Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Wheat Field

In the chaotic world of African aid, where rights and ownership are often not clear and there are equally persuasive yet completely conflicting viewpoints for every decision, I often use as my litmus test the question, What would we do in Canada? Another way of phrasing this is: How would a population with full empowerment react to this situation---how would it play out in the court of public opinion and halls of power?

For example, in the 1990s two Canadian aid organizations, CUSO and CIDA, carried on a feud over a wheat field that CIDA had funded in Tanzania. CIDA considered the wheat field a successful program that improved Tanzania’s food self-sufficiency. CUSO considered the wheat field a major human rights abuse because of its displacement of the Barabaig tribe. For many years, much of CUSO's resources were devoted to a bitter legal and public relations battle.

In the 1970s Tanzania had a food shortage and so was forced to import a lot of grain, thereby depleting its foreign exchange reserves and forcing it to rely on foreign aid. By 1980 foreign aid accounted for 70% of the Tanzanian GNP. In an effort to address the food shortage, after meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Tanzanian President Julius Nyere, CIDA and the Tanzanian government started the Tanzania Canada Wheat Programme, a large-scale wheat growing operation in the Hanang District. Tanzanians were trained in wheat farming techniques by Canadian wheat farmers. By 1989 the Hanang wheat field was supplying over half of Tanzania’s needs, and it didn't use any chemical fertilizers. It was one of the most successful aid programs ever enacted.

However, the semi-nomadic Barabaig, a tribe that numbers about 40,000, had been using the land to graze their cattle. They weren’t completely displaced, but their grazing land was curtailed by the wheat. Their livelihood was threatened and some of them were forced to accept aid. There were protests and a Barabaig man was killed.

CUSO took up the Barabaig cause, providing them with cars and buildings, recruiting lawyers to argue their case in court, and publicizing the human rights abuses of the CIDA project. CIDA was portrayed as a murderous pack of insensitive bureaucrats who were destroying indigenous culture by inflicting capitalist practices on the country. During my years in Tanzania it was not uncommon for Tanzanians and foreigners to complain to me that my country was a human rights abuser because of the wheat field.

Despite government support, CIDA was eventually forced to withdraw from the project. When CIDA managers left, local corruption quickly doomed the wheat fields to nonproductivity and bankruptcy. The land claim battle, as far as I know, continues.

But back to my litmus test. What would we do in Canada? I doubt that in Canada an industry of vital importance to the economy would be destroyed by land claims. We can complain about our capitalist, consumerist economy, but there are benefits to adhering to the goal of prosperity. For example, municipal government decisions always consider the impact on the local tax base, a criterion that has many times infuriated me but that keeps us economically healthy. Public support tends to maintain an element of self-interest, even when conflicting moral values arise.

We in the rich countries frequently impose a double standard on poor countries. For example, we get all worked up about the Brazilian rain forest with not nearly as much concern about our own clear cutting. We deplore all poaching of African animals while we allow culls of deer and bear in our own back yards. Elephants are a big problem in parts of East Africa: there are a lot of them, they're not controllable, and they destroy lives and property. If it were North America we wouldn't let them rampage around human settlements, but Africa is flooded with foreign wildlife conservationists who protect animals over people. I don't know if it actually happened, but a conservationist group in Tanzania was even planning to re-introduce deadly tsetse flies into an area to keep poor Africans from moving in and disturbing the wildlife.

The interest group model of civil society works well in rich countries where rights are protected and all people are able to speak up. It is a laudable goal of international organizations to build civil society in poor countries, but in the early development of a civil society lobbying is often dominated by the agenda of foreigners and debates can become lopsided very fast.

In highlighting the wheat field controversy I deliberately used an example involving human rights abuses because it isn't easy. On the one hand there is a large group of people that is being displaced. On the other hand there is a country that can't afford medical care or education for its 30 million people. Many aid workers consider the wheat field to be an infamous example of the failure of top-down aid: instead of building on the wishes of local residents, a large-scale agribusiness project was conceived by government and imposed on the people. I saw it quite differently, as an example of how meddling ideologues are holding back African countries from becoming self-sufficient.

PS: I worked for CUSO.

See also: Peanut Butter Jars



Anonymous said...

Although I agree that there is a double-standard that Northerners employ when talking about "democracy," or the lack thereof, in the South....do you think the Barabaig (or even Tanzania as a whole) would have been better off without an outside group like CUSO getting involved? I'm a little confused because you seem to imply that the voices of the Barabaig would not have as much impact since they lack a representative political system...or at least one that is given as much credence in the international arena. So, given that the problem was brought into Tanzania (in order to solve a bigger, national problem), shouldn't Canadians have had a say in what their government was funding overseas? Shouldn't human rights trump sovereignty? (I think this could be applied to so many areas but Sudan comes to mind.)

Also, George Monbiot noted in a Guardian story that some of the "aid" money was actually being channeled back to Canada (surprise, surprise) and so I think this waters down the claim that the good of the "aid" project--also known as "development"-- outweighed the bad that it caused.

"By good fortune, the machinery, seeds and chemicals needed for such a project were all manufactured in Canada. By funding a wheat project in Tanzania, the Canadian government could keep everyone happy, subsidizing its own industries without incurring the wrath of the taxpayer."

Do you happen to know how much of the profits actually stayed in Tanzania?

I also think it is important to put the term "human rights abuses" in context since this, by itself, may not be what sparks most people's intersts in this particular story...especially in a world in which torture is acceptable to many U.S. Americans... So I'd like to mention that Monbiot reports a NINE-YEAR OLD boy was imprisoned for four months and that numerous women were raped by NAFCO employees.

Which brings me to another question. Are NAFCO and CIDA the same group?

I guess I'm just not sure whether you are saying that both sides were wrong...which, in this case I don't think is true. The costs seem to outweigh the benefits and it seems pretty clear that CIDA/NAFCO was the villain. Also, the idea that we should focus on problems at home doesn't ring true to me. Sometimes the problems abroad are bigger and sometimes we have a deeper responsibility to those problems precisely because we played some part in creating them. Beign relativistic or self-absorbed (by that I mean focused on the near and dear, such as one'd country of citizenship) doesn't help when precisely what we need are critical, bold minds that can get outside of themselves and the familiar, belonging to people who are willing to act against popular opinion or indifference.

Please clarify these points in case I misunderstood you.


Anonymous said...

I was one of the Canadians employed by the Wheat Project. I moved my family there for years, and worked and lived with the Africans. The Barabaig tribe knocked at our door, and we gave them things that would help them, we talked to them often, even though we didn't know their language, or they didn't know ours.
We just wanted to help. Period.
Looking back now, it could have been done in a better way.
Africa changed my life, there's not a day that goes by I don't think of it. The people are amazing, and the country is beautiful. If anyone has anything to figure out the meaning of, they will find their answers in Africa.

Anonymous said...

I am a member of a small tribe in Africa. That is my identity first and foremost. For me the nation state is just a colonial left over. That is why I cannot accept to sacrifice my way of life for the sake of country. As far as I know, the barabaig people have nothing to do with wheat or wheat products. So why should they loose there land for that which doest benefit them. Barabaig are not Tanzanians. They are Barabaig. Period.

Anonymous said...

the wheat farms were great.Tanzanian benefited a lot from this CIDA project including the Barbaigs.Now that the project is no longer there,we suffer,a bread costs three times the former price.Because of this project the barbaig society is having schools,electricity,transportation,health care.I believe this project can workout beautifully if it will be implemented in consideration of all parts.of course we need this project,we need this farms to operate again.