Take Free Markets Out of Global Development

Since the 2008 global food crisis that provided a wake-up call about the fragility of the world hunger situation, Western governments and international financial institutions have prided themselves on renewed commitment to funding for agricultural development. These investments should be judged not by their dollar amounts but by whether they’re embracing the right approaches. Yet recent initiatives have failed to learn the tough lessons from history. It seems, then, that in times of uncertainty, donors deploy the tool about which they are most certain: their theological belief in the free market. But I want to trace a pattern of how, historically, the market rationale has come at the expense of the world’s poorest.

In the 1960s, as India and Latin America were on the brink of famine, international donors — most prominently the U.S. government and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations — took the lead in deploying crop technologies to these areas. Proponents often argue that access to high-yielding crop varieties, and the expansion of fertilizer and irrigation, set the regions on a path to economic growth.

But as Eric Ross expertly notes in The Malthus Factor, the Green Revolution was more an effort to expand the reach of Western capitalist interests than to meet the needs of vulnerable populations. In stirring up a crisis narrative, the Ford Foundation ignored the real problems in India: its export-oriented agriculture that displaced local food production, and the inequitable distribution of land. These were both legacies of the colonial era and had long extracted wealth from the Indian countryside. Not only did the Green Revolution’s proponents ignore such land issues, but their expansion of crop technologies was a deliberate attempt to prevent land reform. And they sought to legitimize their work by casting small farmers as incapable of participating in the modern commercial economy.

The outcome was that many of India’s small farmers, unable to afford the new technologies, were displaced from their land and rendered landless laborers. And in India’s Punjab province, considered the greatest beneficiary of the Green Revolution, productivity gains has precipitously waned, leading to farmer suicides. If these social implications were better understood today, I think they would challenge the Green Revolution’s ideological hegemony over global agriculture.

A second historical example is how pressure on African countries to focus on export-oriented commodity production — coming at the expense of local food production — has contributed to food insecurity on the continent. The thinking is that exports will enable them to generate the capital to purchase products on the global market. This has left them in a trap: they have had to ramp up export production to keep pace with the rising price of food and manufactured products on global markets. Yet the price volatility of export commodities only reinforces Africa's vulnerability to global markets.

I’ve often heard the argument that Africa’s export problem is not the commodity production systems themselves but rather the unfair global trade environment in which industrialized countries impose protectionist measures (such as farm subsidies and import restrictions). The natural response, these advocates say, is to simply force Western countries to liberalize their own markets — to “level the playing field.” But striking down protectionism in the West would do nothing to rein in multinational corporations’ control of the entire agricultural value chain. And giving developing world farmers greater access to industrialized markets would only reinforce export-orientation and crop specialization, perpetuating both the displacement of local food crops and farmers’ susceptibility to commodity price volatility.

Nowadays there’s a connection between commodity production and Western consumerism. By purchasing, say, cocoa from the Ivory Coast, Western populations actually reinforce the crop specialization that has been so detrimental for Africa’s food security. Consumers may feel that they’re trying to show concern for poor countries by buying products grown by a developing world farmer. This is clearly an attempt to harmonize capitalism and humanitarianism, and it is often regarded as a way that individuals can make a difference with their pocketbooks. Through their connection to export production of luxury goods, however, Western consumers are only solidifying the capitalist ideology responsible for food insecurity.

The 2008 food crisis, in which high prices sparked riots in over 30 countries, offers a lens through which to examine the confluence of post-World War II agricultural history. Africa was hit hardest because its vulnerability to global food markets—a harsh rebuttal of the so-called comparative advantage theory that underlay the export-production idea. The continent’s exposure to the crisis was driven in large part by the high price of chemical inputs, which inevitably led food prices to escalate beyond the reach of the world’s poorest then. Clearly the Green Revolution, even though it never reached Africa, has had a direct impact on African food security: it entrenched the fossil fuel-dependent global food system in which high energy prices mean higher food prices that the world’s poorest cannot afford.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen was right on the money when he argued that famine is driven by lack of “access:" the overall inability of a community to feed itself through either the purchase or production of food. That’s exactly what caused Africa’s woes in 2008, and I’ve tried to show that the global food crisis can be traced to the international donors’ unwavering faith in market-based approaches.

It makes little sense, then, for anyone would call for a Green Revolution in Africa. But that rhetoric has only picked up since the 2008 crisis, as the “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” is heavily backed by the Gates Foundation and promoted by the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative. The real challenge is to orient African agriculture toward local food production. A Green Revolution in Africa would not only risk displacing farmers unable to afford expensive crop technologies, but would reinforce the global food system’s vulnerability to high fossil fuel prices—threatening to unleash the same problem we saw in the 2008 crisis.