US President Barack Obama said many things at the just-ended UN Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York.
The ones that stuck were his comments that food aid is not development. It’s “dependence,” he said, adding that America’s new approach will be to empower communities to meet their own food needs, rather than receiving handouts for their lunch and dinner.
As the late founding president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere said after the North-South Cancun Summit in Mexico in 1981, it takes someone who has no worries about his next meal — like Obama — to talk sensibly about food.
A man who is hungry cannot think objectively and unemotionally about food. The desperation brought on by an empty stomach will almost always cloud his judgement.
Obama’s statement, quite bold considering that the US draws quite a bit of its power in the developing world from food aid, was just another way of presenting the Chinese — or Biblical — wisdom that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
But there is something else. There is nothing African governments fear like hungry masses. A political group will go to the bush to fight a rebel war after the president steals elections, and the government will happily fight it for years.
Roads will be filled with waterlogged potholes the size of basketball courts as in Uganda, and the government will ignore the public outcry.
But as soon as people take to the streets to protest increases in food prices, as we saw a few days ago in Mozambique, the state will quickly back down. Few strongman regimes in Africa have survived hunger-fuelled upheavals.
It stands to reason, then, that the biggest problem is not that food aid creates dependence. Rather, that it has delayed — even undermined — the progress of democracy.
To begin with, because the people were fed, they became vested in the status quo. No one ever burns down the soup kitchen.
Secondly, nothing undermines our self-esteem more than the inability to feed ourselves. For an African man, food handouts are the ultimate castration.
In Uganda, if someone stands up to you and says, “You don’t feed me” or, “I don’t eat in your house,” run away as fast as you can. That is an expression of a very high level of revolutionary anger.
It also explains why governments that have sensible agricultural policies that enable farmers to reap rich harvests rarely ever lose the rural vote.
Now, Obama is a president set on saving the world; he just cut a deal with the Russians to reduce nuclear warheads, he nudged the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The best way to help the millions of hungry people in countries that receive food aid get rid of their corrupt and incompetent rulers — and to ensure that their children will never go hungry in future — is to starve them now. That will turn them into raging, unstoppable anti-government regime changers.
I do realise, of course, that it is easy for me to say that because I am not and will never stand for political office, and therefore don’t need anyone’s vote. But someone had to say it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]