Famine Next Door: Africa is Burning, the North is Watching, I mentioned four reports in which it appears that in 1963, during the flight that took Eugene McCarthy along with the Secretary of State for Agriculture to Rome to represent the US Government at the annual meeting of FAO, the two were arguing about how to resolve the need to provide more food and to get rid of the US food surplus generated by the guaranteed prices to American farmers. They discussed it during the six-hour flight. Upon landing in Rome, they called President Kennedy and told him that they were going to propose the creation of an institution that would buy surplus food from countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, among others, to give it to countries with a food deficit. And Kennedy gave his consent.
Bill and Melinda Gates spend millions to eradicate malaria, when you say that it is impossible to achieve it. In what degree of deception do you think we live?
There is nothing without consequences, and these are often unexpected. The Gates Foundation has invested millions of dollars to develop cheap vaccines and subsidizes UNICEF by providing them. The number of vaccines in the world has increased, as has their price (around 300%). The problem is that UNICEF has created a chain of refrigerated units, a system to transport them, good control of the system in ports and airports, all fantastic, but this process is not available to other companies or organizations that also want to give vaccines. What is the best interest? That everyone gets vaccinated or accept that the number of people that will be reached will be reduced? It is a diabolical choice.
Strong data provides that: in sub-Saharan Africa, between 6,000 and 8,000 people die every day. In 1980, Africa did not import food: today it invests 35 million euros a year in food. Less than 40% of people have access to treated water. Only 30% have access to hygienic conditions, a figure having grown by just 4% since 1990. Is it a negative view or are things getting worse?
They are getting worse.
How can the situation change?
The solutions are to encourage and support African societies to adopt credit unions and savings systems. Although eye-catching, the figures in Africa are imprecise. For example, DR Congo has not done a census since its independence in the year 1960. We do not know the reality, these are estimates, but extrapolation of data from UN organizations and the African Development Bank indicate that the number of children that are in a situation of famine has not changed much; it is around 40 or 50% in countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania or Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the number of people in absolute poverty, and in a situation of food insecurity, is increasing. They are the ones who do not know if they will eat tomorrow.
Why can’t poverty be controlled?
External factors. Of course, the wars of Boko Haram throughout the Sahel region are a contributory factor. Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has been a disaster zone for decades. Poverty is increasing, and what we believe is improving is what can be measured: the number of kilometers of road, the number of shopping centers, the number of Starbucks…We know that living conditions are worsening in rural areas, that is the reality. But donors don’t want to know it. In Tanzania there is a new law that penalizes those who give negative information which the Government considers pejorative, and they can put you in jail. The truth is very dangerous.
Has the UN and the international community failed?
Yes. But the UN agencies assure that extreme poverty is reduced. Needs are increasing faster than the help we are giving because the causes are cumulative. At the Paris Climate Change Conference, it was said that with an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would reach a catastrophe. In Antarctica they have already exceeded 3 degrees Celsius. In 30 years, there will be no ice, and the same is true in Africa: there is not enough water for a population that keeps growing.
Why are political actions not taken?
Politicians only care about being reelected, not what will happen in 20 years. There are even some like the one with the funny hair [the American Trump or the British Boris Johnson?] who do not look beyond tomorrow. The only ones who can think in the long term are the academic community, civil society – that includes the Churches, unions ... Furthermore, the trust of governments in international institutions is low. When the heads of state meet at the Paris Conference or others, they talk about generalities, they do not resolve anything. Someone should tell them: “You are a bastard, I am not going to help or support you.”
But nobody does that.
Exactly. Much of the aid that governments provide goes to security. They help the coast guard in Libya to prevent people from escaping; they prohibit the ships of the NGOs from acting; they are devoted to the militias, who recruit them to fight against another militia. And besides, there is a slave market in Libya. That is the result of the policies of our governments.
What helps Africa? You point out that for each euro allocated to investment there, 5.5 euros are diverted as dividends, self-interest, corruption, or tax evasion.
The two best examples of reducing inequality and helping self-sufficiency are Rwanda and Ethiopia. But they are not genuine democracies. Rwanda is an absolute dictatorship, and Ethiopia was until recently. Both countries have been able to impose robust agricultural reform with financial support from the Gates Foundation which, for example, has supported Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency which serves 60,000 farmers a year. In the case of Rwanda, Kagame, who has no idea what human rights are, has an excellent Minister of Agriculture who has become the director of AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, based in Nairobi. It is based on the fact that if your roots are in agriculture, whether you are a man or a woman, the land belongs to you when you turn 18.
Is it the price to remain blind to those dictators?
It is how we already are. If we do not deal with issues such as private property or the cultivation of the land, we will not reach the agricultural revolution. Economist John Spiglitz says: “The elites in Africa have not wanted to resolve the issue of land ownership because it could alienate their own supporters, the chiefs of the tribes.” The issue of corruption is much more complicated. There is greedy corruption and corruption of necessity. The first is exemplified by the minister who says that he is going to buy 10,000 MK40 pistols and that you have to put $20 for each of them in his account in Switzerland. Governments, companies and organizations are guilty of keeping him there. And then there is corruption out of necessity, the official who comes and asks me for five dollars for forgetting to put a signature on a document to let me enter the country. I give him the five dollars and then find out that he hadn’t been paid in three months.
Corruption at all levels, it is the system…
Corruption at a very small level is necessary to survive. The poor are at the mercy of the less poor who, in turn, are at the mercy of those who have a little more. It is a cycle.
What changes do you suggest in the way you make decisions?
Governments are the same all over the world. They don’t like honesty. The governments do not confront, they limit themselves to making conferences. In 2003, 51 countries in Africa signed the Maputo Declaration in which they pledged to give 10% of their budgets to agricultural development within a decade. 16 years later, only seven are fulfilling it. They are not serious about agriculture because they get no credit for saying that their country is poor. The only country that admits it is Malawi because donations in aid are 60% of foreign currency.
In 1992 Ethiopia: the unnecessary tragedy, a document beyond the headlines of the moment of the famine was published. Has anything been learned?
There are good intentions, but more and more governments are opting for what Kissinger predicted 25 years ago: Food is going to become a legitimate weapon of war. And the more control there is over food aid, the more power the one in power will have. It is what is happening now.
And more action from the West, to support a transformation from within?
I don’t think it can come from within the system, which is why I am so critical of organizations. It is the Comboni Missionaries and groups of this nature who must shout: “This is not right.” Why not involve them in development operations, setting up cooperatives to produce vegetables, tomatoes, non-chemical production of fertilizers… All that will be developed. But at the moment, we are not engaging the right organizations.
See the original article: La comida será un arma legítima de guerra