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

Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

Darulaman Palace, Kabul

The prospect of yet another general history of Afghanistan is unlikely to excite. But Amin Saikal’s updated Modern Afghanistan, reprinted this year after a first edition in 2004, is an exception. Saikal is that rarity among published authors on Afghanistan: an Afghan, and his work demonstrates a cultural understanding that is usually lacking among foreign historians and political scientists. He relies on first-hand interviews with informed Afghans, and uses Afghan sources written in Dari as well as others from Soviet archives. This allows Saikal to see his country’s historical development through social and political traditions that most Western historians ignore, or fail to see altogether.

Afghanistan’s state fragility, he argues, is inherent in systems of rule derived from families that were dynastic and polygamous. Such loose patrimonial systems provoked interdynastic rivalry in which challengers often sought external assistance to usurp incumbents. In this way, Afghans are players of their own Great Game: “Any government or official political movement in Afghanistan,” writes Saikal, “whatever its proclaimed goals and position on the left-right continuum, recruited, mobilised support and operated according to criteria of ethnic/tribal/clan solidarity. All prominent ‘Constitutionalists’ in the age of Habibullah and Amanullah were Durrani Pashtuns, linked by conjugal and patronage ties. Through the ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ periods in the post-Second World War era, the Mohammadzai clan never relinquished power”.

Consequently, Saikal sees President Hamid Karzai as little more than a “Pashtun Khan” singing to the United States’s tune of liberal democracy and centralized government, while in reality “operating along the lines of the past”. The emergence of a “Karzai cartel”, in which the President’s brothers and half-brothers “as well as secondary relatives and ethnic loyalists, came to play a dominant role in politics, business, trade and outreach activities”, is proof of the persistence of “family rule” in Afghan politics.

Saikal’s use of sources, his insight into the process of internal political change, and his somewhat sympathetic view that, in the end, Afghans have always been the main agents of their history, make Modern Afghanistan essential reading for anyone wanting original, informed perspectives on the country’s historical development since its “foundation” under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747.

 

Times Literary Supplement