African Home Truths

18 Mar 2003

There is a Senegalese proverb that says, ‘If you set out from home on a journey and get lost, then go back home’. The path of development that Europe and the United States would like to ‘suggest’ African countries should adopt, is now beginning to remind some small farmers in Africa of this old saying.

Precariously squeezed between despair and dignified poverty, people in Africa can’t take any more. All they see are interfering western multinationals, industrialization whose only aim is to steal manpower, a few old computers or bits of donated machinery which don’t even have a pretence of being modern.

It seems to me, at least from reading Africa news reports in recent months, that they are getting fed up of being on the receiving end of western charity. They understand perfectly well that financial aid does not help to feed people, but has political, even military aims, and that food aid backfires on them, with its adverse effects on their small, fragile economies, their customs (agricultural, food, artisanal) and their prospects for development.

Their development should be real and appropriate for them, a starting point for solving the problems that beset the lives of millions of Africans. It shouldn’t be the type of development that we have experienced in developed countries and want to export for our benefit under the guise of compassionate altruism.

The food products that we donate to Africa are financed by Western agricultural subsidies and have no relevance to African food habits (milk powder? rice? tomatoes?). Since they are free, they undercut the market and destroy any local product’s chances of competing, sentencing it to disappear, together with its supporting agriculture and traditions.

Food aid wipes out agricultural economies that are already poor and creates space for crops such as cotton, coffee or chocolate, that are for the benefit of consumers in the developed countries, without locals having any opportunity to secure fair prices.

Even Jacques Chirac seemed to have realised that export subsidies provided by Western countries no longer made any sense: in front of Francophone African leaders at the French-African summit in Paris, he encouraged rich countries to suspend them. Except that a few hours later he then went back on what he had said, renewing his criticisms of Franz Fischler’s CAP reforms, which aimed to progressively reduce subsidies.

Apart from the bad impression he created, Chirac’s remarks prompted the African media to comment on the issue and, from scanning through a few articles, it seems that they are finally thinking about self-sufficient development. In other words, ‘going back home’, to return to the proverb I quoted from Mamadou Cissokò, leader of Senegalese small farmers.

They complain that they cannot convert their production into cash at a local level and would like to be able to transform their raw materials locally. They blame their political leaders for contributing to the destruction of traditional agriculture by conniving with developed countries.

But not all leaders have such short-sighted ideas: in Senegal for example, they are thinking of holding an Agricultural Show, because the president wants agriculture to become the driving force of the economy in partnership with other African countries.

At Tenkondogo in Burkina Faso in January, the first fair was held for farming, herding, fishing and artisanal produce which brought together the best producers from various provinces. Reports spoke of the rural sector and its products being promoted: Soumbala Bissa (a condiment based on neré seeds, which women are abandoning in favour of Maggi stock cubes), goyave fruit, frogs, Kanzaga (a leaf sauce) and with karate butter (a local traditional dish, a sort of pasta). Producers were reported to be satisfied with business, because they had understood the importance of quality and that these products could be reintroduced onto the local market. There were delegations from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. It seems there were a few problems with accommodation and logistics, but this type of initiative went down very well, perhaps because pride in your own food traditions—the desire to go back home— is the first real sign of a dramatic revolution. Let’s help them, and not with aid.

First printed in La Stampa on March 9 2003

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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