Seed Saving: Janet Maro in Tanzania

© Ebe Daems
Janet Maro. Source: “Tanzanian farmers are facing heavy prison sentences if they continue their traditional seed exchange”

Really interesting interview about agribusiness and equity with Tanzanian food/farming advocate Janet Maro.

It’s on KUT Austin’s excellent The Secret Ingredient Podcast and it hits on a snaggled aspect of agriculture and aid:

What’s the right framework for food and economic development?

What I’ve learned from communities and firsthand experience in East Africa:

  • When small-scale farming is tied to livelihoods and identity, you can’t just force people out of a farming profession and their farmland without their consent.
  • Likewise you can’t scale up farming alongside investment in grassroots-up economic growth if you don’t allow for international businesses.
  • And you do have to “harmonize” with some of the laws and logistics of the world market.

Now, how you get that done where everyone has the right kind of equity?

Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?

Is there ever a “right way” for someone to make themselves up in Blackface? Nope.


But is there a difference between (a) the inherently exploitative act of Blackfacing and (b) experimenting with cultural and cosmetic aspects of identity in an equitable, inclusive, constructive, and respectful way? I think the answer to that one is “Maybe“, but I’m a European/American White guy. Continue reading “Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?”

American Engagement with African Countries: No Frame, No Gain

Here’s a question missing from the U.S. presidential candidate debates: Why should Americans involve their money, political capital and other resources in an African country’s challenges when there are so many problems at home demanding attention?

As Americans, we’re inundated with images of hungry African children, but what about the plight of children in this country? Our child poverty rate is at its highest level in 20 years, with nearly one in four children living in homes without enough food. Among our homeless population, there are nearly 2.5 million children. [T]he staggering rate of incarceration for African-American men […] is nearly six times the rate for white men.

The excerpt above comes not from a concerned American taxpayer but from Cassandra Herman’s upcoming documentary “Framed”, in which Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi asks an American college classroom what attracts them to ‘save’ Africa when they have their own crises at home, whether their international do-goodery is just an exclusive hobby or career for privileged White Americans, and whether their beloved “interventions” do more harm than good. (Source: “An African’s Message for America”,

Why work on an African country’s problems instead of American problems at home? I enjoy this question every time it’s put to me by plenty of folks from American states and African countries. My answer is always the same: economics.

I don’t care about “saving Africa”, I don’t work and invest in African countries for charitable reasons, and I don’t think USAID and any major U.S. charity does either. I’ll leave it to scientists to untangle the necessary self-interest from an individual’s motives of altruism, faith or moral orientation.

I want to work with my partners in African countries to make or do something we can all get paid for.

More than that, I truly believe that all of humanity benefits when there are more people who can more freely create and exchange more things: art, ideas, goods, services, etc.

When that happens then even domestic problems of jobs, economic growth and social services become easier, not harder. Tell me what today’s telecommunications, art, medicine, renewable energy, transportation etc. would look like without the participation of China and India, South America and Asia, or an America-bound immigrant family from Syria.

And on the flipside I believe that the fewer people with less freedom to do the above (and the longer we go without it), the more humanity risks the a global catastrophic destruction of lives and property. Economic and social/political exclusion means minds and resources and bodies that *cannot help us* stay ahead of the game Nature is constantly playing against us — disease, environmental changes, food availability, etc.

That’s a much stronger imperative and a more reliable moral compass than a cultural convention to “be charitable”.

Is there a “Real Africa”, and Does Anyone (Need to) Care?

[Note this post is part of an ongoing series. See Part I here.]

There is a puzzle that asks, “How long is a piece of string?” Since strings can be any length, the best answer might be, “Twice as long as half of the string.”

Another puzzle put to us these days is “What is the Real Africa?” Somebody must know, because whenever there is a picture or video of a scene from somewhere and some time on the African continent, there’s inevitably somebody complaining about how that picture or video fails to show the “Real Africa”.

Or worse, something is accused of promoting a false or damaging image of life in an African country. Often this is equated with promoting colonialism or “a colonial view”.

