Stuffed and Starved

I have just finished reading Raj Patel’s ‘Stuffed & Starved’ (1st edition, 2008). In this brilliant polemic, he addresses most of the key factors underpinning the world food system.

Patel argues convincingly that the large food corporations are socially pernicious. His range is of research is really impressive. I also liked the tone he uses; he never speaks from a position of authority. He uses vignettes to paint the bigger picture. He lets others talk. And some of his ideas and insights are so illuminating.

Though Patel  seems to steer clear of any major political or structural analysis. Government policies and the role of global governance institutions, outside of the WTO, are barely addressed.  I got the impression that Patel implies that it is these corporations who are responsible for the ‘starved’; that they are leaving populations destitute. I would have liked a clearer argument on food security here. I think the responsibility for food security lies more with the governments within these countries than foreign corporations. But the role of government lies largely outside of Patel’s narrative.

In any case, this is, as Naomi Klein described it, a “dazzling” book and well worth a read.

Feeding Frenzy

“Can we feed a world of 9 billion by 2050? Is the current market turmoil an early sign that the global food system will not cope?” These are the questions that Paul McMahon seeks to answer in his highly readable book, Feeding Frenzy. Written in short, clear sentences and rarely lapsing into jargon, McMahon succeeds brilliantly in describing the food supply challenges we currently face.

Feeding Frenzy’s opening chapter gives us a succinct history of food from 10,000 years ago to the present day. The rest of the book covers the key threats to ‘food security’, such as population growth, finite food resources, the growing use of biofuels, climate change, unstable markets and self-serving traders, all of which saw food prices spike in 2008, causing a global food crisis, with riots flaring across the developing world.

 

Feeding Frenzy also looks at the macroeconomic obstacles; the fact that today many developing countries import most of their food, rendering them vulnerable to price rises. Two later chapters outline multinational commodity corporations’ scramble to secure ‘supply chains’, as well as food-importing governments’ efforts (through sponsored companies) to acquire land, in so-called ‘land grabs’. These moves see commercial actors seize control of supplies, with the dangerous potential to engineer price rises, while the ‘grabs’ undertaken by state bodies may insulate their domestic consumers from wider market volatility, but they also restrict global supplies, thus threatening food security in other countries.

McMahon gives a clear overview of these scenarios and sets out the essential steps which, he argues, must be taken: free trade in global commodity markets; enabling small farmers in poor countries to grow more food; agro-ecological approaches to farming (such as Henri de Laulanie’s rice-farming intensification system, applied in Madagascar and now adopted in forty countries worldwide); and the restructuring of markets to support food security over commercial gains.

Feeding Frenzy is really a rebuttal of those alarmists who believe we are failing to meet growing demand with adequate supply. McMahon argues convincingly that we have the natural resources to produce enough food to feed our richer, more populous and climatically varied world by 2050; we just need to rationalize our food supply systems.

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers

John Markakis’s latest book, ‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’, presents a political history of Ethiopia covering the period 1916 to 2010. Focusing on the transformation of a multicultural empire into a modern nation state, Markakis continuously leans on the “centre/periphery” dynamic as a method of analysis. In the vein of subaltern studies, he seeks to give agency to “peripheral” peoples in the state-building process.  Using a vast range of historical, political and anthropological sources, Markakis describes Ethiopia’s northern and central regions as comprising the “centre”. The “last two frontiers” are the two peripheries: the “highland periphery”, essentially the Oromo-dominated southern highlands, and the “lowland periphery”, inhabited by the Oromo but also by major pastoralist groups such as the Afar and the Somali, as well many other smaller ethnic groups.

Split into five parts, the book begins with a discussion of the main peripheral peoples, followed by a history of the modern Ethiopian empire from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, under Emperors Menelik II (1844–1913) and Haile Selassie (1916–74). During this period, Amharic became the lingua franca, excluding non-speakers from power. Both highland and lowland peripheries were subjugated: exploited for labour, taxes and tribute. Markakis then assesses the period of Dergue rule after the deposition of Haile Selassie, in 1974, in which the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in expanding the state apparatus until his overthrow in 1991. The fourth part describes how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, sought a state and national identity that would encapsulate Ethiopia’s diversity, empowering the three-quarters of the population that were not Amhara. Subsequently re-formed into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), their brand of government has blended leftist nationalist ideology with a pragmatic drive to commercialize agriculture in the south. The final part of the book assesses the impacts of federalism on the diverse ethnic groups populating the southern regions.

