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In Praise of Idleness: Further Reflections on Knowledge, Capital and Growth

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Why is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living, still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital? Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital? By DAVID NDII

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In Praise of Idleness: Further Reflections on Knowledge, Capital and Growth
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“Modern technic has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor necessary to produce the necessaries of life for every one. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that at a given moment a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Bertrand Russell In Praise of Idleness

 

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare. Productivity is simply output per unit of input. We measure productivity in terms of output per worker. Economic efficiency is a question of optimality, that is, whether the resources have been put to the best possible use. Economics is in fact known as the study of resource allocation. Welfare is a question of whether the way production and distribution are organized is good for society. We can summarize the three questions: are we good at it, are we doing it right, and what good does it do. In short, it boils down to purpose. What is it all in aid of? This is Russell’s beef with the industrious society. To what end?

In economics, we are concerned primarily with three things, productivity, efficiency and welfare.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital are two young farmers. Both have inherited fifty acres of land on which their parents practice traditional farming, growing maize, beans, yams and livestock. Mr. Capital is an ambitious guy. He studied finance. He wants to modernize and mechanize.   Business plan, bank loan, buys tractors, harrows and ploughs and puts the whole 50 acres under maize. He is able to double his yield to 20 bags an acre. Next year he leases another 50 acres. Soon he is farming 500 acres. He has a fleet of tractors, sprayers, irrigation system, a combine harvester grain driers, silo—the works. He is producing 30 bags per acre.

Ms Agronomy went to agricultural college. She has small plots set aside on her farm where she experiments with different agronomic techniques such as zero-till farming, crop rotation, inter-cropping, organic farming, mulching and so on. She is still farming her fifty acres. For ease of analysis we translate all her different products into “maize equivalent.” Her production also works out to the equivalent of 30 bags of maize per acre.

Ms Agronomy and Mr. Capital’s economic accounts are summarized in the table below. Although both obtain the same yield, 30 bags per acre, Mr. Capital’s operation is evidently much more productive. Its total output translates to 750 bags per worker, two and a half times more than Ms Agronomy’s 300 bags per worker. It is not difficult to see how this difference has come about. Mr. Capital’s workers have more tools to work with, Sh. 3 million per worker against Ms Agronomy’s Sh. 600,000 per worker—five times as much. They are also working more land, 25 acres worker compared to 10 acres per worker in Ms Agronomy’s operation, obviously because they are mechanized.

But capital is not free. In economics we think of the cost of capital in terms of depreciation, wear and tear if you like, which is the rate of its consumption. Because Mr. Capital has all manner of equipment that need spare parts and replacement that Ms Agronomy does not have, his consumption of capital will be higher. Let us put it at 20 percent and Ms Agronomy’s at 15 percent. This translates to a capital costs of KSh. 600,000 and Sh. 90,000 per worker respectively.

To complete the accounts, we need cost of land and other inputs (fertilizers, diesel, electricity etc) which we call intermediate inputs in economic accounting jargon. The land rent is assumed at 500 per acre, Ms Agronomy has 10 acres per worker and Mr. Capital has 25, which works out to Sh. 6,000 and 24,000 per worker respectively. For intermediate inputs Mr. Capital uses more inputs including diesel, electricity fertilizer pesticides and so on. We assume that his input costs work out to Sh.80 per bag and Ms Agronomy’s are half as much, which adds up to Sh. 37,500 and Sh.6,000 per worker respectively. The price of maize is Sh. 1000 a bag.

What more do they tell us?

Although Mr. Capital’s operation has higher output per worker, Miss Agronomy’s operation has a labour surplus of Sh.196,500 against Mr. Capital’s Sh. 88,500 per worker, that is Sh.108,500 more. The labour surplus is what is available for consumption. If Miss Agronomy were to farm Mr. Capital’s land, she would create 50 jobs, two and half times more than Mr. Capital, and generate afford the society Sh. 5.4 million more consumption. With the same financing her operation would employ five times more workers (100 compared to 20) and six times the labour surplus (Sh.10.8 million compared to Sh.1.77 million) OF Mr. Capital’s operation, but it would require twice as much land—and that would be a problem wouldn’t it. As this columnist has remonstrated for the better part of three decades, if society entrusts landlords with the allocation of its resources, it ought not be befuddled that they seek to maximize rents

Mr. Capital’s workers produce Sh. 450,000 more, but the capital stock consumes more than the additional output. In economics we say that Mr. Capital’s operation has over-accumulated capital or if you want to be esoteric, it is “dynamically inefficient.” The idea that economy can over-accumulate capital runs counter to conventional wisdom, which maintains that consumption is bad, and investment is good. A particularly irksome variant of this conventional wisdom maintains that the more government spends on “development” by which we mean brick and mortar stuff, and the less is spends on recurrent, especially the wage bill, the better.