I’m a White American born to a White Austrian mother. Aside from friends and business interests my everyday life has no affiliation with the African continent. But I know things that are “real” about Africa. I want to participate in this discussion. I just don’t know if my opinion matters.

As Far as the Eye Can See
Aside from what the “Real Africa” isn’t (e.g. the World Bank portfolio population of “average households”), the first reality of Africa I know is that “Africa” is really many different countries, peoples, languages, regions, etc. ad infinitum. That’s not counting the yet-uncatalogued flora and fauna. Unless talking about natural phenomena (“Africa’s coasts”, “Africa’s latitude and longitude”, “Africa’s rivers”) Africa comprises so much diversity that it almost makes at little sense to talk about the “Real Africa” as it might the “Real Eurasia”.

The second reality I know is that the peoples of North America, Europe and Asia (here including what most call the Middle East) will never stop being part of everyday life on the African continent.

Geography and climate are part of the “Real Africa”. Africa has more resources than any imperial ancestor of the nations now sitting on the governing boards of the United Nations or the World Bank. But compared to conditions in the “heartlands” of Europe and Asia, those natural aspects made it difficult to establish large, centrally-controlled feeding, defense and administration of large populations over large areas. They made it difficult to grow, store and distribute a lot of food (especially not with domesticated livestock). There was heat, disease, huge areas of land and a diverse set of ethno-linguistic populations.

There were empires on the African continent before the foreigners came. They had large cities and agricultural projects, able to project military force over large areas. But Europe and Asia had the stronger armies, the stronger appetites and the stronger administration to take on even the mightiest historical African nations. Human nature and the strategy of “divide and rule” also helped. Rome took on the Carthaginians and the Egyptians. Islamic empires took on North Africa. The European empires took on West, South and East Africa.

None of those conquerors ever really stopped attacking. What we call Colonialism was just an episode in that history of attacks: conquest of a non-neighboring people, involving more administration than assimilation, with unequally distributed benefits for both conqueror and conquered.

Most of the conquerors left but they never really let go. They come for religious conversion. They come for economic gain. They come for the prestige of holding African land and African treasure. They take that land and treasure to defend against their enemies and defeat their foes, or to feed and enrich their own populations.

Even today, it’s not unreasonable to ask the difference between (a) a White European Colonial Officer writing reports, administrating a subject population and lounging at the Officer’s Club and (b) a White European/American aid company employee writing reports, administrating a multiple aspects of a community (health care, education, etc.), and enjoying privileged benefits such as paid travel and a relatively high income compared to the surrounding local population.

An irony is that while much of the above-mentioned interaction is carried out in terms of “developing” African countries or “saving” them, it’s really the other countries of the world that need saving by their African sister states.

They need African food and African natural resources. They need African markets. They need African artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists. Never mind that they need African countries to not produce the next close-call global pandemic (e.g. Ebola) or the next globally destabilizing organization (e.g. Al Qaeda).

So there’s no way these non-African nations will ever stop being part of what makes Africa, Africa. Their historical experiences of African countries, too, remembered and imagined, are part of what makes Africa, Africa. One can be certain that in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike against China, Europe and the USA there will still be boatloads of 21st Century Stanleys and Livingstones injecting themselves into everyday African life.

Who Labels the Labellers?
It might be that whether or not something is the “Real Africa” or a “colonial view of Africa” depends on who is showing or labeling. Not what is being shown.

One writer at the publication Ventures responded to the Taylor Swift video with pictures of what Africa “really…had to offer”. As if what the Taylor Swift video showed was inauthentic and not real, as if the “Real Africa” wasn’t joined to the same umbilical cord as its sister continents and countries.

Yet Ms. Omolayo’s suggestions of what represents the “Real Africa” make the term more rather than less confusing.

  • A cover of Drum Magazine (An English-language publication in South Africa)
  • A photograph of buses in Cameroon in the 1950’s (that’s French-administered Cameroon, and vehicles evolved from the machines of Europe’s Industrial Revolution)
  • A photograph of South African diamond miners (then almost totally controlled by the English and the Boers)

What makes any of these images more representative of the “Real Africa”? If Taylor Swift had incorporated these exact images into her Wildest Dreams video, would she have been spared the accusations of promoting a “colonial view” of the history of White people in African countries?

