Transforming the Fisheries

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.

Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.

Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.

Times Literary Supplement

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Hunger Shames

A comparative book review:

THE END OF PLENTY – The race to feed a crowded world, by Joel K. Bourne

THE REPROACH OF HUNGER – Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century, by David Rieff

Joel K. Bourne considers a world seemingly destined for even more hungry people. The planet’s human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Food production increases are barely able to match population increases. Food stocks are diminishing. The extraordinary growth of food production brought about by the “Green Revolution” since the 1960s is now levelling out due to soil nutrient depletion, a result of the intensive farming that was deemed necessary to address unprecedented global population growth. The increasing consumption of meat and dairy products, which requires and releases more carbon dioxide to produce, is exacerbating climate change. Climate change is already reducing production for farmers throughout the world.

It makes for scary reading. Bourne is happy to furnish our fears. He writes, “The world’s farmers face a . . . Herculean, task: to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves. And they must do it without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends. It is the biggest collective hurdle humanity has ever faced”. Later he adds,  “we’re on a roller coaster that has just left the tracks”.

This catastrophic scenario is relieved somewhat by the book’s narrative structure. Bourne eases our worries with stories of ingenious and personable farmers doing their bit to help themselves and, implicitly, humanity.

Bourne has a passion for seeds and soil. He admires people working the land, none more so than the father of the “Green Revolution”, Norman Borlaug. He describes an “iconic” image of Borlaug in a Mexican field in 1964: “His shirtsleeves are rolled high, revealing a brawny, sun-darkened right arm that scribbles in a large notebook . . . his eyes steeled on the wheat field in front of him, judging its height, vigor and yield.” Borlaug is one of many heroic figures in this story. Other hopeful characters include: a maverick American aquaculturist off the coast of Panama, an Ivy League microirrigation engineer launching his start-up in India, and corporate farmers in Ukraine looking to exploit the potential of Europe’s breadbasket.

The End of Plenty is both readable and compelling as a series of largely apolitical tales of farmers’ challenges and triumphs set against the wider environmental context.

Yet The End of Plenty does not go far enough, both in terms of analysis or prescription. As its subtitle states, this book is about “the race to feed a crowded world”. But Bourne sees the problem of hunger narrowly, as largely one of food supply, and suggests answers mainly in agricultural innovation alone.

This tendency to see the solution to global hunger through “innovative” agricultural development is the view of the “mainstream”, as David Rieff makes clear in The Reproach of Hunger: Food, justice, and money in the twenty-first century. The mainstream comprises all the major players apparently aiming to tackle hunger: the United Nations, bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and DFID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jeffrey Sachs, the World Bank, international NGOs and even agro-industrial multinationals. Reiff argues that they share a misguided “faith” that hunger can be eradicated – for that is their aim – through “smart aid”, scientific innovation and “best practices” drawn from the private sector.

Rieff correctly asserts that this mainstream development consensus represents an ideology that simplifies the causes of hunger and underestimates the scale of the changes required to tackle it. He argues that “hope has become the default of our age, and realism . . . is now widely considered to be a moral solecism and almost a betrayal of what it should mean to be a compassionate human being.” He laments this status quo, “in which good intentions are too often conflated with good deeds and good deeds with effective ones”. He deplores “an age where it is a fact and not an opinion that inequality is deepening across the world, that power and wealth are more and more concentrated in the hands of the tiny minority of the world’s population, and that politics even in democratic countries is increasingly unresponsive”. He concludes that “all this talk about individuals making a difference [is] at best a consoling farce”.

The Reproach of Hunger is a long, rambling book filled with long, rambling sentences. But Rieff’s insight on the illusory quality of the development consensus is important. As is his assertion that hunger is fundamentally a political problem, not a technical one. But Rieff, like Bourne, fails to offer an alternative. His overriding scepticism precludes it. Disconsolate, he agrees with the philosopher John Gray that the “emancipation of market forces from social and political control” represents the only revolution currently underway.

These books – one fearful, the other despairing – offer divergent visions of the challenges we face in feeding the “bottom billion”. Bourne fears we may not produce enough food considering existing farming methods, population growth and the effects of climate change, while Rieff doubts that “philanthrocapitalism” – the present approach – offers a real solution. Yet they struggle with the same binary: either working with, or against, capitalism. Neither ventures a credible political alternative.

Alternatives do exist, however. As with water, we must defend the aim of “enough food for all” from the vicissitudes of market economics. As a norm and an ideal, ending hunger should be a cross-party political goal. This should be safeguarded legally, by enshrining rights within all state constitutions. Governments that breach their citizens’ “right to food” should be liable.