Suppose an economy starts out with a GDP per capita of $1000 and no physical capital stock. You can think of this as a pastoralist economy where the GDP is simply the value of each pastoralist’s annual off-take— for example, that each family sells four steers per person at $250 each. GDP is also equal to consumption.

Now, this economy decides to develop by “adding value” —feedlots, abattoirs, meat processing plants the works. It also needs infrastructure— electricity for the cold rooms, water etc. To finance this, it needs to save and invest. The table shows how the economy would evolve under four different investment rates 10, 20, 30 and 40 percent, and the associated economic growth rate, output (GDP per capita), the capital stock (obtained by depreciating investment at 20 percent per year), and consumption per person. At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year.

Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher – the economy has accumulated $460 of capital stock per person – but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development. They will have to be satisfied with bequeathing their children a better future—hopefully. At an investment rate of 20 percent, the economy would be breaking even after ten years, with consumption $75 higher than in year zero. Thirty percent investment rate consumption rises by another $12. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. What’s driving this?

[An] economy decides to develop by “adding value”…At a 10 percent investment rate, GDP per person grows by one percent per year. Ten years on, the GDP is just about 10 percent higher…but people are still consuming $6 less than before development started. But at 40 percent investment, the per capita consumption in year ten is $62 less than at an investment rate of 30 percent. The elderly who die during this period would have been better off without development…What’s driving this?

Mathematically, it is the relationship between the investment rate and the growth rate. A 10 percent investment rate increases growth by 1 percent. From 10 to 20 percent it increases by two percentage points. The increase declines to 1.5 percentage points between 20 percent and 30 percent, and to one percentage point between 30 and 40 percent investment rate. This is not a sleight of hand. It reflects two things. First the returns to capital decreases with the amount of capital—the law of diminishing returns. Secondly the more capital an economy accumulates the more resources are consumed by maintaining and replacing it. In the 40 percent investment scenario the replacement cost of capital amounts to a good 30 percent of GDP— three quarters of the 40 percent investment rate is simply maintaining the level of capital stock.

This economy has violated the Golden Rule saving rate. The Golden Rule saving rate is the rate of capital accumulation required to maintain a stable rate of consumption growth. It is called the golden rule because it requires each generation to do what it would have other generations do. Save too little, the capital stock declines and the next generation’s consumption will fall. Saving too much deprives the current generation only to burden future ones with maintaining a bigger capital stock than they need. The Golden Rule saving rate for this economy is somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. The economy ought to shed some capital. The question is, what will it shut down? No capitalist will volunteer to close down their plant for the good of the country. Since none will, recessions come every so often and sorts them out.

It should also be evident that capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality. I gather that my smartphone has millions of times more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) aboard the spacecraft that took Man to the moon. The AGC was the first computer to use integrated circuits (ICs), the now ubiquitous microchips. It cost $150,000 (about US$ 1.1 million in today’s value). My smartphone cost $1000 dollars and you can get a good one for a quarter of that. One very big difference is that the AGC was crash-proof. That aside, fifty years down the road, the cost of AGC will buy you 5,000 infinitely more powerful handheld computers to do the most frivolous things.

Capital on its own cannot deliver the kind of growth in prosperity that we observe in reality.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns. Secondly, knowledge can be used by many people over and over again at no additional cost.