If the Clothes Fit, Wear Them
Another perspective comes from the magazine Those People, criticizing the appropriation of African fashion and markings by Black Americans.
If it isn’t part of your “everyday” life and if you don’t have a “real affiliation” with it, then it isn’t yours.

I agree with that. I cannot tell someone living in Africa, especially someone who’s family has lived in Africa, that I know more than them about what the “Real Africa” is or whether there is a “Real Africa” at all.

But interaction with people and resources in an African country is part of my everyday life, as it has been historically for the USA ever since its (at least partially) foundational slave-oriented agricultural industry.

Yet another outlook comes from a Somali photographer:

When you Google ‘Mogadishu’, the photos that surface convey a sense that life in Somalia’s capital is an endless cycle of death, destruction and despair.

Most of the images are of men and boys with guns, children playing in rubble, families huddled in refugee camps and scenes of carnage from explosions. Here and there there are snapshots of the city’s stunning beachfront and signs of hope and revival: new buildings rising in the skyline, solar-power-lit roads and brand-new ATM machines. While both types of images depict facets of reality, they don’t give a sense of daily existence for the city’s two million-plus residents, and what makes life worthwhile for them.

That last part seems key. Daily existence. What makes life worthwhile. If that is what defines the “Real Africa”, then it would really be different for everyone in every part of every country on the African continent.

And then I look at the pictures taken by the Somali photographer Abdulkadir Mohamed and I wonder if the pictures have more or less meaning, based on who is taking them.

Looking at the collection of pictures on Everyday Africa, does it matter to the “reality” of the scene who is behind the camera when capturing a moment of the “Real Africa”?

Two pictures submitted by photographers to the Everyday Africa Project

Mirror, Mirror on the Facebook Wall
In the end maybe none of it matters — neither the natural history nor the nationality of the definer.

In May of this year, at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in the Q&A that followed her lecture, ‘You know, I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself.

Perhaps that’s true. What are the negative aspects of how “Africa sees itself”? To what extent do people in African countries see themselves through “Western” eyes?

Is it through the international media? Is it through the still largely “Western” dominated international aid and development institutions, like the “Bad Numbers” identified by Morton Jerven?

Both the international press and the international aid industry employ the eternally recurring image of people in African countries as children or women or something “helpless”. (The blog Imaging Famine has a great breakdown of what’s wrong with that kind of imagery, like here and here.)

People in Africa: Poor Shoeless Children waiting for the “World Leaders” to save them.

But maybe, just maybe, this is more a problem for the “West” than it is for people in African countries. In both the case of the Taylor Swift video and the death of Cecil the Lion, the “international outcry” seems disproportionately heavy in countries off of the African continent. There is no doubt that people in African countries have opinions about these issues. But maybe those opinions are considered less important by people in the “West”.

While the World Bank is juggling numbers to determine whether there is or isn’t a “bottom billion”, while the Economist magazine figures out whether the African continent is “rising” or “hopeless”, people in African countries are getting along with their everyday life.

And that life, I assume, is different for every person relative to their family, their country and everything else that makes a person’s experiences unique.

Taylor Swiftboating

I truly do not care about Taylor Swift’s music, but the real target of public ire should be the ignorance and stereotyping built into the criticism of her latest video. Here are a few reasons why:

A) Countries in Africa are not literally border-to-border packed with black people, cities, women grinning at the camera as they pump water, farms, schools full of smiling children, and village markets.

B) Anyone with an ounce of familiarity with cinema would see the deliberate shots of antique filming equipment indicating that this is a “movie about a movie”.

So, based on (A) and (B) this video is a more honest use of “African” imagery than most of what Hollywood and the International Aid/Development industry puts out.

