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Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19

15 min read.

The coronavirus pandemic, like other disasters, will no doubt provide opportunities to some people to make money. When many get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

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Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19
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The current COVID-19 pandemic, originating in Wuhan, China, is just one in a series of pandemics that have characterised the epidemiological history of humanity over the centuries. Among the most notable pandemics in the modern world are the HIV/AIDS pandemic that peaked between 2005 and 2012 period, and which is estimated to have killed 36 million people so far; the 1968 influenza pandemic that killed one million people; the Asian influenza of 1956-58 that killed two million; the cholera pandemic of 1910-11 that killed 800,000; and the 1918-20 influenza pandemic (also known as the Spanish flu) that affected more than one-third of the world and decimated an estimated 20—50 million people.

Perhaps the Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death, remains the most devastating pandemic recorded in world history. Originating in China, it is said to have struck in Europe in 1347 and, in four years, it killed 200 million people. It is the Bubonic plague that led to the coining of the word and practice of quarantine. With knowledge that the plague was contracted through proximity to carriers, authorities in Venice, Italy, began holding newly arrived sailors in isolation on their own ships until they could prove that they were not sick. Initially, they were held for 30 days – trentino in Venetian law – then, over time, this was increased to 40 days – quarantino – and thus quarantine was born.

Whereas the Bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, COVID-19 is caused by a virus, coronavirus. There, however, is a parallel in the manner in which the two pandemics spread. The Bubonic plague was spread by maritime transport – by commercial ships sailing from one continental port to another. Similarly, coronavirus has apparently been spread across continents and countries by air travel. It is remarkable, for instance, that the most affected areas in the United States are big hubs of the international aviation industry. These include New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Miami, among others.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected. It was spread to the Americas by European settlers and, without immunity to the new disease, the natives of these places were killed in the tens of millions.

Fortunately, smallpox was the first viral pandemic to be ended by a vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 1980 that smallpox had been eradicated from the face of the earth. The Ebola virus, which struck the three West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014, killed thousands. However, it was regionally confined mainly to the three West African countries and was thus considered an epidemic rather than a pandemic. By mid-April 2020, the coronavirus had killed more than 120,000 people, the majority of them in the Global North.

Overall, the most devastating pandemics in human history have been the Bubonic plague, cholera, influenza, and smallpox. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries and it killed one-third of those infected.

One major impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is its demonstration of the extent to which the contemporary world has become interconnected. The idea that our world has become a global village is no longer hyperbole. Emanating from Wuhan, the sprawling capital city of Central China’s Hubei Province, in November 2019, the coronavirus spread by air travel to all corners of the world within no time. It has affected both the lowly and the mighty, from the ordinary citizens of this world to the most powerful political actors, such as the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, US Senator Randy Paul, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Australian Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, as well as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At the beginning of the second week of April 2020, the top ten most affected countries in terms of sheer numbers of the infected and deaths as a percentage of the infected are as listed in the Table below.

Top Ten Coronavirus Infected Countries as of April 9, 2020

Source: Compiled from Worldometers, 2020

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the level of preparedness of governments around the world to deal with such a pandemic. Among the top ten listed countries in the Table above, it is evident that Germany has done very well in managing the pandemic. Ranking 4th in terms of number infected, it drops to 10th in terms of number of deaths as a proportion of the infected, at under 2%. The UK appears to be doing the worst, ranking 8th in terms of number of infected, but first in terms of deaths as a percentage of the infected, at 13%. The Netherlands has also done poorly, ranking 12th (not among the top ten) in number of infected persons; it ranks third in terms of percentage of deaths, at 11%. In terms of sheer numbers, Italy has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, at 17,907, constituting 12.69% of the country’s infected population, ranking second to the UK. Arguably, there are great lessons to be learnt from how Germany and South Korea have handled the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea, one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic, quickly flattened the infection and death curves and is no longer among the top most affected countries globally.

Third, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the tragi-comedy of the American presidency under Donald Trump. When the media started reporting on the emerging pandemic, Trump, as self-absorbed as ever, never took it seriously. Instead, with the help of his favorite conservative media house, Fox News, he dismissed talk of a coronavirus pandemic as “a hoax”, as another attempt by the Democrats to “impeach” him. At one moment the president remarked that the virus would simply disappear one day! He was more concerned with the impact of the coronavirus on his chances for re-election and thus sought to wish it away. Asked by journalist Yamiche Alcindor why the US’s testing for the coronavirus was far behind other countries in per capita terms, Trump’s response demonstrated that he does not even understand what “per capita” means! The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time. Unfortunately, this approach was replicated in Kenya where the government continued to allow flights to land in the country, including one carrying 236 passengers from China, the origin of the coronavirus, with a simple advice to arriving passengers to “self-quarantine”

Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated Cuba to stage a kind of diplomatic coup against the US. Cuba has one of the highest numbers of medical professionals in the world: 90,000 in a country of 11 million. Of these, 37,000 are deployed in countries around the world, some on medical aid missions, but most on official contracts with recipient countries paying Cuba directly. It is estimated that Cuba makes $6 billion annually from the export of medical and other public services. Whereas Cuba and the US reached some rapprochement during the Obama administration, with the two cooperating to help fight the Ebola epidemic in 2014, the Trump administration has, for two years, focused on obliterating Cuba’s deployment of medical personnel abroad, a great source of soft power for Cuba. Arguing that the medical professionals are exploited workers and agents of Communist indoctrination, the Trump administration scored victories when Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador cancelled contracts of thousands of Cuban medical professionals following the electoral defeat in the three countries of leftist governments allied with Havana by rightist ones closely allied with Washington.

The initial response of the Trump administration was thus one of mismanagement, scapegoating, and missed opportunities. No wonder the country swiftly shot to the top of the infection table within no time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting hard, however, the fortunes of Cuba’s medical diplomacy have received a shot in the arm. In the midst of the crisis, Cuba deployed 593 doctors to 14 countries including Andorra, Belize, Dominica, Italy, Jamaica, and Nicaragua. In hard hit Crema City in the northern Lombardy region of Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and 3 ICU beds to help manage the pandemic in one of the most overwhelmed areas of the country. In response to continued US discouragement of countries from contracting Cuban medical workers even amid the current pandemic, Andorran Foreign Minister, María Ubach is quoted as saying, “I am aware of the position of the United States, but we are a sovereign country and we can choose the partners with which we are going to have cooperation,” a profound testimony to the changing fortunes of Cuban medical diplomacy. Indeed, Cuban state officials have been proudly posting videos of Cuban doctors receiving standing ovations as they arrive abroad to begin work, and have been blasting the Trump administration for its criticisms. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, tweeted: “Shame on you. Instead of attacking Cuba and its committed doctors, you should be caring about the thousands of sick Americans who are suffering due to the scandalous neglect of your government and the inability of your failed health system to care for them.”

