International Economics

Bill Gates Aims to Save Africa

Forget Bono. The world's richest man gives away hundreds of millions to foster a new Green Revolution.

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is following in the footsteps of the Rockefeller Foundation by fomenting a Green Revolution for the 21st century. The first Green Revolution blossomed from Rockefeller Foundation funding for plant breeding in Mexico in the 1940s. At that time, Mexico could not feed itself and was importing half of its wheat supplies. The Rockefeller Foundation hired young plant breeder Norman Borlaug to see what could be done to boost the productivity of poor Mexican farmers. Backed by $100,000 in annual funding from the foundation, Borlaug and his colleagues flourished. They created highly productive dwarf wheat varieties enabling Mexico to become self-sufficient in grains by 1956. By 1965, Mexican wheat yields rose 400 percent over their 1950 level.

In 1952, the Rockefeller Foundation began funding a similar effort to boost the productivity of poor Indian farmers. In the mid-1960s, India was importing grains to avert looming famines. The dwarf wheat varieties developed by Borlaug and his colleagues were again decisive in winning the battle against hunger on the subcontinent. Indian wheat production grew from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20 million tons in 1970 and the country was self-sufficient in grains by 1974. Green Revolution food production in Asia grew much faster than its population did, increasing calorie availability per person by nearly 30 percent and making wheat and rice cheaper. The Green Revolution prevented the deaths by starvation of perhaps a billion people. In terms of human well-being the Rockefeller Foundation's modest investment in agricultural research arguably paid the biggest dividend in history.

Unfortunately, the Green Revolution did not extend to the entire planet. Sub-Saharan Africa remained largely untouched. As a consequence, average per capita food production in Africa has declined by 12 percent since 1980.

Enter the Gates Foundation. In September 2006, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations announced a joint $150 million effort to create an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Last week, the Gates Foundation upped its ante on boosting production by another $306 million. About half of these new grants will fund efforts to improve seeds and soils in Africa. The Gates Foundation has clearly identified the right target. "For the poorest people, GDP [gross domestic product] growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector," according the World Bank's World Development Report 2008. But why did the Green Revolution not take off in Africa?

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has noted, "Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa." This list is basically an international bureaucracy's euphemism for saying that government corruption and mismanagement has kept African farmers poor. "Poor infrastructure" means that governments built no roads over which seeds, fertilizers and pesticides could be shipped cheaply to farmers. And conversely, without good roads, farmers can't get their crops to market.

For example, Uganda has just 58 miles of paved roads per million citizens, Mozambique just 87 miles . By contrast, the United States has 8,000. In addition, African governments have a history of imposing price controls on food crops ,which discourage farmers from growing more than they need for their families. Africa has not been alone in pursuing this destructive policy. In the 1960s, India paid its farmers 40 percent less than the world price for their grain. Green revolutionary Borlaug managed to persuade the Indian government to drop grain price controls. Restored market incentives persuaded Indian farmers to rapidly adopt new high yield crop varieties.

Interestingly, modern crop technologies fostered by the Gates Foundation might enable poor farmers to outflank, in part, these corrupt and stupid government policies. For example, seeds that contain traits like pest-resistance and drought-resistance could reduce farmers' dependence on government subsidized pesticides and irrigation systems. In fact, the Gates Foundation has provided nearly $40 million to researchers to develop drought resistant corn varieties for Africa. In addition, the foundation is funding low-cost drip irrigation systems designed by International Development Enterprises that can reduce the cost of irrigation from about $6,000 per acre to about $37.

About half of the $306 million in agricultural grants announced last week will go to the African Soil Health Program which aims to work with 4.1 million small-scale African farmers and regenerate 6.3 million hectares of farm land through better soil management practices. For the time being, AGRA supports only conventional crop breeding and does not fund the development of new varieties by means of genetic engineering. Rich countries have poured almost $600 billion in foreign aid into Africa over the past four decades. Result? Zero increase in per capita incomes. Is the Gates Foundation now pouring in good money after bad? Let's hope not.

The Gates Foundations' new Green Revolution has already provoked resistance from anti-globalization and anti-technology activists. For example, the California-based Food First/Institute for Food Development and Policy held a conference in Mali in November opposing the new Green Revolution. Food First peddled the now standard activist line that the first Green Revolution was a colossal mistake that primarily helped rich farmers become richer.

Like many such fables there is a grain of much exaggerated truth to the claim. Small farmers were slower to adopt Green Revolution techniques but most of them eventually did. Furthermore, higher farm incomes boosted demand for other goods and services, which in turn stimulated the rural nonfarm economy. Real per capita incomes doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995. By doubling farm yields, tens of millions of acres of forests and wetlands were spared the plow and hundreds of millions of lives saved from starvation. The Green Revolution was not perfect, but critics ignore how bad poverty and hunger would have been without it.

