Bill Gates vows to defeat hunger & diseases in Ethiopia: Could entrenched political interests allow him? –PART I

13 Apr


Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has finally come full circle. Over the decades, he has thrived on controversies, some of which he fostered, and stil does, with unmatched skills and perfect timing. They have served his purpose of staying in power as long to contentedly observe from above his allies and opponents bogged down in endless battles he has masterminded.

The prime minister is better known for his habitual invectives and combativeness — attributes occasionally polished by the intellect of a shrewd politician, whose eyes are on the ball at all times. Fortunately, in the end reality has reigned supreme. For a man with a cat’s life and skills to outsmart others, besides democracy, Ethiopia’s agriculture, whose productivity growth has failed to keep pace with the significant increases in Ethiopia’s population, has proved the fiercest of his challenges.

It took the prime minister two decades to recognize and act, that Ethiopia’s economic woes would worsen the longer the question of food production remained unanswered. Nevertheless, since winning the 2010 election by 99.6 percent, following which he has emerged sole power and his will the law of the empire, the prime minister has finally read right the writing on the wall that he could no longer be able to keep steady the ship of state so long as: (a) agricultural productivity growth refuses to look up, and, (b) the population grows by 3.17 percent annually (CIA, 2012).

This does not mean that the regime has not tried its hand with a few measures. Unfortunately, some of its responses have only been those of statist schools. They only worsened the situation, against the backdrop of poverty, ignorance and uncertainty, bringing upon the rural population vitiations of more sufferings on account of land grabbing and massive dislocations, by now part of national policy and official action.

Since the 2008 global food crisis, those in power in Ethiopia have turned as solution to speculators in commercial agriculture. These are people behind whom are major investment banks, sovereign funds and unregulated finances, grappling toward controlling the global food markets of tomorrow with foods produced on lands in developing countries. This arrangement has reduced our country to booty for aspiring international investors, an action that cannot be justified beneficial economically and strategically i.e., from perspective of Ethiopia’s own long-term interests.

As a matter of fact, the quest for improved productivity and increased agricultural production under these programs only became cause for lost opportunities and waste of resources. The varying polices the prime minister has imposed are mostly recognizable as motley of acronyms, instead of their contributions to the agricultural problems Ethiopia has been confronted with for decades. Some of these policies are:

    • ADLI for agricultural development-led industrialization,

    • PASDEP for generations of the Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty,

    • DRMFS for Disaster Risk Management and Food Security,

    • PIF for Policy and Investment Framework (2010-2020) for agricultural sector, and,

    • FYGTP 2010/11 – 2014/15 for the Growth and Transformation Plan, and etc.

Bill Gates accepts the challenge

Clearly, the watershed in Ethiopia and Bill Gates relations is Meles Zenawi’s serious request for help. Repeating words of the prime minister, Mr. Gates said: “Ok what should we be doing different?” What we now have learned is that, Meles Zenawi has been secretly in contact with Bill Gates, possibly since early 2010 to give him a hand, with small concessions on the table.

Bear in mind that, not long ago the prime minister was making good fist in bravado, the latest one in parliament in February 2012, insulting and harassing ‘the usual suspects’, given once again to insinuations that he has done miracle with Ethiopia’s economy, including its agricultural development.

However, the reality is that for over a year now Meles Zenawi has quietly entrusted the diagnosis and treatment of Ethiopian agriculture to the watchful graces of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who has assembled in Addis Abeba his own team funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

On 4 April, in the Q & A session following his informative presentation at Stanford University, Mr. Gates said, “Fortunately, their leader, President Meles, decided that he needed to raise agricultural productivity. ” He added, “And he [Zenawi] was very nice and turned to our Foundation.”

Of his response to this SOS request for his help, Mr.Gates intimated:

    We went in and looked at it [agriculture] and recommended the creation of a group called the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). One of our people happened to be originally from Ethiopia, [and he] moved to run that. And now we have a team of people, mostly expats from Ethiopia that are over there on an ongoing basis.