Fifth, and perhaps most poignantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created lucrative opportunities for what celebrated Canadian author, Naomi Klein, calls “disaster capitalism”. This is an extreme form of capitalism created in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, whether a natural one like an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane, or a man-made one like a war, a financial crisis, or a terrorist attack. Klein note, in her seminal book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, that many governments employ the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation during a collective shock from disaster to enact radical pro-corporate measures that would otherwise be impossible to pass through. These include: (1) privatisation of public property; (2) arbitrary elimination of laws, clinically dubbed “deregulation”; and (3) slashing democratically chosen programmes that help ordinary citizens, euphemistically called “austerity measures”.

This strategy, according to Klein, has been a silent partner to the imposition of neoliberalism for more than 40 years. Its application follows a clear pattern: wait for a crisis, or help foment one through identity conflicts and coup-making; declare a moment of what is sometimes called “extraordinary politics”; suspend some or all democratic norms; and then ram the corporate wish-list through as quickly as possible. Any tumultuous situation, Klein avers, if framed with sufficient hysteria by political leaders, could serve this softening-up function. It could be an event as radical as a military coup, but the economic shock of a market or budget crisis would also do the trick. Political and economic elites are acutely aware that moments of crisis constitute their best opportunity to push through their wish-list of unpopular policies that further polarise wealth by making the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer.

For instance, the 2007-2008 financial crisis facilitated the US political and economic elite to sell a panicked population on the necessity for attacks on social protections and for an enormous bailout to prop up the financial private sector. Cheques worth billions of public dollars were made out to private financial institutions with arguments that failure to do so would lead to an economic apocalypse! No one was interested in questioning the role of the very institutions in causing the economic crisis through their greed and predatory lending, nor in questioning where the billions they made in annual profits were.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises. Of the two trillion dollars, ordinary Americans, hundreds of millions of them, are set to receive a slice of only 30%; public services will receive 9%; state and local governments 17%; so-called small businesses will receive 19% while the few big corporations are set to get 25% of the pie – a whopping half a trillion dollars! In other words, 46% of the $2 trillion will go to private capitalist interests. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the coronavirus stimulus package has fueled a boom for lobbyists as companies jostle to secure the biggest possible slice of the $2 trillion package for themselves.

Another aspect of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been closure of schools and recourse to online and remote teaching and learning. Clearly, therefore, the crisis wrought by the pandemic is turning out to be a boon for the providers of the internet tools needed for cyber-education, all of which are poised to make unprecedented profits. These include providers of “free” education apps, like Google, who end up reaping massive harvests of data that are critical to their advertising and marketing strategies. As Kline opines, this doesn’t mean that some of their solutions aren’t good; it means that they have to be watched carefully, and school authorities should be asking questions bearing in mind that they are not talking to philanthropists who just want to help out, but companies that are responding to a chance to profit from disaster. Indeed, it would not be surprising, she observes, if some virtual schooling businesses don’t see pandemic-related school closings as a chance to take over portions of the education sector permanently, whether they can actually provide quality education or not.

Similarly, one major response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been the passing of a two-trillion-dollar stimulus package. The planned parceling out of this stimulus package is testimony to how corporations always benefit from such crises.

The idea of disaster capitalism has become the modus operandi of capitalism in our contemporary world. All manner of crises, both natural and man-made, are turned into lucrative money-making opportunities for corporate interests and an opportunity for political elites to implement otherwise unpopular policies that serve the special interests of capital. A number of other cases, including the September 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in the US, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the perpetual crisis of civil war in the Congo suffice to illustrate this.

9/11, Katrina, and disaster capitalism

Steve Fraser writes that the reconstruction programmes that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina were skewed heavily in favour of the business community and the rich. In both New York and New Orleans, sites of the man-made and natural disasters, respectively, big business controlled the redevelopment process, and ipso facto, where the money landed and where it didn’t. Tax breaks and private sector subsidies became channels for federal aid. “Public benefit” standards, which once accompanied federal grants and tax exemptions to ensure that projects served some public purpose, especially to “benefit persons of low and moderate income”, were eliminated, leaving poorer people out in the cold, while exacerbating existing inequalities. Both federal, state, and city governments scurried around to invent ways to auction off reconstruction projects to private interests by issuing tax exempt “Private Activity Bonds”. These were soon gloriously renamed “Liberty Bonds”, though, as Fraser notes, the unasked question was: Whose liberty?

The lion’s share of government grants and exemptions went to the biggest corporations. In New York, more than 40% of all bonds amounting to $2.4 billion, went to a single developer, Larry Silverstein. Second to Silverstein was Goldman Sachs. Yet these institutions and their inhabitants represented at best a mere 15% of those affected, most of whom were low-wage workers who, in some cases, ended up getting evicted from their homes, thanks to those business-oriented tax breaks. “Federal aid, hypothetically tied to building affordable housing and the creation of living-wage jobs ended up as just that: hypothetical,” Fraser writes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit America’s Gulf Coast in 2005, it wrought major devastation in terms of human and property loss as well as economic cost. To the surprise of many around the world, Katrina also laid bare America’s shocking poverty. Most people in Mississippi and New Orleans who stayed put in the wake of the hurricane did so not out of choice but because they were too poor to leave. According to figures from the 2000 US census, close to 40% of the New Orleans population lived in poverty, with 27% having no access to a vehicle. Yet in the aftermath of the hurricane, disaster capitalists were the chief beneficiaries of the reconstruction efforts, not the poor victims of the horrific disaster.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” In this event, as Rachel Riederer writes, “cronies of the Bush administration profited from post-Katrina reconstruction,” with Halliburton subsidiary KBR paying out tens of millions of dollars for no-bid contracts. Public schools and public housing were swept away in the redevelopment. Now, more than one third of tenants in New Orleans pay more than half of their monthly income in rent and the city now has more than 100,000 fewer African American residents whose annual incomes are 54% lower than those of their Caucasian counterparts. The largely privatised school system has achieved many of its test-score gains, leading to former Education Secretary Arne Duncan to famously quip that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to education in New Orleans. Notably this turned out to mean that the disaster swept aside the public school system and opened up opportunities for private operators to move in. These have achieved test-scores by excluding the city’s most disadvantaged students. It is on account of this that John Mutter notes that Katrina put the disaster in disaster capitalism.