For example, it doesn’t make any pretense of using “African” imagery (I keep forgetting Africa is a single, homogeneous landscape of identical-looking people) as anything other than a background for a campy movie about a campy love story.

Compare that authenticity to the books and movies that use the odiously ubiquitous images interchangeably for every aspect of Africa. Like the acacia tree that appears on every book “about Africa” (Source: Africa Is a Country). Or the “white person handing something to/doing something for the grateful black person” motif from almost every charity and NGO.

You want to see hurtful imagery? Look inside your head. How quick are you to think of a person in an African country as “an African”? Do you picture them as black or white, and to what degree? Do you picture them dressed like you, or dressed in donated t-shirts? When you picture them in school, do you picture them in a classroom like the one near you, or in some kind of makeshift construction? When you picture that person getting medical treatment, are they getting it from a White NGO doctor or from one of their fellow citizens?

That same stereotype is what people are reading in the Taylor Swift video, when they say that it doesn’t show the “real Africa”.

You want to see White Privilege? Ask yourself if American sitcom The Big Bang Theory is “inauthentic” because it doesn’t show poor young Americans who can’t afford to go to college, let alone finish High School? Or if someone filmed a music video walking through the Arizona Badlands, would it be inauthentic if it only showed rock and sand, instead of those Republican boogeymen, the illegal immigrants?

White Privilege here the open anger at the video just reinforcing the fallacious perception of “the West” and “White people” as central to the identity and destiny of people in African countries.

Which is ludicrous. We’re talking about 1.1 billion people distributed among 54 countries covering 11 million+ square miles.

Taylor Swift’s music video only matters to teenagers who listen to Taylor Swift music. If her audience grows up with patronizing, undignified stereotype of a person in an African country, then they learned that from the news and the “save the helpless” donation requests from NGOs and the way that audience’s own government engages with those African countries.

Previewing “We Come as Friends”

I’m looking forward to seeing — rather, getting provoked by — We Come As Friends when the local Film Society screens it in September.

Art is art. But I already see the film as an artwork of “narrative colonialism”, where the dominant story about South Sudan is still the story told by the West.

That’s how it appears from the trailer: the music that triggers a feeling of tension or drama, the West’s “confrontation” with China, the exotic dress and architecture of South Sudanese people, the Western stereotypes like the heavily accented American evangelist.

Oil companies, multinational institutions and Jesus freaks aren’t the real story in South Sudan. It’s like if you made a movie about democracy and business in the USA, and you focused on Donald Trump. He’s loud. He’s controversial. And he’s largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

There is much more going on South Sudan besides oil and USA-China geopolitics. South Sudanese know this. As the National Geographic points out, we’re all dead if we can’t find a way to inclusively and sustainably develop the natural resources of countries like South Sudan. Especially food resources.

The West needs to stop pretending like South Sudanese aren’t real people who want the same thing as them — a mediocre but minimally financially sufficient job that leaves enough time for leisure.

The movie seems to cast sensationalist tint over South Sudan. It fits in with popular Clooney/Prendergast initiatives like Satellite Sentinel and the newly announced Sentry, which watch and itemize the destruction of lives and property in South Sudan without any mechanism for actually stopping the violence.

What does such a movie accomplish? Watch! Get excited! Get angry!
And then…what?

Will this sort of story build bridges between ordinary Americans/Europeans and South Sudanese? Help them see one another as peers?

Will it make it easier for ordinary South Sudanese to run their farms or businesses, by getting them cash or tools or mentors?

Will it help the audience’s break out of this image African countries as unchangeably dangerous, exotic, alien landscapes full of strange characters?

Will it treat the South Sudanese like real people who want to live their lives, rather than figments of the narrator’s imagination?

Corrupting the Anti-Corruption Movement

With respect to John Prendergast, Africa’s biggest challenge is not “the nexus between massive corruption and violent conflict” and we have got to get out of the paradigm that defines Africa as especially violent, corrupt and helpless.

Why do some still call for a more military- and intelligence-based U.S. engagement with African countries? Did U.S. surveillance drones “bring back their girls” in Nigeria? Did U.S. arms and training given to South Sudan’s army prevent the current civil war? Did U.S. support for the ouster of Qaddafi “fix” Libya?