The diagnosis by the experts at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has established, in the words of the philanthropist:

    And the way their system worked in terms of getting seeds introduced, how those seeds are priced, how you would buy fertilizers, how you would educate farmers — their agriculture system was not working.

It is understood that the first phase of this exercise would last three to five years, by which time, Bill Gates, who has wholly based his philanthropic work on sciences, has boldly confirmed staking his reputation on agricultural production in Ethiopia doubling, at least by 2015. This is in conformity with the country’s five-year plan, evidently that pronouncement coming as indicator that the Bill Gates’ team must have already been involved in secret already during the formulation stages of the five-year growth and transformation plan (FYGTP).

In hinting on the rationale for accepting the CHALLENGE ETHIOPIA, he spelt out during his presentation stating, “Ethiopia is a very interesting case, because it has more food insecure people who need food aid than any country in the world…If agricultural productivity would go up faster in Ethiopia from a very low-level, then in almost any country over the next three, four years, as they fix these key bottlenecks.”

Through his presentation, one cannot help being convinced that this might eventually be for the good of Ethiopia, its smallholder agriculture, with 15 million holders (CSA, 2011). They would benefit both from latest sciences and reforms following in their track. By all indications, Gates and Zenawi have had a number of encounters for the former to be able to remark about the latter ‘being always open-minded…’

It goes without saying that the billionaire and our time’s leading standard-bearer of international philanthropy must have accepted to work with Ethiopia, firmly convinced about his capacity to make a difference in the sad conditions of a huge portion of humanity across the planet. He has armed himself with the latest data about what is possible on a global level, which he has learned to apply to specific country situations.

His view is informed by the realization that we live in a world, where 135 million people are born every year, of which 60-65 million die within the same year. Obviously, this is because of diseases and hunger. Therefore, his conviction is directed to conquering these problems. He said in so many words, once that is achieved, everything else would fall in place — education, jobs, better future for everyone, etc. All that is needed is governments, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations and philanthropists like himself working together to get ahead of diseases and hunger.

Scientifically based determination as this is, he has no worries about the implications of these victories, say for instance, in the form of longer life for everyone. He is persuaded that population growth for the next 25 years would level off. This, he said, is because when parents realize that offspring would live longer, there would be no need for them to beat death and deprivation with more children. It means that, everyone would become a winner, with society’s increased abilities to produce more food and other amenities.

But, why has Ethiopian agriculture become failure to date?

The straightforward explanation is that the agricultural problem has been caused by smallholder agriculture lacking investments and improved technologies. It is important that Ethiopia began developing its infrastructure, from which also agriculture would benefit. Nevertheless, much as these are essential to the country, they are being built with endless borrowings, without agriculture developing sufficiently to cover the costs. Because of that there now is the danger of the country falling from the debt burden, being accumulated without comprehensive studies to satisfy one man’s hunt for grandeur political Ethiopia has denied him through the years because of the manner he has been treating the country.

At the same time, all these difficulties cannot be seen in isolation from the way the mix of command politics is running the economy, ranked as 134th in the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, its sore sides being inadequate respect for property rights and poor score on freedom from corruption.

In addition, there is also the politics of the uninformed, corrupt and arrogant strongmen, who in their own right, in an environment of misguided and stillborn decentralization, have killed institutional development, because of which they now enjoy a free hand in fiefdoms they run. The future would certainly reveal the horrendous level of human neglects, the degree to which there has been utter disregard for human dignity and the dire needs of the population.

In essence, hence the problem is that of unpreparedness on the part of the political class to allow citizens to have voice, inputs, and direct and transparent participation in national development and in their own future.

The resultant situation was rightly described last November by IFPRI, which observed that in many Sub-Saharan African countries that have experienced historically rapid economic growth and notable social changes, by equal measures poverty, hunger and malnutrition have remained widespread problems.

Similarly, especially in the past five years Ethiopia has been placed amongst the world’s leading fastest growing economies, while on account of failed agricultural productivity growth, a disinterested assessment indicated that, since 2008 not as many people have benefitted from the country’growth, and thus millions have continued to eke out existence in conditions of extreme poverty.