The earthquake in Haiti

In his aptly titled book, Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor even Poorer, John Mutter points out that, though we think of earthquakes, cyclones, floods and the like as “natural” disasters, the pattern and level of destruction they inflict are socially determined. Existing inequalities of housing, of land quality, or information asymmetry, are only part of the story. Natural disasters, Mutter shows, often make inequality worse, but that process is no accident of nature. In the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Mutter observes, “destruction was indiscriminate; the homes of the rich and the homes of the poor were all targets.” But the homes of the poor were poorly constructed and much more vulnerable. Though the quake itself—what Mutter calls “the natural part of the disaster”—affected rich and poor alike, the relief process was not so even-handed. In a society already starkly divided by class, the elites were able to pay for private medical and rebuilding services, while the poor were relegated to crowded, dangerous tent cities.

Following Katrina, real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro said, in classic disaster capitalist attitude, that the clearing out caused by Katrina represented some “very big opportunities”. A Republican representative from Baton Rouge said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Within the context of the shock and crisis following the earthquake, the Haitian government was compelled to enact a legislation in April 2010 that created the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) to oversee post-earthquake reconstruction. The IHRC was empowered to do whatever it wanted, including approving policies, projects, and budgeting. The IHRC’s 26 board members were elected by no one and were accountable to no one. Half of them were foreign, including representatives of other governments, multilateral financial institutions, and non-governmental organisations. An international development consultant contracted by the IHRC, speaking with the Haiti Support Group’s Deepa Panchang and Beverly Bell, noted; “Look, you have to realize the IHRC was not intended to work as a structure or entity for Haiti or Haitians. It was simply designed as a vehicle for donors to funnel multinationals’ and NGOs’ project contracts.”

What followed the flood of donations that poured into Haiti following the earthquake was a classic case of disaster capitalism. John Mutter writes that the donations were “viewed as manna from heaven by the unscrupulous, a chance for new profit”. Citing a report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research, Mutter shows that of the nearly 1,500 contracts awarded as part of the Haitian relief project, only 23 went to Haitian companies, constituting a paltry 2.5% of the $195 million. Much of the rest went to US contractors based in and around Washington DC, often through no-bid contracts. In other words, to these US companies, the natural disaster in Haiti was simply an opportunity to make a killing.

Disaster capitalism and instability in the DRC

In Africa, nothing illustrates the case of disaster capitalism than the perpetual crisis of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is endowed with a rich and diverse natural resource base that is of vital significance to the global technological and electronic industry. Among these are gold, wolframite, coltan (columbite tantalite), and cassiterite, all of whose uses in the electronic and technological products make them precious and much sought-after commodities. Gold is highly conductive and resistant to corrosion and is thus used to make connectors, soldered joints, and connection wires, in addition to jewelry. Wolframite is the source of tungsten, an element that is used in applications like turning tools and milling, electronic devices including the vibration function in cellphones, cemented carbides, electrical, heating, and welding applications. Coltan is a metal ore from which the element tantalum is extracted and used to make high quality capacitors for applications requiring high performance, compact format, and high reliability. These include hearing aids, pacemakers, airbags, GPS systems, laptops, cellphones, videogame consoles, as well as video and digital cameras. Cassiterite is a metal ore from which tin is made and is used for producing cans, solder for electronic circuit boards, and plumbing.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels. Eastern Congo’s mines are controlled by militias and rebel groups that use profits from these minerals to perpetuate the DRC conflict. The conflict is estimated to have claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998, while trade in the minerals has continued apace with regular flights in and out of North Kivu’s Walikale in the conflict zone. Whereas miners make between one and five dollars a day working for either an armed group or someone who pays an armed group, the militias rake in millions of dollars. It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

According to British-based Global Witness’s 2009 report, the national Congolese army (FARDC) and rebel groups (especially FDLR – Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), regularly cooperate with each other in Eastern DRC, carve up territory between themselves, and systematically use forced labour and violent extortion in mining areas. The conflict minerals then go through various middlemen from DRC through Burundi and Rwanda to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for electronic and other industrial products by companies such as Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation (THAISARCO), the world’s fifth largest tin producing company. Incidentally, THAISARCO is owned by the British giant, Amalgamated Metal Corporation.

The perpetual crisis of instability in the DRC is thus a kind of organised chaos that serves the vested interests of many actors at the local, national, regional, and international levels…It is estimated that in 2009, militias made USD180 million while final dealers at the end of the chain made up to 50 times this amount.

Global Witness, an international NGO that campaigns to break the chain-link between natural resources and armed conflict, established in 2008 that the British-based Afrimex company was dealing in conflict minerals from the DRC. In its own investigation, the British government verified this finding that Afrimex was buying minerals from suppliers who made payments to rebel groups, a practice that was in breach of OECD international guidelines. Despite this finding, however, no concrete measures were taken by the government against Afrimex, not even a slap on the wrist. Other companies mentioned by Global Witness as partakers of trade in conflict minerals include Trademet and Traxys, both from Belgium, American electronic tech companies Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, as well as Finnish telecom, infotech and electronics company Nokia. In their 2009 report, Global Witness concluded that the failure of governments to hold companies accountable, the failure of Rwanda and Burundi to restrict trade across their borders, and the failure of donors and diplomats to explicitly address the conflict minerals trade, have all contributed to the continuation of the endless DRC conflict.

Indeed, an effort to legislatively rein in the activities of American companies that profit from conflict minerals in 2009 came a cropper. In April 2009, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act to require electronics companies to verify and disclose their sources of cassiterite, wolframite, and tantalum. The proposed legislation died in committee stage, perhaps a testimony to the lobbying power of the targeted companies that profit from the crisis of instability in the DRC.

Conclusion

Overall, the United States has perfected the practice of creating crises ostensibly to serve the interests of its capitalist class. These include waging unnecessary wars, engineering coups and regime change, and fomenting intra-state conflicts. The main beneficiaries of such adventures include military defence contractors, private security contractors, and energy and natural resource companies – a phenomenon that has come to be referred to as the military industrial complex. No wonder American elections are an exorbitantly expensive affair in which special interests finance politicians’ campaigns and, once in office, the politicians execute legislative agendas in the service of the said special interests. It is on account of this that investigative journalist Greg Palast describes the American system as the best democracy money can buy in a book of the same title and subtitled A Tale of Billionaires and Bandit Ballots.