 

The Times Literary Supplement

 

Mali’s Prospects for Peace

Bamako woman.jpg

The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November was symptomatic of Mali’s protracted social conflict. Twenty-one people were killed during the day-long siege, including the two jihadists from Al-Mourabitoun, one of several radical Muslim factions operating in the north of the country. A recurring conflict between northern Tuareg actors and the government has also plagued Mali since it gained independence in 1960. In 2012, the ‘fifth Tuareg uprising’ and almost simultaneous jihadist attacks broke out across the north, expelling government forces from Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions. These parallel movements threatened Mali’s state sovereignty, prompting French military and UN peacekeeping interventions as well as an internationally mediated peace process. Three years later, it remains to be seen whether lasting peace can be achieved in Mali.

In the short term, successive French military interventions Serval and Barkhane have weakened northern radical Islamic militant groups such as Ansar Dine, which led the 2012 jihad, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The French army recently reported that between July 2014 and 2015 Operation Barkhane had removed 125 terrorists from Mali and seized 20 tonnes of munitions. The UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) has also helped to stabilise the conflict, despite recently becoming the fourth-deadliest mission in the history of the blue helmets. In addition, Mali’s neighbouring states coordinate to tackle security challenges as part of the Nouakchott Process, which started in late 2014. These initiatives have de-escalated the conflict for now.

The peace process has also made some advances in conflict transformation between 2014 and 2015. The large number of northern armed actors were united in their hostility towards a Malian state they saw as exclusionary and corrupt, but splintered over goals and methods. By July 2014, the mediation team, led by Algeria, had successfully coalesced the actors into two coalitions – the more statist, government-leaning Platform, and the more secessionist Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad(known as ‘Coordination’) – which became compliant within a political process. By the time the Coordination signed the ‘Algiers Accord’ on 20 June 2015, the process had achieved notable compromises among parties. For example, the Coordination dropped its goal of a separate ‘Azawad’ territory and agreed to back a single, secular Malian state. The government also shifted its position, agreeing to the official use of the name ‘Azawad’ for the northeastern region, and several additional political concessions.

Significantly, the Accord offers considerable devolution to northern Tuareg populations represented by the Coordination. It also promises economic investment in the north, which both the Platform and the Coordination desire. Meanwhile, both northern factions have agreed to disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and reinsertion (DDRR), including merging some elements into the national security forces. Socially, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to investigate violence and abuses committed in the country during 1960–2013, is an important step towards fostering a culture of reconciliation.

The peace deal also generated a positive international response, with France pledging €360 million in reconstruction assistance on 21 October. The following day the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference on Mali, to solicit further investment from the public and private sectors. The meeting concluded by stating that Mali requires some €3.5 billion in humanitarian and development assistance during the next six years.

All of these initiatives are de-escalating conflict in Mali. But the question remains whether they are actually transforming the conflict. Three developments in 2015 would suggest not. Firstly, the Coordination refused to sign the Algiers Accord when the Platform did so in March, because, among other unmet aspirations, the group rejected the proposed security arrangements. This rejection was almost certainly based on concerns that its forces would not be stationed optimally when ‘guarding’ northern roads. Secondly, both the Platform and the Coordination broke the ceasefire agreement, central to the Accord, several times between May and September, halting the implementation of the peace deal. Each breach was a result of armed elements moving into ‘forbidden’ territories in the northern regions. Their objective, again, was to claim key strategic roads when, through the Accord, they would soon be entrusted to ‘police’ them. This manoeuvring led to several clashes, the last of which, on 17 September, resulted in 15 fatalities. Following this ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, the third key event was a three-week long meeting in Anefis between the Platform and the Coordination, which ended in mid-October with a deal to end hostilities. According to reports, this so-called ‘pact of honour’ again centred around cantonments along the northern roads.

Both parties’ concerns over the control of roads in the north is explained by the prevalence of smuggling in the area. Illicit trade across Mali’s northern border has grown since the 1970s – from cigarettes, to cannabis, to cocaine, heroin, arms and human beings – and has become a vital source of revenue for northern communities. Controlling roads heading into Algeria guarantees vital income through bribery and kickbacks. A worrying associated trend has been kidnapping, particularly by terrorist networks seeking cash for the release of hostages.

The fact that so much of the peace process has, in effect, hinged on control over trafficking routes reveals two key insights: firstly, that criminality and corruption is endemic both in the north, but also reputedly in Bamako, massively undermining Mali’s long-term governance and security. Secondly, that people engaged in such activities seek this income for themselves and their communities, revealing the persistent poverty and deprivation of the north, which is still resource-poor and economically marginalised. As Paul Collier has forcefully argued, this kind of poverty is a key driver of conflict. Both insights suggest that the structurally rooted nature of conflict in Mali persists, despite efforts at delivering peace.

