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COLUMN

Let’s Not Starve Africans

Ken Nesmith

About 100 black farmers marched in front of the U.S Dept.of Agriculture two weeks ago to protest the department’s failure to comply with the ruling of a 1999 class action lawsuit by 22,000 black farmers, in which the government was convicted of racially discriminatory loan practices. About half of the farmers who won the lawsuit have yet to see any of the $50,000 awarded them as recompense for decades of denials of loans granted to other farmers.

Our agricultural system is not kind to nonwhites. Of course, back in the olden days, black slaves did all the work, and this was not pleasant. Today, migrant farm workers born into ignorance in the abysmal depths of poverty, stumbling on the edge of death and working through incomprehensible misery merely to stave off starvation and gain the right to another day, staff farms throughout the country, harvesting food for our tables and living in hovels. Globally, subsistence farmers struggle to live a painful lifestyle too often romanticized by comfortable leftists here. African cotton farmers, forced to brush their teeth with tree roots and live in mud shacks, can rarely make a profit.

This is unfortunate. But objectively, tragic pain in this world is about as difficult and depressing as an MIT freshman in February. The real crime, the jaw-dropping, why-do-I-pay-taxes, please-stop-starving-poor-people crime is our nation’s policy of forcing poor nations to compete in the world market with our own subsidized farmers, an act which amounts to coaxing a weak opponent onto the playing field unarmed, proceeding to pull out a gun, and shooting him.

Last spring, Congress chose to give $118 billion of our money to American farmers in the next six years. It is the largest such bill ever passed. This time, Europe joins in the moronity instead of offering asinine critiques from the peanut gallery per tradition: all told, the west subsidizes agriculture to the tune of $343 billion. The U.S. program works like this: farmers grow the food, and sell it on the market. The government then gives them more money.

The funds do not sustain some pastoral farming tradition or American heartland lifestyle; in fact they hurt that lifestyle. Two thirds of the funds go to the largest ten percent of farms, which are primarily corporate agribusiness operations. This taxpayer support makes it nearly impossible for smaller farms to compete with the large corporate outfits. The Bush administration, advocate of reduced taxes and fiscal austerity, fully supported this crime of a bill -- hypocrisy so flagrant and destructive that it should make one cringe.

When Third-World nations need capital in order to produce goods and services and thereby raise their standard of living, they go to the World Bank/International Monetary Fund tag team. This organization gives the nation in question a loan, but attaches to those loan funds certain guidelines and qualifications concerning the restructuring of government and economic controls to ensure that the money is not squandered. Rather than simply pouring economic fuel into a broken engine, they try to fix the engine as well so that all may be spared painful and ruinous waste and inefficiency.

Of course, the tag-team is not always the best fixer of engines. Most infamously, user-fees, charged to each user of government services such as education and health care for each incidence of use, brought about the denial of vital services to those most qualified to receive them. The WB/IMF have abandoned that ill-conceived policy, as they have some others that sharply deepened the Asian recession of the late 90s.

There are plenty of other bad ideas still in practice at the bank, however. Minutes of meetings where these important decisions are made are kept entirely secret. Efforts to reform the bank -- even efforts launched from within -- are stalled and mired in bureaucracy. Here’s the policy that’s relevant to our farming crime: countries receiving IMF assistance must develop export economies. They must not produce crops that will be bought and consumed within the country; they are instead mandated by the IMF to produce crops that can be sold to other nations on the world markets so they can gain currency to use for other costs and debts. These rules furthermore mandate that no tariffs or subsidies shall be enacted upon these crops; the free market is to be free.

Is the horror of our crime not yet clear? Through the powerful World Bank and IMF, over whom we hold great control, we sweep away the protectionist defenses that an extensive investigation published in the New York Times reveals to be almost the only successful means of raising a nation from poverty. This move on its own is fairly neutral. Leveling the playing field and letting the invisible hand of the market work its magic is a reasonable enough way to govern trade between nations.

Yet another hand appears beside the invisible hand -- it is ours, and it wields a blade long and sharp against which these poor nations have no defense. They are forced to compete not only with the technologically advantaged American farmers, but with farmers who need not worry about running their farms profitably and producing the optimal amount of crop, as they are simply fed bits of the wealth of our nation. Our subsidies substantially depress market prices and make African farms unprofitable. Oxfam, the international hunger-relief group, estimates that a one-percent increase in Africa’s share of world exports would increase the continent’s revenues by $70 billion, a sum five times the aid it receives.

This absurdity is intolerable, and to say that it is political necessity is ignorant and dishonest. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska with a reputation for favoring common sense in the face of distorted political idiocy, voted against the farm bill. Think about that for a moment. Nebraska’s economy depends primarily on agriculture and food processing. Like other farm states, its residents clamor for a fat slice of the stolen pie. Yet Senator Hagel refused to participate in the crime; he refused to grant this murderous act of theft a stamp of legitimacy.

President Bush added a colorful stroke to his curious self-portrait painted for the world when he signed this bill. He perhaps doesn’t bear primary responsibility for this debacle, but his complicity in the murder is upsetting. That a senator from a farm state could stand confidently against the powerful political tide simply to do the right thing and live to tell about it is a welcoming bit of encouragement in an otherwise horrifying story. Maybe other politicians will follow his lead.