At the end of the day, in the event of a disaster, whether natural or man-made, pandemic or war, hurricane or earthquake, flooding or volcanic eruption, whereas there are many that get killed, there are always a few that make a killing. This is the essence of disaster capitalism.

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Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Ph.D. is Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Ideas

Diversification and Decolonisation of Economics

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through a historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

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Diversification and Decolonisation of Economics
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The mission of D-Econ (Diversifying and Decolonising Economics) is to promote inclusivity within the content and institutions of the economics discipline due to the dominance of Eurocentric thinking. This situation has occurred because of the longstanding exclusion of alternate views — based on identity (gender, race, geography), and theoretical-methodological discrimination — from the teaching of economics in higher education institutions. Thus, D-Econ argues, the knowledge base and debate of issues to be relevant to the world’s majority needs to include non-white and non-male voices as well as heterodox approaches.

D-Econ’s mission is framed at countering mainstream (conventional) economics. I think this ambition needs to be bolder. It needs to extend beyond the mainstream to explicitly encompass the entire social science discipline of economics.

The mainstream is ‘guilty as charged’. I think many within our heterodox community can be similarly charged.

Many sites that determine ‘legitimate heterodox knowledge’ cannot be characterised as always displaying tolerance and respect for difference. Contributions to heterodox conferences, workshops, journals, teachings, and more, are marred — not just on the odd occasion — by one perspective asserted as the ‘truth’, or reluctance (sometimes even open hostility) for constructive dialogue about the contributions of alternative perspectives. These practices replicate orthodoxy’s ills.

Heterodox economic scholars also have an ethical and moral obligation — thus responsibility — to ‘diversify and decolonise’ their teaching, research, and other practices given our own experiences of marginalisation, exclusion, and disregard by the mainstream. To not do so is tantamount to condoning the discriminatory practices that have buttressed the mainstream’s hegemony.

Diversification and decolonisation will not be — but should be — innate to all members of the heterodox economics community. Deliberative actions are required that require more than — as needed with the mainstream — ‘changing the narrative’.

The praxis of many heterodox economists needs to change. By praxis, I mean the activity of human beings (in this case, heterodox economists) that directly shapes both aspects of social reality (in this case, the teaching of economics and its application to explaining social reality) and themselves as producers of knowledge.

Decolonialisation is not about rewriting or erasing history. Nor can it be achieved by academics and students completing an anti-slavery awareness training module. Decolonisation is also more than the revision of curriculum content, assessment tasks, and reading lists to include scholarly works by women and persons of colour.

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through an historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

Decolonisation also requires the ‘practice’ of an ongoing reflexive process given the institutionalised nature, and reproduction, of inequalities in the higher education sector, the primary site of knowledge production.

Decolonisation should not be conflated with diversification. Diversification is more than moving beyond the dominance of white heterosexual Eurocentric male voices in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Diversification is also much more deliberative than job advertisements stating that ‘women and minorities are encouraged to apply’, much more than an institution providing training in ‘conscious bias’, and much more than special journal issues, editorial boards, conference panels and workshops including women, persons of colour, or scholars from the Global South. These actions are mere tokenism, as is the advocacy and not the overt practice of theoretical-methodological pluralism in knowledge production and pluralism in the topics investigated.

To achieve and maintain substantive and authentic diversification and decolonisation of economics, the praxis of all heterodox economists needs to embrace a conjunction of interrelated actions. A single action is inadequate for the task. Moreover, unending vigilance is required to embed the ‘gains’ so that these become conceived as ‘norms’.

There are, I contend, four key interrelated actions for heterodoxy to ‘detoxify’ and lead the way on diversifying and decolonising the social science discipline of economics.

One key action is transparency about one’s ‘positionality’.  I am referring to a scholar’s social ontology — her ‘world view’ of the nature, character, basic features, structures, and constituents of social reality — and her epistemological views (how knowledge is created by, for example, observation and induction or model building and deduction). Analytical constructs reflect a chosen research methodology which, in turn, reflects ontological and epistemological beliefs. These should be rendered explicit.

The purpose of social inquiry, and the practice of economics as a social science, should be to explain an ever-changing and increasingly complex social reality. The knowledge produced needs to accord with social reality to be relevant to the many and be able to address persistent issues and crises such as the climate emergency, inequality, and global pandemics. The analytical approach of the mainstream denotes reality as a closed system devoid of social, political, and historical contexts. Thus, issues are falsely framed, and the approach is the antithesis of the research task at hand. Positional transparency evokes openness about the ‘methodological position’ the researcher has taken to the problem under investigation and thus, appropriateness to explain social reality.

Positionality reflects a scholar’s gender, race, ethnicity, history, nationality, geographic location, political views and more. Thus, positional transparency is interrelated with a second action — acknowledgement of the social construction of knowledge, and the exclusionary role that language can play.

Knowledge is situated. Any knowledge created is inevitably framed by the lives and experiences of the knowledge producers (and reflected through their positionality). The language of mainstream scholarship presents it as ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’, and thus authoritative, not influenced by the positions and lives of its creators. This is inherently dishonest and should be always called out.

Explicit acknowledgment that knowledge creation is situated in lived experiences — and thus, are arguments/analyses — recognises that a plurality of explanations is possible. As Sheila Dow wrote 25 years ago, ‘no one knowledge system can capture totality because each is partial, reflecting a vision of reality’.  Visibility of the positioned nature of knowledge will mean greater integrity in scholarship.

Further, the rhetoric deployed by knowledge producers plays a significant role in silencing underrepresented voices, and the reproduction of insular communities. Rhetoric can act as a social control mechanism by dismissing the scholarship of others as ‘biased’ or ‘unscientific’. This should not only be revealed but heterodox economists should consciously seek not to replicate. This, in turn, means clear recognition that the English language actively creates, not just conveys, the message.

Acknowledgment of the social construction of knowledge and language use leads to a third action—a transformative approach to knowledge building and learning. With the inclusion of new information and different perspectives, frank, open conversations can expose the realities of marginalisation, discrimination, and power relations, and societal privilege (not necessarily intellectual superiority) resulting in the ubiquity of white, male, Eurocentric voices.  Knowledge creation and learning then become transformative processes of mutual critique and discovery.

Transparency about positionality, meaningful recognition of the social construction of knowledge and language, and transformative processes for knowledge production and learning are the foundations to enable achievement of a fourth critical action — a decolonised economic pedagogy.