Suppose Ms Agronomy were to acquire another 50 acres of land. She would with very little capital, simply replicate her knowhow and be producing at peak output in no time. And of course, Ms Agronomy would be continuing with her experiments. So by this time, she would be up to 35 bags per acre, or 40. In fact, every one of Ms Agronomy’s workers could go off and replicate her methods at no extra cost. Mr. Capital’s workers cannot walk into the bank and walk out with a tractor. Mr. Capital would be back to the bankers who would in turn deploy more of society’s savings to equip his operation. More of societies savings would have to be mobilized. New equipment would need to be manufactured. Producing more equipment needs more workers. So instead of producing food, Ms Agronomy’s workers will now be hired to produce the equipment to produce food.

It is science, not capital that enables us to waste computing power on selfies and fake news. The reason we can afford to consume knowledge, frivolously or otherwise, is first, not subject to diminishing returns.

Why then is society, even those countries in which more capital could not possibly appreciably improve standards of living —think Japan— still obsessed with hard work, thrift and accumulation of capital?

Why are Africa’s leaders forever trooping to the West and East, fawning, groveling and whoring for capital?

Bertrand Russell: ‘From the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard and his children added their labour as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by priests and warriors. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. At first sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. [But] a system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impression upon mens thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world.

Says Bertrand Russell: “Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness.”

Warriors, priests, chiefs, bureaucrats. And bankers.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Kenyans Need an Education That Is Human: A Call to Conscience

Colonial and post-colonial governments have worked to separate education from access to culture and information, and to isolate the school as the only source of learning.

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This is a call to Kenyans of conscience to step back and reflect on the lies about education that are circulating in the media, the schooling system and government. Foreign sharks have camped in Kenya to distort our education. Using buzzwords such as “quality” and “global standards”, these sharks seek to destroy the hopes, dreams and creativity of young Africans, not just in Kenya, but in the whole region, and to make a profit while at it. With the help of local professors, bureaucrats and journalists, they spread hatred for education among the population. At the same time, they ironically create a thirst for schooling that makes parents resort to desperate measures to get their children into school, going as far as accepting violence and abuse in schools that causes children to take their own lives.

This insanity must end.

We must accept that education is a life endeavour through which people constantly adapt to their social and natural environment. Education is more than going to school and getting the right paper credentials. Education occurs anywhere where human beings process what they perceive, make decisions about it and act together in solidarity. That is why education, culture and access to information are inseparable.

However, since colonial times, both the colonial and “independence” versions of the Kenya government have worked hard to separate education from culture and access to information. They have done so through crushing all other avenues where Kenyans can create knowledge. We have insufficient public libraries and our museums are underfunded. Arts festivals, where people come together and learn from unique cultural expressions, have been underfunded, and by some accounts, donors have been explicitly told not to fund creativity and culture. In the meantime, artists are insulted, exploited and sometimes silenced through censorship, public ridicule and moralistic condemnations in the name of faith.

All these measures are designed to isolate the school as the only source of learning and creativity, and this is what makes the entry into schools so cutthroat and abusive.

But entering school does not mean the end of the abuse. Once inside the schools, Kenyans find that there is no arts education where children can explore ideas and express themselves. In school, they find teachers who themselves are subject to constant insults and disruptions from the Ministry of Education and the Teachers Service Commission. Under a barrage of threats and transfers, teachers are forced to implement the Competency Based training which is incoherent and has been rejected in other countries. Many of the teachers eventually absorb the rationality of abuse and mete it out on poor children whose crime is to want to learn. This desperation for education has also been weaponized by the corporate world that is offering expensive private education and blackmailing parents to line the pockets of book publishers.

Education is more than going to school and getting the right paper credentials. Education occurs anywhere where human beings process what they perceive, make decisions about it and act together in solidarity.

By the end of primary and secondary school, only a mere 3 per cent of total candidates are able to continue with their education. This situation only worsens inequality in Kenya, where only 2 per cent of the population have a university degree, and where only 8,300 people own as much as the rest of Kenya.

But listening to the government and the corporate sector, you would think that 98 per cent of Kenyans have been to university. The corporate sector reduces education to job training and condemns the school system as inadequate for meeting the needs of the corporations. Yet going by statements from the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the government, there is no intention to employ Kenyans who get training. The government hires doctors from Cuba and engineers from China, and then promises the United Kingdom to export our medical workers. KEPSA is on record saying that we need to train workers in TVET so that they can work in other African countries.