We keep looking for Africa’s emergencies instead of looking at the emergence of African countries. African countries whose populations are getting richer, healthier and more educated while their governments evolve in a more democratic and more capable direction. African countries whose main killers are diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS — not militias.

We mustn’t turn this into another crisis that makes African countries look helpless and weak. That inevitably leads to giving money to contractors and consultants who “know how to fix it” and putting more resources and credibility into the hands of elites.

That’s the opposite of what the Obama Administration should do, if the goal is to curb corruption by strengthening the citizens’ control over their own government.

Instead, we should put the money directly into local businesses and local organizations. Don’t route it through the government. Set up a matching investment/grant fund with the African Union and other pan-African institutions. Help African customers and producers move out of the informal sector — where they are most vulnerable to abuses of power.

We should promote what’s already working: African solutions to African problems in an African context. Last year a Nigerian police officer was filmed on a cell phone camera asking for a bribe — why not support the development of mobile-web services to report and document corruption? Keep the tools to fight corruption in the hands of those most affected by the consequences.

And for more ideas, host a forum where Africa’s watchdog groups discuss what U.S. companies and agencies can do. Not the other way around.

Thoughts on The Sentry Project

Richman to the rescue! (Credit: Jeff Nitzberg)

Call me skeptical but did I miss the scientific report that personal egos can stop bullets?

The Sentry, founded by Clooney and John Prendergast from the advocacy group the Enough Project, will investigate the financing of conflicts in South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Enough Project said on Monday.

Never mind that malaria, HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases are the number one killers in African countries: not militias and conflicts.
(The Obama Administration certainly doesn’t mind it, since it’s cutting medical aid to Africa).

The money flows that really drives these “small wars” in Africa aren’t part of some underground NASDAQ of mustache-twirling villains. Africa isn’t run by FIFA, after all.

Rather, the money driving African conflicts is the money that *doesn’t* get invested and doesn’t take the continent’s grassroots industries “on line” with the global economy.

The money driving African conflicts is the money Western companies, Western governments and the international Aid Industry put into bad projects and bad governments. Most of that is because of institutional ignorance rather than malice.

The warmongering “Bad Guys” like Sudan’s Bashir, the Democratic Republic of Congo militias, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Al Shabab aren’t getting their money from the local cash machine (unless you count North Korea’s counterfeiting industry). They have their own illicit networks or the amoral oil, gas and mineral industry.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that governments in the West, the Middle East, China and Russia are arming, training and funding the parties in these conflicts. Observers like Nick Turse are watching America cut foreign aid to African countries while it increases military spending (military advisers, barracks, airstrips, drone facilities).

What good is The Sentry if Africa is the chosen battleground for a U.S.-China-Islamist throw down?

It’s really great that Prendergast and Clooney are so passionate about this. But money and attention generated by this project can be put to so many better uses.

For example, if you want to interrupt illegal wildlife poaching, mining and logging, then you support local initiatives and watchdog groups. Help a community or cooperative build a business around sustainable logging, mining and wildlife conservation.

Other concerns:

  • How do we measure the effectiveness? When The Sentry identifies a corrupt politician or illicit money flow, what are the consequences? It’s the same question people have about the Clooney/Prendergast Satellite Sentinel mapping initiative. Do they count on the local law enforcement,? Does The Enough Project have its own paramilitary force? Do they hack the offenders Twitter account?
  • What can The Sentry do to track illicit financing that national intelligence agencies and “Hacktivist” groups like Anonymous/WikiLeaks can’t?
  • It’s another “White celebrities save Africa” project. That hurts an African citizen’s own sense of agency, the feeling that *they* could make a difference.
  • It amplifies the story of “Africa” as a uniform entity full of war, corruption and disease. That’s patronizing and it makes it hard for any viable social enterprise looking for investment, which leaves communities more vulnerable.
  • Clooney is kinda hypocritical, after shilling for Nestle whose land- and water-grabs have made life miserable for thousands of communities in developing countries

We’re in the Stone Age of African Development Economics

Great interview with economist Morten Jerven about what’s screwy about how world powers and major institutions measure, invest in and define policy responses for African countries.