As posited by Kvangraven and Kesar, a decolonised economic pedagogy is effectively structured around at least the following: the economy is consistently treated as embedded within the social sphere; explicit acknowledgement of the bias and values inherent to different perspectives, and the repression of some epistemologies by others; not relying on one perspective or approach nor advocating universality of explanation; exposing students to the Eurocentric underpinnings of different theoretical perspectives; the presentation of knowledge within its colonial and post-colonial contexts; exposing the spectrum of power inequalities within communities; and, taking a student-centred approach to pedagogy requiring teacher-student co-responsibility to create a common co-operative learning space and to create knowledge.

Ongoing attention and effort focused on these four interrelated actions as a conjunction — by all heterodox economists, not a few — will drive meaningful change to the practice and teaching of economics through authentic diversification and decolonisation. If not, the praxis of heterodoxy will remain as susceptible to charges of insularity, bias, and discrimination as the mainstream.

This is article was first published by D-Econ.

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Ideas

Frantz Fanon: 60 years On

Sixty years after his death from leukemia at the age of 36 on 6 December 1961, and the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Timothy Wild reviews a new book which reminds us of the relevance of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s work, Wild argues, continues to engage people by its brilliance, rage, analysis, and hope that the poor can be the authors of their own destiny.

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Frantz Fanon: 60 years On
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From the end of May until a few days before Remembrance Day (November 11) flags at Canadian public buildings were flown at half-mast. This unusual occurrence was in recognition of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. The unearthing of the graves shocked many non-Indigenous Canadians, but it came as no surprise to Indigenous Peoples themselves who had long maintained that the graves were there and more would be discovered. They knew that some of their children never came home from these institutions; but their concerns went unheard or were dismissed. Many of the children who did return home were scarred for life, and this trauma then had an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of future generations. Overall, this chapter is yet another tragic dimension in the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Residential Schools, the last of which closed in the mid-1990s, were an instrument purposefully designed to undermine the culture and nuanced connections of Indigenous Peoples to time, each other, and the environment. The government and mainstream Christian Churches acted in strategic solidarity in a long campaign structured to annihilate Indigenous cultures, both figuratively and literally.  The schools were just one of the tools used by settlers, and their superstructure, to impose control over the totality of economic, social, cultural, and extractive relations. This campaign has resulted in social dislocation, loss of resources (including land and natural resources) and inter-generational trauma and marks the fact that the dark history of colonialism is still an eternal present in post-colonial Canada.

Part of my journey of understanding this dark history has involved reading and re-reading books on this ever-present historical tragedy, and that’s how I approached a closer study of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Legacies of Recognition (2014).  Using the work of the Martiniquen born, French educated and Algerian by choice psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) as a foundation – particularly Black Skin, White Masks – Coulthard argues that the conventional politics of recognition currently undertaken in Canada needs to evolve into “a resurgent politics of recognition premised on self-actualization, direct action and the resurgence of cultural practices that are attentive to the subjective and structural composition of settler-colonial power”.  In expanding on Marx by, for example, considering the impact of dispossession of land, as opposed to implementation of proletarian status on Indigenous Peoples, Coulthard applies a Fanonist framework to the current operation of neo-colonialism in Canada, and blends the psychology of the individual with the structural of the collective in his trenchant analysis and, equally important, call for action.

Obviously, the need for attention to the ongoing alienation and dislocation caused by colonialism in postcolonial societies is not only a Canadian phenomenon. The ongoing importance and wide-spread influence of Frantz Fanon in terms of both theory and practice reflects that fact.  Admittedly, there have been highs and lows in terms of Fanon’s place in the academic canon, due in large part to criticism regarding his framing of the role of violence in the process of decolonization, together with the fashionable disregard for meta-theories of liberation.  However, his works continue to inform counter-hegemonic theory and practice around the world, and his words and ideas are as refreshing as ever. Fanon continues to engage people by his brilliance, his candour, his analysis, his guarded optimism and his sense of people being agents in their own destiny.

Coming sixty years after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth and his death from leukemia at the age of 36, Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth, edited by activist and scholar Nigel Gibson, provides a solid overview of the relevance of Frantz Fanon to the work of those of us who still believe that a just and humane world is both necessary and possible.  Throughout the volume the contributors provide space and examples of a Fanonist development of radical humanism, which provides for the psychological development of the person within the context of consciousness raising, collective action and structural change. Through a variety of examples, the book also clearly demonstrates the fact that the agents of change do not simply have to be the usual suspects of the industrial working class but includes – and must include – the peasantry and the various manifestations of the lumpenproletariat.  As noted by Gibson, “Fanon’s new humanism is a politics of becoming, based on the fundamental transformation of paralyzed Black and colonized subjects into new human beings through the liberation struggle” (p. 300).

Gibson then modestly concedes that the volume is “by no means exhaustive: it is rather something fragmentary, reflecting the moment” (p. 9). While that is a fair statement – I will comment on some of the gaps later – the bottom line is that this is an excellent book and marks Gibson’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that Fanon remains accessible and relevant to a wide-range of audiences, academic and popular. The theory is certainly there.  All the chapters, for example, pay attention to the role of consciousness-raising, the psychological trauma (indeed mental illness) caused by oppression, the blend of individual development and collective growth, the need for democratic discourse and leadership, and the destructive role played by the national bourgeoisie in alliance with outside forces.

However, in line with Fanon and respect for the development of mass support and organic intellectuals, the theoretical content of the book is woven together in a wonderfully accessible collection of essays demonstrating the ongoing importance of Fanon in a range of settings and on a diversity of social issues. Taken together the work provides multiple examples of the emancipatory potential of the “living politic” which is “the thought from the ground about the reality of our lives” as discussed by the South African activist S’bu Zikode (p. 124).

The book is divided into three sections. The first section contains several chapters written by ‘Fanon Militants’ and provides essays on Fanonist practices in a number of settings including Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Palestine. For me, the core element of this section can be found in the idea of “consciousness raising”. Subjects covered include the use of radio by a diverse group of women in England as a means of developing a person’s optimal psycho-social functioning, the deconstruction of the class and gender ridden term “White Syrian” and what it means to confronting the brutal Assad regime, and the experience of being Black facing daily racism, “systematic terror” and micro-aggressions in an overtly racist Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago, casting people into a zone of “non-being”.