Markakis believes the EPRDF has overseen an expansion of the state, with more schools and hospitals established in previously neglected regions. Pluralism has been feted. But beyond basic services and symbolic gestures, he argues, the “regime” has kept a “tight reign” and is “lacking in imagination” when it comes to offering real political power to peripheral regions.

‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’ reflects Markakis’s immense knowledge and passion for Ethiopia. Although the tone, structure and style could be lighter, readers will nevertheless find much worth in this expansive and original study.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Interventions – A Life in War and Peace

Kofi Annan’s memoirs narrate his career as a flying peacemaker, working for the United Nations. Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, takes us from one diplomatic precipice to the next. We traverse devastating failures and lasting successes. In the book’s chaotic world, Annan’s unwavering determination and moral conviction is perhaps the one constant.

Interventions is written by Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, an ex-colleague, and focuses mostly on his efforts to prevent or resolve global conflict. After an opening chapter on his youth, observing the successful independence movement of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and engaging in student politics, we then jump to his career, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, followed by his ten years as Secretary General.

Chapters primarily cover the interventions in all forms of war since the early 1990s. Specific innovations such as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, the International Criminal Court and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are upheld. UN reform is explained, and UN resolutions are never far away.

The book could be more balanced, addressing Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan more, and Israel-Palestine a little less. It could also capture the rich detail of high-level political summits with more verve; at times the content is dry and excessively policy-orientated. Occasionally the language strays into latinate prose: “The impact of the MDGs in providing this coherence has not just secured the de-confliction of certain development paradigms…”

Despite these flaws in style, Interventions engages assiduously with key topics. Annan does not shy away from criticizing the Bush administration for undermining multilateralism over the Iraq war. He is right to point out that in development debates “the spotlight should not be on aid but trade. It should really be on the failures of rich countries to remove international trade regulations that stunt the economic ambitions of developing countries.”

Interventions really comes alive when we read about Annan’s efforts to work alongside difficult personalities such as the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. These passages reflect Annan’s sensitivity and steeliness, as well as his sense for human psychology. The book’s substance lies somewhere between the personal and the policy-driven – more of the former would have made it more readable, but nevertheless it remains a fascinating account of contemporary statecraft in the post-Cold War era.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Pakistan on the Brink

In 2000, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid produced a bestselling account of the insurgent group that currently threatens the stability of Afghanistan. Taliban was balanced, instructive and based on plenty of fieldwork – everything good journalism should be. Pakistan on the Brink, however, feels rushed, gleaned from existing accounts written by other journalists working in the region, interspersed with a hotchpotch of statements made by senior figures working on “Af-Pak” (the term Washington policymakers use to describe Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Rashid appears to see the region’s history as determined by Great Men. The policy shifts, character flaws, indecision, infighting, meetings and announcements of presidents, envoys, admirals and generals are viewed as key markers in the narrative. Barack Obama is attacked for his “cold” approach, lack of commitment and failure to meet personally with either the Afghan president Hamid Karzai or the late US Special Adviser Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is portrayed as “deeply insecure” and “his own worst enemy”. Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari is characterized as weak and deferential to a Pakistani army “obsessed with India and the threat of Indian influence in Afghanistan”.

Beneath this network of power brokers we struggle to learn what actually drives change. There is little substantial historical context going back more than a few years, and Rashid fails to describe the deep roots of key Islamist movements undermining security in the region.

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

Rashid’s recent books – Jihad (2002), Descent into Chaos (2009) and now Pakistan on the Brink – echo those hawkish commentators of the Great Game and Cold War; radical Islam has replaced the perceived Russian and Soviet threats. But surely the past twelve years in Afghanistan have yielded valuable lessons about the importance of giving credence to history and culture, the historical consciousness of an invaded people; the delicacy and cost of intervention; the need for realistic strategies founded on adequate analysis? Pakistan on the Brink is symptomatic of the West’s recent failings in these endeavours.