You wouldn’t know it from the “starvation — war — disease” news cycle but people in African countries are enjoying the same progress as the rest of us: more goods, more services, more access to education and health care, more opportunities for a better quality of life, etc.

We’re might even be getting better at measuring this.

Unsurprising to anyone who knows the East African origin of human tool-making for use and trade (i.e. the first capital assets and exchanges), African countries are actually really good at creating wealth: making and trading goods and services.

The rest of the world is really good at interfering in ways that disrupt/distort that creation or destroy that wealth. Bad decisions piled on top of one another. Enslavement. Crushing local industries. Colonial rule. Anticompetitive trade policies. Crippling national debt. Proxy wars. Supporting bad governments.

Never mind the policies that both help and hurt at the same time. If you send that bad government billions of dollars in aid, you might see schools, infrastructure, and economic growth. You will definitely see more political and economic power centralized in an exclusive group that enforces its will through violence.

That might give you Singapore in one situation. Somalia in another. Even economically successful African countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya seem perpetually at that Singapore/Somalia fork in the road.

We in the rest of the world *need* African countries to create wealth. Physical wealth — more stuff — as well as human wealth — ideas, art, science, technology.

Without that happening, the world isn’t only poorer but more vulnerable. The major threats to Africa’s populations are the same that affect us all: an unstoppable disease, a natural disaster of genocidal proportions, global nuclear war.

So just as humanity emerged from the Stone Age when tools and the knowledge of how to make them flowed from the African continent to the rest of the world., our 21st century civilization can only advance through free trade with African innovators and entrepreneurs.

Seed and Desist

“Activists in Seattle and London held demonstrations on Monday to protest efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others to privatize seeds as part of a push to industrialize farming in Africa.”
From: Activists protest Gates Foundation plan for African farmers

Source: The always excellent Humanosphere blog

I get the activists’ concerns and I’m not a fan of Big Boss Organization Saves the World. But most communities in African countries depend on rural subsistence/smallholder farming, and there is no way to stop the disruption of that system.

Nor should anyone want to. Subsistence agriculture is horribly inefficient: it takes a lot of time, is very labor intensive, and it’s very dependent on things the farmers can’t control.

Governments need people to be fed, people want to live well, and companies want to make money. That’s what’s happening. It isn’t “colonialism” — doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Monsanto and Beijing.

What’s going on is bad business. Monoculture and heavy chemical inputs aren’t smart even when they fill an immediate need for farmers, governments and companies (profit, boosted food yields, signs of economic growth). Shoving people off of their land is a good way to create political unrest; revolutions and coups are pretty bad for business.

The international aid industry is as much a part of this bad system as the for-profit sector: e.g. donated food and goods disrupting local suppliers. Never mind the bullsh*t messaging like what’s in the photograph.

I mean look at the signs in the picture. The “Corporate Takeover of Africa’s Food”? As if “Africa” was this magical cornucopia that can produce resources in abundance without any serious coordinated economic and social organization or technology.

After all it’s not really about food. Food is just one thing — one super important thing, but just one thing. More creation and exchange of goods and services is the real goal. More opportunities. More innovation.

Sh*t costs money, folks. Development means tools, capital, control of the narrative, and a whole mess of other things. That means markets, and structures to operate within those markets. Some of those structures are called companies and corporations, and African entrepreneurs are building them on their own.

That’s good. You want companies that are *grounded* in the community. That’s more likely to be stable, more transparent, more responsive to local conditions. Smart investors should want that too, since it’s less likely their money will go up in a blaze of PR disasters, accidents, armed uprisings or just stupid decisions.

That’s what it’s about: smart vs. stupid, good business vs. bad. Not James Bond Villains trying to take over the food supply.

(Background Image from original article: Activists protest Gates Foundation plan for African farmers)