The impact of Fanon on Black Consciousness is also clearly animated in this initial section of the book. Chapters on Fanon and the emergence of “New Afrikan Communism” and his influence of Black people imprisoned by the prison-industrial complex are two of the themes specifically associated with that longstanding link. A particular highlight of this section was contained in a chapter written by Toussaint Losier where he discussed the role played by Owusu Yaki Yakubu and how he developed a way to closely read Fanon which would engage his fellow prisoners, including those held largely incommunicado in the brutality of long-term solidarity confinement. The extension of Marxist thought, together with a dash of Freud and Hegel, shines through in this section in the intersection of race, gender and class. Taken together this section provides a mix of those structural variables, and how they fit together as an organic whole rather than a linear progression of mutually exclusive sociological categories.

The second section – ‘Still Fanon’ – moves into a more theoretical approach to the application of Fanon to transformative change and provides a number of excellent examples of why Fanon is still relevant and, perhaps more importantly, needed as a guide to engaged mass political action. As noted by, for example, David Pavon-Cuellar, in a passionate call for change and justice makes the important point that the “Wretched of the Earth are still here”. Pavon-Cuellar does not mince words and he insists on using the term “Third World” as opposed to “Global South” in his analysis. He argues the point that the historical example of de jure decolonization has not actually provided for the wellbeing of the rural and urban poor. Building upon the remarkable resilience of capitalism to do what it needs to ensure its domination and insatiable appetite, Pavon-Cuellar notes that “Colonialism had to change to stay the same” (p. 233). He puts it bluntly when he argues that the “current globalization of this neoliberal capitalism is the consummation of colonialism. Similarly, imperialism triumphs and disguises itself in the new global consensus” (p. 246).

Building upon this blend of passion and informed analysis, a major theme in this section of the book is related to the role played by the “national bourgeoisie” in terms of propping up the systems of oppression, exactly as highlighted by Fanon himself. The article by Ayyaz Mallick on Pakistan gives clear examples of the role played by national governments in terms of meeting the similar needs of a variety of global players, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, and the crises that result from this difficult balance.

Nigel Gibson contributes an important contextualizing chapter to this section of the book where he locates Fanon as both “a clinical practitioner and as a political practitioner” within the dynamic of movement. By paying attention to both the internalization of colonial messages and the environment constructed by post-colonial capitalist relations, Fanon provides a way to support the development of “disalienation” and the common good. As noted by Gibson, reflecting the dynamic of theory and practice has to be undertaken in unity with the people and is related to an evolving and tentative process of becoming, rather than a static case of being “…a moment of becoming is always incomplete. For me, this is an essential element of Fanon’s anti-formalist dialectic” (p. 283).

The final section of the book is loosely arranged around the idea of Fanon’s homes, essentially places he lived (such as Algeria in “The New Algerian Revolution”, the chapter by Hamza Hamouchene) together with places where his thinking has had a significant impact. These include the influence Fanon had on Black Consciousness in America, excellently chronicled by Lou Turner and Kurtis Kelley and on the growth of the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, powerfully presented by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh. To me, however, this section was the most uneven in terms of readability. For example, I found the essay on postcolonial criticism and theory too academic for a book that attempted to make Fanon more accessible.

This may also have been related to the fact that this section also contained the transcription of a meeting between some of the leaders of the South African landless activist group Abahlali baseMjondolo and Nigel Gibson, which was beautiful in its integrity, honesty and dignity. What spoke to me most about this particular chapter was that it provided a sense of Fanon happening in real time and spoke to Gibson’s demonstrated desire to link Fanon with “the reader’s own lived experience” (p. 10). In this discussion, Gibson provided an overview of certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth  – which he prefers to call Les damnes de la terre in its original French – and then members of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke about concrete application of Fanon’s works. To my mind at least, this chapter made the essential point that “awakening is a constant process” (p. 433). By putting Fanon into this process, and extending our understanding of Marxism, the argument is made that this can result in a “living communism” (p. 433).

The second section of the third part of the volume, dealt exclusively with Brazil, and contained essays on COVID-19 and the impact on Black people in Brazil together with pieces on “Black Female Intellectual Production” and one on the economic exploitation of Amazonia. These were undoubtedly interesting pieces, and they dealt with pressing socio-political issues related to the daily operation of both neocolonialism and neoliberalism. However, it is still unclear to me why Brazil was chosen as a focused topic for this section. Fanon noted that Rio as a city and construct was an offence to Indigenous people, and talked about the exploitation of young Brazilian women, but why three chapters were devoted to specific issues in Brazil was not immediately apparent. As mentioned, the issues are important, but they could have been examined within other contexts, particularly given Gibson’s previous comment about the content not being exhaustive.

Inevitably a lot is left out, and the list of what should or could have been included will be large, depending on one’s area(s) of interest. For example, I felt that more attention could have been given to Indigenous politics and Fanon in North America. As I have suggested, Coulthard has made a solid contribution to this nexus and that foundation could certainly be built upon, and it would have blended well with the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the need for a decommodification of land.

Furthermore, although there was an essay on racial and class-based injustice in Trinidad and Tobago, a chapter on current events in the Caribbean would have been useful, especially given Fanon’s relationship to the area, particularly the French Caribbean. I would also like to have seen greater attention to the ongoing influence of Fanon in southern Africa. I know that this was neither a history nor a biography, and Gibson has commented significantly elsewhere on Fanon and South Africa, but the influence of Bantu Stephen Biko was tremendous, both in and out of the country. In the South African Communist Party, though they continue to maintain the idea of a two-stage revolution, there were individuals who had read and digested Fanon – Chris Hani for one. Further analysis of this in relationship to the neocolonial project of white monopoly capital would certainly have been welcomed. I would also have liked to read about what role, if any, Fanon has played on the political consciousness of Zambians and civil society, given their almost textbook experience with neocolonial relations, extractive commodity dependence, the wrath of international funders, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment forays and, most lately, crippling foreign debt to both China and Europe.

Finally, in light of the selfies, compromises, the self-serving displays of Clinton, Blair and Obama, and empty promises of COP26 in Glasgow, I think a discussion of Fanon and his impact on eco-socialism would have been of considerable merit and could also serve to engage a new field of activists, especially younger people. I believe that Fanon’s notions of consciousness raising, and healthy ego functioning, lend themselves directly to a green movement. I regard this as a missed opportunity in the book, especially when issues related to the alienation of land, the neocolonial extraction of resources and the psychosocial implications of environmental change for the rural poor and lumpenproletariat where themes raised throughout the book. Fanon can certainly inform the eco-socialist movement, by literally placing the person within their environment.