For real conflict transformation in Mali to occur, northern criminality needs to be tackled by force, but also through strengthened governance and rule of law. Broader recognition of the problem is necessary: Mali’s diplomatic community still treats cross-border trafficking as a taboo; radical ‘Islamists’ or tribal dynamics are instead seen as the key drivers of conflict. The Nouakchott Declaration refers to transnational trafficking networks merely in passing. Donors should force Bamako to tackle the issue by disinvesting, for example, when trafficking indicators are triggered. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) remains weak in Mali. International organisations must be capable of confronting corruption at the central level.

But in parallel with such efforts, the international community must support the government in promoting legitimate forms of income to replace this criminal economy. France’s financial pledge is undoubtedly important, but it remains a ‘pledge’, only €80 million of which was dedicated to the north. The government must honour its commitments, enshrined in the Algiers Accord, to northern political and economic integration. Moreover, the international community must incentivise this assimilation into the national economy by promoting existing assets, like tourism, and identifying alternate revenue streams. In this way, the northern groups can be legitimately empowered, in conflict analysis terms, so as to be able to negotiate effectively with the government within an ongoing political process.

As long as trafficking and criminality are allowed to continue, and no viable alternative exists, then this war economy will prevail throughout northern Mali. In this context, armed actors will continue to rise against the state. And jihadi ‘spoilers’ will continue to kidnap and kill, as they did in Bamako on 20 November. As such, Mali’s prospects for peace remain worryingly remote.

International Institute for Strategic Studies

 

The Tyranny of Experts

“It is time at last for the debate that never happened to happen. It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for rich and poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Thus ends The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterley’s latest insightful book about international development.

Since the early 20th century, and after World War II, argues Easterley, the architects and managers of international aid – governments and “experts” – have unanimously favoured an apolitical approach to development that attempts to achieve economic growth through centralized, technocratic means.

Through this “blank slate” vision of development these “experts” have neglected the rights of poor people. As a result, they have actually undermined poor people’s prospects for greater material wealth over the long term. Easterley suggests that the racist colonial belief in poor people’s inability to think for themselves is sustained through mainstream development practice today.

The Tyranny of Experts draws heavily on the ideas of 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. One of Hayek’s most popular books, The Road to Serfdom, challenged the wisdom of top-down central planning. Easterley takes his cue, arguing that development should be achieved via what Hayek described as “spontaneous order” rather than the “conscious design” favoured by Hayek’s contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, and successive generations of development economists.

Easterley invokes Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to illustrate how individuals seek opportunities within complex systems when incentives exist. Easterley wants the “experts” to focus more on creating these incentives by pushing for poor people to be granted their political and economic rights. These rights are intrinsically good, he argues, plus they help individuals pursue the market opportunities that will ultimately lead to national growth. He uses the phenomenal success of South Korean car giant, Hyundai, founded by Chung Ju Yung, to make his point.

Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is problematic. Easterley uses too many threads of research simultaneously, including a continuous reference to the history of Greene Street, New York, as a weakly conceived example of how “spontaneous solutions” triumph over central planning.

Though it loses some coherence, The Tyranny of Experts nonetheless compels us to re-examine the purpose and methods of international aid.

Globalization And Its Discontents

I have just read Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents (2002).

Stiglitz was the Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chairman of President Clinton’s Council for Economic Advisors. He won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2001.

He has formidable expertise and experience and has succeeded in writing a book about economics that is both readable and compelling.

His basic argument runs that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the international economic institution responsible for supporting countries facing economic crisis, was largely responsible for the failure of globalization in the 1990s.

The IMF, states Stiglitz, continuously adopted an out-dated and dogmatic adherence to market fundamentalism – the belief in letting the free market deliver economic stability and growth. Their policy to achieve this, in East Asia and Russia, was incoherent and went against the basic tenets of Keynesian economics.

The IMF’s failed policy prescriptions included fiscal austerity, high interest rates, rapid trade liberalization, liberalizing capital markets and privatization.The IMF’s institutional “fear of default” also comes in for criticism.

I enjoyed this book though I found the focus a little too narrow; it rarely deviates from its specific critique of the IMF. Surely other players should come into consideration if you intend to address the failings of a phenomenon as broad as globalization? Only the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Government and the World Bank, are addressed in this context.

The “behind the scenes” actions of corporations and foreign governments in influencing policy are ignored. Here Stiglitz misses an important trick. I would also have liked to see more analysis of how poor economic decisions directly affected people in these developing countries; the repercussions of, for example, liberalization policies were often enumerated only very vaguely.

Stiglitz undoubtedly succeeds in revealing the impudence and irresponsibility of the IMF’s interventions in developing countries. But I wonder how else it could operate? The “international bureaucrats” to which he so often refers must work according to very tight timelines. Sometimes these seemingly mundane factors help to explain their lack of flexibility or foresight.

But it’s nevertheless shocking to learn how much the IMF is governed by the narrow interests of the Western financial community, whose investments are recouped via the multi-billion dollar cash injections into these developing economies, while their poor lose their jobs and livelihoods and the middle classes foot the tax bill that ensues.

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