With the inauguration of Joe Biden, and the coming post-Covid era being bound to create uncertain new realities, people are taking the time to assess what this future will look like, so they can take advantage of it before others do. The combination of a generally very negative environment, and change occurring within it, is leading people to wonder if the new world will give them opportunities they haven’t had before.
The present situation is familiar to those who have studied, or participated in, wars and revolutions. By definition these bring regime changes, and therefore embolden anyone whose ideas weren’t accepted under the old regimes to think they can impose those ideas on everyone else now.
This is why many newly independent countries experience civil wars – people with competing visions and sponsors, who were excluded before, have nothing to lose by doing everything they can to make their views prevail now. It is also why no one should have been surprised that the most inhumane views and behaviour emanated from Trump and Brexit supporters – the worse something is, the more likely it is to come to the surface when the order changes and suppressed ideas compete for dominance.
What always changes in such circumstances is the priorities of the day. Different groups of people are bought off by politicians who promise the things they are interested in instead of the things others are interested in. Whether people think the old order didn’t give them the jobs and homes they deserved, or ruined the country by trying to give people jobs and homes, the institutions remain substantially the same, only the priority of public policy differs.
But we are all now dreaming of a world where we have the luxury of arguing about the small details of any current policy. The worse a situation is, the simpler our priorities become, and the easier to generalise.
Continuity of Supply
The developed world is now starting to understand how many people in Third World countries have to live. Most of us can still survive without jobs, homes of our own or internet acces. But we can’t survive without food – and having a stable food supply, or even enough to last till tomorrow, is increasingly becoming the overriding concern of the majority of the world’s population.
Does this present opportunity for some countries? Too right it does. Who is equipped to take those opportunities, and how everyone else handles that, will define a lot of how stable the immediate post-Covid world is going to be, and for whom. It is all about supply chairs and value-added food products.
A test case has just presented itself. It has far-reaching implications which need to be taken seriously. We can only hope that the “spirit of cooperation” we are supposed to be seeing under Biden eventuates, and becomes the global standard, because if it isn’t, we are all in trouble.
Reason Discovers a Voice
Ever heard of John Magafuli, President of Tanzania? Few have, outside his country and region. After all, English-speaking, democratic socialist Tanzania isn’t anything too bad or threatening in the current way of thinking, so the world doesn’t care what its leaders say or do.
Those who do know Magafuli call him “The Bulldozer”, because he acts first and thinks later. When this comes off, he is praised as both a visionary and a pragmatist, who gets things done while other regional leaders just talk. When it doesn’t, he is seen as a corrupt and deranged Third World autocrat due to the economic status of his country, as if no one has ever heard of Donald J. Trump.
Magafuli’s latest bulldozing concerns food. He predicts that there will be global food shortages as a result of Covid. Consequently he is urging Tanzanians to grow more, not merely to feed his own starving people but as a means of helping Tanzania become more important by meeting the needs of the rest of the world.
There is a long history of African leaders saying things like this. They frequently think that they can use their natural resources, which the world undoubtedly needs, to hold other countries to ransom to get them.
Has it ever happened? The rules of international trade mean only the developed countries can sell these resources, and the developing ones depend on their investment and patronage to get any price for them at all. Africa’s uranium and diamonds have only made a few local politicians and a lot more Westerners rich, so Tanzania’s food, when every country can grow, manufacture or access food, is not likely to be a game changer.
But let’s think this through for a moment. Africa’s resources are generally used for industry, transport and weapons, not for public goods. If people can’t eat, they can’t have those things either. Rural areas of underdeveloped countries would love to have state of the art manufacturing plants and sparkling military facilities, but they don’t, and these are the places where people can’t eat, and die a lot earlier.
Most developing countries are, by definition, largely pre-industrial. Even if people want to move away from subsistence farming they can’t, because the opportunities aren’t there. Nor can they graduate to industrial-scale agriculture, one crop spreads, or get market prices for anything they are able to produce, because they lack equipment, training and processing facilities, and probably always will.
But more importantly, they lack access to the markets, credits, grants, which are handed out to elites, for the purpose of vertically-integrated-value added supply and marketing chains.
However this creates millions of people who know how to grow food for others and, to survive when markets crash and equipment doesn’t keep pace. Subsistence agriculture is not always profitable, and often times do not even produce a cash crop. But it is sustainable, necessary, and is less reliant of global trends beyond the control of the farmers and more reflective of actual needs and actual abilities to meet them.
Furthermore, countries used to feeding themselves well are finding it increasingly difficult to do so. The United Kingdom is undoubtedly a developed country, and used to be the most developed on the planet. Yet for a generation most of its farmers have complained that they are going bust, due to cheap imports and EU quotas, and their complaints have been echoed across the continent.
Many UK farmers supported Brexit for this reason. However they also understood when doing so that most of their workers are immigrants from poorer EU countries, and thus they won’t be able to produce as much food post-Brexit, or export it on anything like beneficial terms. This has a knock-on effect on industries such as equipment hire, making it even more difficult to get back to a position which wasn’t good to begin with.