It is clear that the Kenya government and the corporate sector do not want Kenyans to go to school and become active citizens in their homeland. Rather, these entities are treating schooling as a conveyor belt to manufacture Kenyans for export abroad as labour and to cushion the theft of public resources through remittances.

The media and the church also join in the war against education by brainwashing Kenyans to accept this dire state of affairs. The media constantly bombards Kenyans with lies about the composition of university students, and with propaganda against “useless degrees”. The church has abandoned prophecy and baptizes every flawed educational policy in exchange for maintaining its colonial dreams of keeping religion in the curriculum to pacify Kenyans in the name of “morality”.

The government is now intending to restrict education further through the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) which seeks to limit education through pathways that prevent children from pursuing subjects of their interests, and by imposing quotas on who can pursue education beyond secondary school. At tertiary level, the government is devising an algorithm that will starve the humanities and social sciences of funding. It claims that funds will instead go to medical and engineering sciences, which are in line with Kenya’s development needs.

But recall that foreigners are doing the work of medical professionals and engineers anyway, so “development” here does not mean that Kenyan professionals will work in their home country. They will work abroad where they cannot be active citizens and raise questions about our healthcare and infrastructure.

The proposed defunding of the arts, humanities and social sciences aims to achieve one goal: to reserve thinking and creativity for the 3 per cent of Kenyans who can afford it. This discrimination in funding of university education is about locking the majority and the poor out of spaces where they can be creative and develop ideas. It also seeks to prevent Kenyans from humble backgrounds from questioning policies and priorities that are passed under dubious concepts such as “development needs” that are largely studied in the humanities and social sciences.

It is clear that the Kenya government and the corporate sector do not want Kenyans to go to school and become active citizens in their homeland.

Clearly, there is a war against education and against Kenyans being creative and active citizens in their own country. For the 8,300 Kenyans to maintain their monopoly of resources, they need to distract Kenyans with propaganda against education, they need to limit Kenyans’ access to schooling, and they need to shut down alternative sources of training, information and knowledge. By limiting access to schooling and certificates, the 8,300 can exploit the work of Kenyans who have not been to school, or who have not gone far in school, by arguing that those Kenyans lack the “qualifications” necessary for better pay.

We must also name those who enable this exploitation. The greedy ambitions of the political class are entrenched by people who, themselves, have been through the school system. To adapt Michelle Obama’s famous words, these people walked through the door of opportunity, and are trying to close it behind them, instead of reaching out and giving more Kenyans the same opportunities that helped them to succeed. This tyranny is maintained by a section of teachers in schools, of professors in universities and of bureaucrats in government, who all fear students and citizens who know more than they do, instead of taking joy in the range of Kenyan creativity and knowledge. The professors and bureaucrats, especially, are seduced into this myopia with benchmarking trips abroad, are spoon-fed foreign policies to implement in Kenya. They harvest the legitimate aspirations of Kenya and repackage them in misleading slogans. For instance, they refer to limited opportunities as “nurturing talent”, and baptize the government’s abandonment of its role in providing social services “parental involvement”.

These bureaucrats and academics are helped to pull the wool over our eyes by the media who allow them to give Kenyans obscure soundbites that say nothing about what is happening on the ground. They also make empty calls for a return to a pre-colonial Africa which they will not even let us learn about, because they have blocked the learning of history and are writing policies to de-fund the arts and humanities. We must put these people with huge titles and positions to task about their loyalty to the African people in Kenya. We call on them to repent this betrayal of their own people in the name of “global standards”.

We Kenyans also need an expanded idea of education. We need arts centres where Kenyans can meet and generate new ideas. We need libraries where Kenyans can get information. We need guilds and unions to help professionals and workers take charge of regulation, training and knowledge in their specializations. We need for all work to be recognized independent of certification, so that people can be paid for their work regardless of whether one has been to school or not.

We need recognition of our traditional skills in areas like healing, midwifery, pastoralism, crafts and construction. We need a better social recognition of achievement outside business and politics. It is a pity that our runners who do Kenyans proud, our scientists, thinkers, artists and activists who gain international fame, are hardly recognized in Kenya because they were busy working, rather than stealing public funds to campaign in the next election. Our ideas are harvested by foreign companies while our government bombards us with useless bureaucracy and taxes which ensure that we have no impact here.