Still, Gibson’s volume is an excellent companion to Fanon’s works. It is not only suggestive of how one can read Fanon, but also how it can be applied in a transformative politics. The bibliographies accompanying many of the chapters provide the reader with specific area and topic guides.

Ultimately, though, the major point is that Fanon is still relevant sixty years after his death in 1961. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity”. Certainly, a much-needed call to action. Individuals continue to be subject to the daily pain of alienation, they experience the daily indignity of threats to their various and multiple experiences of well-being. Millions face very real threats to their survival, both physical and psychological. Despite the hope that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decolonialization did not help people on the social, cultural, and economic margins of these newly “independent” nations. The national bourgeoisie mimicked their colonial masters and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The brutality simply took another form, and the exploitation continues apace.

Nigel Gibson and the other contributors to the book remind us that Fanon can help support the process of disalienation and promote opportunities for hope over fear; but this needs democratic relationships and the ability to listen. It also requires not only consciousness but the will to collectively act on that collective awareness. Following from this it requires organization. As suggested by Pavon-Cueller, “The still wretched of the earth need from their allied intellectuals the continued reading of Fanon in a militant, politically committed way, and not just for academic research or reflection” (p. 246). As the book constantly reminds us, we need Fanon to help animate the struggle so we can all breathe more freely and easily.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution programmes and evidence shows that they are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use.

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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?
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By all accounts, food and agriculture were barely on the agenda at this month’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. They should have been. Food production, distribution, consumption, and waste contribute an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In production, the majority comes from unsustainable livestock production with another large share coming from unsustainable production and use of synthetic fertilizers. But a significant share also comes from “land use change”, a neutral term for the destructive expansion of agriculture onto new land.

That sort of “extensification” of agriculture can have serious environmental consequences – deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable water use, etc. Those in turn have important implications for climate change, as a recent UN report highlighted. Land use changes due to agricultural expansion increase carbon emissions from land clearing, eliminate carbon dioxide-absorbing plants such as rainforests, and create greenhouse gases with incoming modern farming methods. According to the UN, they account for about 30 per cent of agriculture-related emissions.

The simplifying neo-Malthusian perspective attributes extensification to growing populations exerting pressure on scarce natural resources. Increasing farmers’ productivity on existing lands in regions such as Africa where yields are relatively low is the mainstream solution. The goal is to foster “sustainable intensification” – growing more food on the same land. With commercial inputs such as commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can intensify their exploitation of existing agricultural land, raising productivity and easing pressures from growing populations to bring new lands into cultivation.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address the productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the alliance set out to reduce chronic hunger and poverty by increasing yields in key food crops through the expanded use of commercial seeds and fertilizers. This is the “technology package” credited with raising agricultural productivity in what came to be known as the first Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.

Africa’s Green Revolution has largely failed to promote either sustainability or intensification. Evidence suggests that the initiatives, which include high levels of government subsidies for farmers to use Green Revolution inputs, are both failing to raise productivity and contributing to the unsustainable expansion of farming onto new lands.

My research shows that excessive incentives to maize and a few commercial crops have persuaded farmers to shift land out of other nutritious crops while expanding production onto new lands. The result is higher maize production but without significant productivity increases. Meanwhile, we see rising levels of malnourishment and undernourishment as poor farmers fail to benefit from rising productivity but see their families’ diet diversity decline as the diversity of food crops in their fields declines.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa. The worst dangers of famine are in areas of conflict such as Ethiopia, but hunger is more widespread. The United Nations has recorded a 50 per cent increase in the number of severely undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006. Underlying that deprivation is a model of agricultural development that is encouraging unsustainable land use and undermining crop and diet diversity.

These alarming outcomes have prompted African food producing organizations to call on donors to end their support for AGRA and other Green Revolution programmes. They call for a shift to agroecological initiatives that have been shown to generate sustainable productivity improvements across a range of food crops, addressing the need for more food and more nutritious diets while easing pressures on unsustainable land use.

Redoubling climate damage

Neither evidence nor entreaties have persuaded Green Revolution leaders that their strategies may be misguided. In October, Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chair of the Board of AGRA, acknowledged the problem. “Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world,” he wrote in an opinion column for African Arguments. “Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.” He went on to argue that the intensive use of Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers could achieve that. He has urged governments and donors to redouble Green Revolution efforts.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa.

The evidence suggests otherwise. In 2020, I carried out a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of Green Revolution programmes in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. AGRA refused to share its own impact data, so I used national-level data on crop production, productivity, and area expansion to determine whether AGRA was meeting its stated goal of doubling productivity for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020. Because 30 million represent the vast majority of farms in AGRA’s programme area, national-level data from 2006-2018 would reveal whether such a productivity revolution was occurring. I also assessed progress toward AGRA’s stated goals of doubling incomes for those same farmers and cutting food insecurity by half by 2020.

I found the Green Revolution was failing on its own terms. Productivity growth was slow, even for heavily supported and subsidized crops such as maize. More traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum showed stagnation or decline. My estimate of productivity increases for a basket of staple crops in AGRA’s 13 focus countries showed just 18 per cent yield growth over 12 years, a rate barely higher than the preceding 12 years. Not surprisingly, poverty remained endemic, particularly in rural areas. And rather than cutting food insecurity by half, the number of undernourished people increased 31 per cent in those 13 countries.

The data also revealed that Green Revolution initiatives were not only failing to achieve sustainable intensification, they were promoting the opposite. As the graph shows, between 2006 and 2018 maize productivity rose by only 29 per cent while the area planted to maize increased by 45 per cent in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Overall, production increased 87 per cent, but mainly because of extensification rather than intensification. Meanwhile, land planted to other staples such as millet and sorghum declined or stagnated, as did yields. My composite staple yield index showed just 18 per cent yield growth. (All data cited here, unless otherwise indicated, are from the United Nations, cited in my Tufts University Working Paper.)

AGRA Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
This outcome will come as no surprise to those living in AGRA countries where incentives are heavily concentrated on maize. In most AGRA countries, governments provide large subsidies to farmers to buy and use commercial maize seeds and fertilizers. AGRA itself has spent one billion dollars in its 14-years of work, but African governments have been spending up to one billion dollars per year on such Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs). Some governments also pay above-market prices to farmers for their maize to maintain public grain reserves.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported. That has been true in the United States for decades. Farmers make complex calculations to gauge the relative returns to corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops based on market conditions and relative levels of government support.