In The Seattle Times, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation's efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. "It's a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa's food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted," he said. Considering that today some 200 million Africans subsist on the thin edge of starvation, Africa's food and agricultural systems should be so lucky as to be colonized by new Green Revolution agricultural research and technologies.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. “Poor infrastructure” means that governments built no roads over which seeds, fertilizers and pesticides could be shipped cheaply to farmers.

    Hey, I thought you Libertarians didn’t think governments were supposed to build roads.

  2. “In The Seattle Times, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation’s efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. “It’s a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa’s food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted,” he said. ”

    Yes because AFricans are better off starving than living under the thumb of capitalism. I love how people like this are always willing to sacrifice other people’s lives for their principles. Something tells me that Mr. Himenez hasn’t missed many meals in his life.

  3. John, you have to understand leftist thought.

    Corporate=evil, even if starvation is the alternative.

  4. Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation’s efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. “It’s a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa’s food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted,” he said. “

    Ooooo, I bet he’s been waiting to use that line for a while now.

    What. A. Fucking. Tool.

  5. Libertarians would never be hard-nosed about principle, considering practicalities later…

  6. Ersatz Joe:

    Who else is going to build them? Wealthy private companies? Ooh, I know, they can read the license plates and send road users a bill. They could even charge directly to their credit cards! Toll booths might work in Africa, if people traded consistently in anything other than livestock.

    I had a foster brother from Sudan that would often see a beautiful woman and say, “I’d give two fat cows for that girl!” God, he is hilarious, and it’s always a treat to learn how other parts of the world run things.

    So, yeah, at this point, government-built roads seem like the only foreseeable solution (as far as roads go). As far as I’m concerned, being a libertarian is going for the best solution for individuals, even if that means getting the government involved. If government wasn’t so inherently evil, it might happen rightly more often.

  7. One wonders what colonial Africa might have become if liberalism had had a chance to take hold. How many home-rule success stories are there? Why is Africa a perpetual basket case?

  8. In The Seattle Times, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez denounced the Gates Foundation’s efforts to foster an African Green Revolution. “It’s a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa’s food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted,” he said.

    Just what planet does that guy come from?

    A quote from Chairman Mao* seems in order: “Who cares if a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice?”

    *IIRC, it was Mao, but it could have been Chou En Lai>

  9. Why is Africa a perpetual basket case?

    1) War
    2) Government corruption

  10. “It’s a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa’s food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted,” he said.

    Yeah, and look how well that’s turning out.

  11. Road building technology is hardly limited to governments, so yeah, I’d assume there’s something other than mere government neglect that accounts for lack of African roads. That said, as bad as governments are, accountable ones are usually a little better than unaccountable ones. And it’s certainly possible, although by no means definite, that governments have a comparative advantage in road building owing to eminent domain (and being able to get people to ante up whether they’ll use the road or not doesn’t hurt either, even if it’s not exactly fair).

  12. All: It might well be that private roads would be built in African countries if there governments were not so corrupt. The larger point is that governments are enforcing poverty. In my column “Poor Planning: How to achieve the miracle of poverty” I gave free advice to kleptocrats on how to manufacture poverty and keep their people down.

  13. This will likely come to nought as long as present trade practices are maintained that allow developed countries to dump their subsidized produce into developing nations that have been forbidden by the IMF or other agencies from doing anything about it.

  14. “Who cares if a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice?”

    Deng Xiaopeng, actually.

    In the pragmatic (ha) spirit of Communist China, can somebody explain why we haven’t beaten cholera yet? All it takes is a salt-and-sugar packet to prevent the water loss from diarrhea that causes death. Richard Cash developed it in the 60’s, and it’s working in Bangladesh, but there’s still an epidemic in Africa (and governments have a bias towards vaccines over the cheaper and more effective rehydration packets.)

  15. Danny,

    I believe Ersatz Joe was imitating another H&R poster’s potential response for humorous purposes.

    You may want to have your humor gauge checked to make sure it is working correctly.

  16. alisa,

    Because almost all African governments find famine and disease useful tools for eliminating rival power groups. If the proles are starving and disease ridden, they aren’t going to storm the palisades of the government building and demand change.

  17. The anti-African trade policies of the EU to protect its subsidized farms are breath taking in their stupidity. I live in the heart of Europe and I can attest that produce is both awful and pricey.

    That being said, more power to Bill and keep up the good work, I can only hope that he succeeds.

  18. I must say, if I were living on the brink of starvation, I would gladly welcome some colonial overlords.

  19. alisa

    Thanks for the correction. I wondered later if it might have been Deng.

    Bill and Windtell

    Agreed. The agricultural policies of the OECD countries are criminal in their impact on the farmers in the developing countries.