We need for all work to be recognized independent of certification, so that people can be paid for their work regardless of whether one has been to school or not.

Most of all, we need an end to the obsession with foreign money as the source of “development”. We are tired of being viewed as merely labour for export, we are tired of foreigners being treated as more important than the Kenyan people. We are tired of tourism which is based on the tropes of the colonial explorer and which treats Africans as a threat to the environment. And the names of those colonial settlers who dominate our national consciousness must be removed from our landmarks.

Development, whatever that means, comes from the brains and muscles of the Kenyan people. And the key to us becoming human beings who proudly contribute to society and humanity is education. Not education in the limited sense of jobs and certificates, but education in the broader sense of dignity, creativity, knowledge and solidarity.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy

Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy
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On 28 June 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations called on the UN to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent. This call came one year after the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. The UN panel of three experts in law enforcement and human rights will investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and make recommendations for change. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

The government of Kenya is strongly placed to support the nomination of its native son, an internationally respected jurist. Kenya is currently a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of “A3 plus 1”, the partnership between the three African members of the Security Council and the Caribbean member of the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Last week on 7 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta co-chaired the African Union, Caribbean Community summit. This meeting between the AU and the Caribbean states agreed to establish the Africa, Brazil, CARICOM, and Diaspora Commission. This Commission will mature into a politico/economic bloc embracing over 2 billion people of African descent. Kenya, with its experience of reparative justice from the era of the Land and Freedom Army, has joined with the Caribbean to advance the international campaign to end the dehumanization of Africans. African descendants around the world have lauded the 2021 Human Rights Council Report for calling on the international community to “dismantle structures and systems designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems.”

Background to the nomination of Hon Willy Mutunga

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to worldwide condemnation of police killings and systemic racism in the United States. The African Members of the UN Human Rights Council pushed hard to garner international support to investigate systemic racism in policing in the United States. In the wake of the global outcry, there were a number of high-level investigations into police killings of innocent Blacks. Three distinguished organizations, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild convened a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to investigate police violence and structural racism in the United States. Virtual public hearings were held in February and March 2021, with testimonies from the families of the victims of some of the most notorious police killings in recent times.

In its report, a panel of leading human rights lawyers from 11 countries found the US in frequent violation of international laws, of committing crimes against humanity by allowing law enforcement officers to kill and torture African Americans with impunity and of “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts”.

Among its principal findings, the Commission found the US guilty of violating its international human rights treaty obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk; tolerating an “alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers” against Black people; and operating a “culture of impunity” in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just “a few bad apples”.

After the Commission’s report was published, the convening organizations’ Steering Committee mobilized international public opinion to publicize its findings. Former CJ Willy Mutunga was one of the jurists in Africa who worked hard to publicize the report’s findings and recommendations.

It was in large part on the basis of these findings that the Human Rights Council issued its own report at the end of June. The United Nations decided to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent, adding international weight to demands in the United States for accountability for police killings of African Americans, and reparations for victims. The panel of three experts will have a three-year mandate to investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing. Many organizations have submitted names for suggested panel members. Legal experts from Global Africa and international jurists have recommended Willy Mutunga to be one of the three panellists. Thus far, the following organizations have endorsed the candidacy of Willy Mutunga:

  1. The African Bar Association, with membership in 37 African Countries.
  2. The United States Human Rights network (USHRN), a National network of U.S. organizations working to strengthen the Human Rights movement in the US.
  3. International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Decent in the United States.
  4. Society of Black Lawyers of the United Kingdom
  5. Bandung Conference, a Diaspora Human Rights network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

There are now calls for the government of Kenya to step forward to be more proactive to lobby the Human Rights Council and to write letters to its President, H.E. Nazhat Shameen Khan (hrcpresidency@un.org), endorsing the candidature of Dr Mutunga. His CV is included for those who want to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kenya to lead the endorsement of Willy Mutunga.

The Steering Committee of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States is coordinating the campaign for Dr Willy Mutunga to be appointed by the UNHRC as a member of the International Expert Mechanism to monitor compliance of the UNHRC findings and recommendations.

The Government of Kenya and Human Rights groups are kindly asked to send copies of their endorsements to the Coordinator, International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States, lennoxhinds@aol.com.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
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The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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