The prophets of doom in the rural community, for so long ignored by politicians, have been proved right, and more and more developed countries will have to import all their food to survive. But the reason they were ignored is why developing countries which can grow food, but are not scary, do have real opportunities in the present crisis – and why heads will roll if they can take them.
Nice Little Houseboys
There are all kinds of rural aid programmes available to “help” developing countries with their agricultural growth, at least in theory. Often however they have the opposite effect – they create further disadvantage by making everyone play by the rules set by others, who don’t ultimately care about agriculture or the countries where it predominates.
At one time the most important people in any Western country were landowners. One of the factors involved in creating any state was developing a centralised authority which controlled precisely delineated land areas, and for this to happen the monarch needed to own all the land. This was then granted to religious houses for their support, to avoid taxation, and to favourites of the monarch, even if they had held the land previously under other arrangements.
The coming of industry changed this, as the land itself no longer provided the main source of wealth. People, who didn’t own land, or much land, could set up factories and mass produce things people wanted, and make more money doing that than many a landowner could from agriculture.
Consequently commercial operators gained greater political influence, as governments needed their money so needed to cater to their interests. Now leading politicians generally come from business backgrounds or from the education or service world. They are deemed necessary to sustain capitalism, rather than being counted as landowners or tillers of the earth.
This is why “developed countries” rule the world, and rule the seed supply, hybrids, that can only be grown with the help of the agricultural chemical provided by Monsanto and other agribusiness firms. If agriculture returned to being the most important source of wealth, the world would again be ruled by the fertile countries that are good at growing things, for local consumption, as it was in every pre-industrial epoch, even though those epochs also had industry.
The fertile countries of the pre-industrial age have the same food producing capacity. What they no longer have is a system designed to maximise it. If you think they can change that overnight, try telling your neighbours to give up their jobs in commerce and go and work on the land.
It would be a very scary prospect to rebalance global economies to prioritise food production, however necessary it may have become. The whole idea of aid is to ensure agricultural countries stay in their place. The flourishing of Fairtrade International, which pays market prices to producers when the countries which give them the aid control those markets, is evidence of this.
But agriculture is only relegated to secondary status when people are getting fed. If a government can’t feed its people, there are serious political consequences.
In Hungary in 1956, most of the revolutionaries were not necessarily anti-Communist (their hero Imre Nagy remained a committed Marxist) but objected to the food shortages imposed upon them by Communist mismanagement. In Russia in 1917, the Communists were still an underground movement, but above ground there were serious food shortages, and because food was the issue this drove people to forces wanting wholesale systemic change, not changes of policy.
If Third World countries, which have been forced to remain second tier, “agricultural” nations, can grow the food people need and the wealthy countries can’t, they really might be able to extract concessions from Western countries which see the consequences. We will soon see how the world reacts to the challenge of feeding people who expect to be fed at every turn, cheaply and conveniently, rather than praying for the right weather at the right time.
Same Ways Out, Different Guides
The developing countries which have been left better equipped, by policy, to feed the world still need all the things they needed before. Still these will be supplied by foreign donors. But it will be interesting to see if these donations of equipment, facilities and expertise are expressed as “aid”.
If Germany builds a factory in Georgia, this is regarded as aid, even if the decision is a commercial one made by a private company, nothing to do with the German government or an international organisation. If the same country builds a factory in Portugal, which is a lot poorer than Germany and has just paid off an IMF bailout, this is seen as doing business, because Portugal has one reputation, Georgia doesn’t.
The countries which are set up to grow food, even if they are not as fertile as the ones which used to, are now offering something more important than the natural resources which others countries have exploited for so long. These resources are useless if nobody can eat. This is the chance for countries like Tanzania to demand a genuine partnership with investors, not a subservient relationship with donors.
Third World countries need processing plants so they can produce shop-ready food rather than the raw ingredients. Aid usually avoids these, to keep the aid gravy train going. We will see if countries start competing with one another to build processing plants, and gain the influence which will come with these, before their rivals do the same.
Western countries have starved Third World countries by taking their crops to use as biofuel instead of food. Dumping of low quality excess products under the guise of “Food for Peace” programmes, and destroying local markets—and we should be seeing more of this with the new head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) under Biden.
Ambassador Samantha Power is Biden’s nominee for Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and he elevated the position for her to become a member of the National Security Council.
Linked with this issue is reopening nuclear plants, which are now outlawed by the Climate Change gang, and reinvesting in fossil fuel production, and enduring the associated pollution.
Tragedy of the Uncommon
Different global thinking on these topics, which would be presented as providing a more “balanced” approach to ecology and human need, will also give developed countries more possibility of retaining the upper hand while they rebalance their economies to suit the new needs. Now selling most of your infrastructure to the Communist Chinese is not only possible but actively promoted, this is no less possible to achieve.
Silent film great Buster Keaton was still working in films in his late sixties, and amazing industry insiders by still doing almost all his own stunts. One day he showed them how he did it – he lifted up his shirt and showed a bruised and battered body. The gag was the priority, the pain wasn’t important.
Most developed countries aren’t led by a Buster Keaton. If they don’t find one, nobody except the Third World will be laughing.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.