Perhaps to dampen the building national frustrations, we saw how, in an environment of longstanding double-digit inflation, the Meles regime recently engaged in manipulation of the Iinterim Report on 2010-2011 Poverty Analysis and slick media performances to disguise that reality.

Whichever way the reality is massaged and truth is diced, the unavoidable fact is Ethiopia is a country, where hunger and poverty has been widespread. This reality has been ably captured by the data in the simple table below.

To the vast majority of the population, this situation has been unacceptable. People driven by deprivation have begun showing their growing impatience, even boldly taunting the usually intemperate Meles Zenawi’s regime, better known for its heavy-handedness. Under different guises popular reactions have begun spilling over into the social and political realms.

The evolving ferment, unorganized responses as they are, involve farmers in many parts of the country, urban dwellers, businesses, teachers & students & parents, Christians & Moslems, unemployed and disenfranchised youth, defendants of human rights and justice, etc.—each raising its own issues. They have become cells of the burgeoning tissues of dissidence against an autocratic state that has failed to deliver more than form and empty promises.

Crossing the brook to cross the Rubicon

In the hearts of my heart I would want to believe that Bill Gates sees the need and realizes the importance of Ethiopia improving its governance. Without that, it makes no sense to leave in place the very obstacles to human quests and abilities that statist polices have stifled to date to satisfy the needs of a few individuals to remain in power till the ‘Second Coming.’

Besides, the lesson that we have learned from hungry societies is that, politics is the number one impediment in beating hunger and diseases. Therefore, in that respect, intelligent as he is, the philanthropist must have also given some thoughts to his own preference to see Ethiopia becoming open and transparent, primarily for its own sakes, as would also contribute to involvement of private businesses—both national and international—to give impetus to change.

For him, therefore, his eyes on a peaceful world that he possibly thinks he should contribute to by building block-by-block first with the basics, this his way of ensuring the long-term peace and stability of countries such as Ethiopia.

If what I read into his thoughts are correct, he seems to be of the state of mind that, if this were not done now at lower cost in poorer countries, the alternative would be to allow the squalor of poverty to feed undercurrents of instability, leading to conflicts amongst poor countries, entailing needless bloodshed, regional unrests and instabilities with global implications. That is not the world a man consistently on the upper apex of the billionaire’s list wishes, and to whom philanthropy has become a vocation 24/7.

In Ethiopia’s case, nevertheless, the intricacies are immense. At this stage of the journey to cross the Rubicon seems to be starting with a struggle to cross the brook before the Rubicon. Certainly, crossing the Rubicon would require untying several knots down the road to get meaningful agricultural reforms to take root in Ethiopia.

The paramount outcome in that direction is empowering smallholders, setting them free from statist controls. It has already sucked too much blood and their meager resources as tributes, as proof of their trustworthiness for those in power.

If not, the consequences have been clear, including denial of their so-called, improved seeds and other inputs, which on many instances have not only failed to deliver increased yields. But also have been found to diminish production, as farmers in Amhara, Oromia and Tigrai have learnt the hard way and now some of them have shunned the use of those products with preference to bio products.

There is a need for serious action to remove these archaic forms of feudal domination. It seems, with a sense of awareness, a smile on his face and wry laughter, in the course of his response to a comment/question relating to the obstacles to Ethiopia’s agricultural productivity, Bill Gates noted “that is kind of their next chapter.”

He amplified that in the following manner:

    Now they have some regulatory things that have made people come in and do those things a little harder than they should. And so that is kind of their next chapter—allowing private seed companies in a more open way, and letting me post processing, investors to come in a better way — a few examples where it has worked … It is a very exciting thing …

I have come to understand that the two persons — Gates & Zenawi — had spent ‘a couple of hours’ on 28 March 2012. They must have been haggling over the extent of the roll back Meles Zenawi would be willing to concede to give teeth to the agricultural reform measures. In the two minutes Bill Gates spoke on Ethiopia as his subject, he dropped the phrase “it is exciting” a couple of times.

(To be continued)


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