  20. This can’t be right. Steve Jobs is really cool, hip, and cares. Bill Gates is greedy, dorky, and I assume kicks kittens when he can. I mean all those Apple fans can’t have been wrong could they?

  21. Aresen, thx for “OECD”. I was going to point out the US’s not-so-productive policies, but you beat me to it.

  22. Zimbabwe didn’t need Bill Gates when it was Rhodesia run by white farmers.

    Two things are needed for successful farming; the technical expertise and enough social stability to get your crop to market and get paid.

    What has happened in Africa is the closest thing to ATLAS SHRUGGED, only the competent farmers did not go on strike, they were kicked off the land by stupid black despots.

    Don’t think Bill Gates can fix this one.

  23. Don’t look for private roads in Africa any time soon. Why would a I build a private road(large farm, power plant etc…) only to have the govt nationalize it. With the exception of areas, Africa’s govts take the concept of kleptocracy to a hyperbolic level. Africa is such a beautiful place, it’s a shame the people are subjected to such grinding poverty by their govts with the complicity of western govts.

  24. In order to see the whole picture regarding price behavior, one should consider the following:

    http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=359819

    It is the Wilson Center, but it has some context that any interested observer should consider.

  25. Meanwhile, I received a press release from the Ayn Rand Institute attacking Bill Gates:

    Memo to Gates: The Cause of Third-World Poverty Is Not Capitalism, But a Lack of Capitalism
    January 28, 2008

    Irvine, CA–Bill Gates made waves at the World Economic Forum by calling on Western nations to adopt a new, “creative capitalism.” He complained that under “pure capitalism . . . . the great advances in the world have often aggravated the inequities in the world. The least needy see the most improvement, and the most needy see the least . . .” Gates called for corporations and governments to devote far more time and money “doing work that eases the world’s inequities.”

    “Gates’s entire speech essentially blames Western capitalism for the Third World’s poverty,” said Alex Epstein, an analyst at the Ayn Rand Institute, “and offers a slightly more sophisticated form of foreign welfare handouts as the antidote. But the West did not become wealthy at the Third World’s expense–we did not seize computers, houses, pharmaceuticals, and railroads from the Sahara. We created our wealth under capitalism, the system that liberates individuals to produce and trade without interference. And Third World countries could do the same if they adopted that system.

    “The last 200 years have shown that wherever capitalism is adopted–from Singapore to the United States to Hong Kong to Australia–it enables its citizens to create wealth and prosper. Yet not one word of Gates’s speech calls for poor countries to change their anti-capitalist governments.

    “No matter how many billions Bill Gates gives to poor nations, until he starts advocating universal capitalism instead of attacking it, he is acting as an enemy of prosperity in the undeveloped world.”

  26. Which Bono — Cong. Sonny or Cher?

  27. i am confused. what exactly is mr. holt-gimenez advocating- a hands-off policy? i’ve heard arguments that the green revolution had some negative effects, such as the development of a worldwide monoculture (i didn’t say i understood the arguments, just that i’d heard them), but does he also believe that this is actually a ploy to exert control over and extend the worldwide capitalist market into africa? what’s wrong with that- left to themselves, without oppressive, corrupt governments, africans would, and have, naturally resort to a market of some kind, happily.

    does he believe that it exacerbates a rich-poor gap so much that it outweighs the benefits of farmers having, you know, more food and money? they make up the bulk of farmers, don’t they? are the gates foundation’s proxies going to charge too much for these subsidized seeds/technologies for many african farmers to afford?

    i admit i don’t know a lot about this subject, but i’m going through a few objections i imagine someone could make… seriously i do not get what is so bad about this gates initiative. Food-First is not making the more plausible argument that it is ‘pouring good money after bad’ and will be the same old situation of corrupt governments diverting/skimming most of the aid and keeping their people down on purpose.

    i’m trying to assume good faith on the part of Food-First.

  28. EDIT: “does he believe that it exacerbates a rich-poor gap so much that it outweighs the benefits of farmers having, you know, more food and money? they farmers make up the bulk of farmers the poor in these areas, don’t they?”

  29. Forget Bono.

    Done!

  30. I really think Melinda deserves more of the credit…the Gates Foundation is really more her baby…although Bill has embraced it and should be applauded.

  31. “It’s a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa’s food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted,” he said.

    Director Eevil continued, “We need to allow Africans to remain in their current state in order to create more opportunities for Cameron Diaz to swoop in and fling shit at their huts.”

  32. The Malthusian trap has been well-documented. Has Gates never heard of it ? Increasing food supply does nothing to alleviate poverty or hunger, because of population growth.

    Africans can only help themselves if women will be able to plan number of kids, and have access to contraception.

    USA is brainwashed and has put itself in a gridlock on the population issue, with liberals wanting to avoid the racism charge, and conservatives sliding towards religious fundamentalism and irrational thinking.

  33. As a consequence, average per capita food production in Africa has declined

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