In Africa, maize has received the lion’s share of the support in most AGRA countries, so land and investment have moved more heavily into maize production. Farmers are incentivized to switch out of existing crops like millet, which has seen an alarming 24 per cent decline in production and a 21 per cent drop in yields, and into maize. Hence the decline in crop diversity under Green Revolution programmes. Farmers with access to land are also incentivized to bring new land into production, which allows them to reap the benefits of government support programmes. Hence the extensification of production.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported.

Across AGRA countries, there was a 13 per cent increase in land under cultivation from 2006 to 2018, the majority of it in AGRA’s two principal supported crops, maize and rice. More than 7 million more hectares of land were planted in maize in 2018 than in 2006. Another 3 million more hectares were planted in rice. Those 10 million hectares accounted for nearly all of the expansion in land planted to cereal crops in that time period.

It is hard to argue that Green Revolution programmes did not contribute significantly to this problem of agricultural extensification. That is especially problematic when such input-intensive agriculture is failing to generate the promised productivity gains or reductions in hunger.

Studies in extensification: Zambia and Rwanda

Zambia and Rwanda have both expanded maize production dramatically, but both illustrate the ways in which Green Revolution incentives have led to undesirable outcomes. Zambia was one of AGRA’s focus countries until a few years ago. It left the alliance but has re-joined recently. Zambia provides extensive subsidies for maize production and also buys maize at supported prices for its food reserve programme. As a result, it has the highest levels of fertilizer use among AGRA countries. Between 2006 and 2018, Zambia increased maize production by 150 per cent, making it an apparent Green Revolution success story.

Zambia Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
But, as the graph shows, only a small share of the added maize came from productivity growth. Yields grew just 27 per cent while the area planted to maize doubled. Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives. Two-thirds of Zambia’s 32 per cent increase in land planted to crops was attributable to new land planted to maize. Staple yields overall increased just 20 per cent in that 12-year period. And all that maize failed to stem hunger or reduce poverty. The number of undernourished Zambians increased 29 per cent while extreme rural poverty remained at 78 per cent.

Rwanda has been a poster child for AGRA for years. AGRA’s current president, Agnes Kalibata, ascended to that position in large part due to her success in increasing maize production as Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture. Between 2006 and 2018, maize production increased 300 per cent thanks to a well-funded and heavy-handed Green Revolution initiative. Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

Rwanda Progress Report: Productivity and Food SecurityAs the graph shows, Rwanda achieved higher maize yield growth than Zambia, increasing productivity by 66 per cent. But as in Zambia, most of the added maize came from a 146 per cent increase in new land planted to the crop, not from productivity. Similarly, rice production doubled, but yields actually declined 19 per cent, with land planted to rice increasing 147 per cent. In this small, densely populated country, some of that land came out of other staple crops, with the government reportedly banning their cultivation in some areas. Sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and other roots and tubers were more important food crops than maize before AGRA, providing nutritional diversity in addition to benefits to the land. Land in cassava fell 16 per cent, while sorghum land declined 17 per cent.

Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives.

My more comprehensive Staple Yield Index captures Rwanda’s poor performance across all staple crops. Compared to the much-touted 66 per cent increase in maize yields, we see just a 24 per cent increase in yields for key staples – maize, millet, sorghum, roots and tubers. Since 2006, extreme poverty remained high, falling just three percentage points to a still alarming 60 per cent. As in Zambia, all that extra maize did not help the hungry; the number of undernourished Rwandans has increased 40 per cent since 2006.

Far from being a Green Revolution success story, Rwanda offers an example of the ways in which the imposition of such a model on a relatively diverse farming landscape can disrupt more nutritious and sustainable cropping patterns. Rwanda does not have a great deal of uncultivated arable land, so most of the area expansion for maize and rice came from other crops rather than new lands. Still, Rwanda highlights how heavy incentives for Green Revolution crops create outcomes at odds with the goals of sustainable intensification for food security.

“Time to change course”

AGRA Board Chair Hailemariam Desalegn is correct to identify the problem of unsustainable expansion onto new lands in Africa, but he is wrong to think that his Green Revolution will solve that problem. Evidence shows that Green Revolution programmes are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use. Incentives for a narrow range of supported crops entice farmers and investors to open new lands for cultivation. Meanwhile, those commercial inputs are failing to generate any sort of productivity revolution or address the alarming 50 per cent rise in the number of undernourished Africans since AGRA was founded in 2006.

Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

As representatives from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa state in their published response to Mr Desalegn, it is “time to change course: the future is in agroecology.”

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers. Examples abound across Africa of farming communities that are increasing both the diversity and productivity of their fields. In Africa and other developing countries, some 15 million small-scale farmers interplant so-called green-manure cover crops alongside their food crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce weeding, add another food or forage crop to their fields, and increase the carbon sequestered in the soil. Scientists recommend appropriate cultivars from a range of more than 100 proven cover crops.

The Lablab bean native to East Africa, for example, has been shown to fix very high levels of nitrogen in the soil through its roots, improving soil fertility and water retention. The added nitrogen can raise maize yields threefold in those same fields, eliminating the need for inorganic fertilizer. And farm families get another nutritious food crop from their fields.

Such approaches are documented in a new UN report from its High Level Panel of Experts. Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 per cent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. This is far higher than AGRA’s 18 per cent yield growth in staple crops.

Agroecological farming can also achieve sustainable extensification. With the support of some governments, West African farmers are expanding onto uncultivated lands but in a way that builds rather than compromises the environment. In long-term land rehabilitation projects in the drylands of West Africa, farmers in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, and Niger are leading “another kind of green revolution.” They regenerate tree growth on deforested lands then diversify production as part of agro-forestry initiatives that are increasingly supported by national governments. This restores soil fertility, increases water retention, and has been shown to increase yields 40 to 100 per cent within five years while increasing farmer incomes and food security. According to one study, farmers rehabilitated at least 200,000 hectares of degraded land in Burkina Faso, enabling farmers to grow cereals on land that had been barren.

Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time.

Land reclamation is a desirable form of extensification, avoiding the negative environmental impacts of the input-intensive farming of monocultures of Green Revolution crops. Similarly, agroecology programmes intensify the production of diverse food crops on existing lands in ways that rebuild soil fertility and resilience to climate change.

Such strategies stand in stark contrast to Green Revolution programmes that are failing to help solve Africa’s unsustainable land-use issues. In fact, they are making them worse.

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