Times Literary Supplement

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

The retired military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge has written a thoughtful book tackling the reasons for Britain’s recent military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covering politics, strategy, history, operations, institutional culture and academia, Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars is ambitious in scope. Moreover, the book is predicated on a noble ambition: to remind readers of the injustice of Britain’s recent military adventures. Ledwidge hopes to make British senior officers and politicians see sense and promote belated reforms.

Ledwidge’s central argument is now common knowledge: Britain’s forces have struggled in both Iraq and Afghanistan because soldiers and officers alike simply failed to understand why they were actually in these countries. Ignorant of the political purpose, fearful of admitting this, and unwilling to challenge the Blair government’s mistaken policy, the military leadership was guilty of acquiescence. As Ledwidge writes, “What really happened was that generals…failed in their role as speakers of truth to power.”

Yet the Clausewitzian ‘logic’ for war was lost not only on these officers, but also for most of a Labour government who followed the United States into two wars whose rationale was never clear or fixed, but shifted according to expediency. Perhaps unsurprisingly the generals did not question their politicians given their perception that the military exists to serve the polity, not debate politics.

But Ledwidge is uncompromising. He asserts that beneath the military’s overarching failure to contest the political purpose of both wars lies a catalogue of institutional inadequacy: “A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensured a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to an excessive readiness to use extreme violence…Inadequate equipment and a dearth of [combat] personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure…”.

Unfortunately the writing is sloppy at times. Ledwidge calls Mazar-e Sharif a province (it is the capital city of Balkh province). He introduces the International Crisis Group twice, in almost the exact same way within forty pages. His prose can slip into silly exaggerations: “The police are widely regarded to be at best a disparate group of drug-addled rogues”. He repeats the same arguments throughout the 270 pages, many of which are drawn from the same dozen British journalists or generals. Very few Iraqi or Afghan sources are used, which is ironic given his arguments for greater cultural engagement as a means to improve the understanding of the armed forces.

But Losing Small Wars is nevertheless a brave and important book; essential reading for anyone wanting insights into the dysfunction within the British military today, and the deplorable consequences this has when thrust upon the lives of innocent civilians caught up in war. 

Times Literary Supplement

Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground

Old fort nr Bamiyan

Jonathan Steele has written a book that is brazenly illuminating. Ghosts of Afghanistan charts a sinuous and sobering history of the country over the past thirty five years. The results are grim reading but also perversely satisfying, as the categorical exposé of hubris always is.

Steele assiduously points out the many oversights of the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan to teach us to learn from these mistakes. “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he writes, “is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly.”

Rather than using chronological narrative form, Steele opts for myth debunking to shed light on the crisis. Thirteen myths are dispelled throughout the book. Some are more pertinent to the current Afghan context than others. Myth eleven, for example, writes Steele, is that the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The ramifications of this misguided intelligence were enormous. It became the principle rationale for the U.S. invasion.

Ghosts benefits from Steele’s thirty years plus of reporting on both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The prose is clear and lively. The personal anecdote is never far away. His history is well-researched. Steele examines WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables from actors such as former U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry to demonstrate the increasingly cagey U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the support the Pakistani intelligence service provided to the Taliban.

Steele also offers interesting analysis into reasons for U.S. reluctance to entertain a political solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban, based on America’s historical experience; namely, the success of fought victories in the Civil War and the two World Wars, versus their unsatisfactory negotiated settlements in Vietnam and Korea.

Where Steele perhaps comes up short is in his exploration of ghosts, if only because he could have taken it so much further. The Soviets called the mujahedin dukhi – ghosts – since they were so shadowy, much like the Taliban for the U.S. military today. But if today’s various insurgent factions remain spectres in the eyes of the West, then so too does the country as a whole.

This metaphorical ghostliness, or more precisely, misperception, strikes not only at the heart military failings in Afghanistan, but actually at the whole notion of foreign intervention in a weak state that has been – and remains – so weakly understood by outsiders working in the country. This military myopia stems from an overwhelmingly ‘blind’ international civilian engagement. And this breeds the myth-making that has partly caused such tragedy in Afghanistan.

Times Literary Supplement