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Volume 3 Issue 5 | May 2008



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Change the Debate-- Farid Bakht
Who Will Feed 28 Crore People in 2050?--Shahnoor Wahid
The Potential of the Bangladesh Capital Market-- Mamun Rashid
How Will the Global Economic Slowdown Effect Bangladesh?--Jyoti Rahman
Photo Feature -- Life in Porir Khal --Tanzim Ibne Wahab
Checks and Balances-- Jalal Alamgir & Asif Saleh
Hizbullah: Has Israel Met Its Match?-- M. Shahid Alam
The Other Side of Diplomacy-- Megasthenes
Thinking Outside the Tourism Box -- Adnan Morshed
Fighting Corruption: Do We Have a Flawed Approach?-- Mridul Chowdhury
Urban Poverty-- Ashekur Rahman
Science Forum


Forum Home


Change the Debate

Farid Bakht discusses the politics of food and farmers

Mention the name Henry Kissinger in Bangladesh, and you are likely to get a swift elbow in the ribs for that comment. I bring his name up because of another gem, shared with lesser mortals in 1970:
"Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people."

The seventies were characterised by the use of food as a political weapon and Dhaka suffered the worst in 1974, at the hands of Kissinger.

That lesson was forgotten in the nineties as the new aspirational middle classes thought food was "passé," agriculture backward, and the action was in "services." Today, food and commodities in general have returned to centre stage, both politically and economically. With rice prices doubling, how could it be otherwise when over 70% poor families' incomes goes towards buying food?

Firoz Gazi/ DrikNews

For a generation, it has been trite to mention famine, near famine (monga) or the economic disenfranchisement of the landless in Bangladesh. Small farmers were to be counted for Election Day only.

Large poultry farms and agribusiness were to be the way forward, until the scandal of bird flu stopped that in its tracks. Contract farming was the other panacea as farmers were to be reduced to quasi-bonded labourers -- all the risk, none of the gain. Agriculture on this heavily populated land was meant to be industrialised. All those imported thoughts have to be revisited now.

Putting our money where our mouth is
Mainstream politicians, and the elite, like to trumpet the relative decline of agriculture compared to services or manufacturing. They cite this shift as evidence of the economy "modernising."

Bangladeshi governments prefer not to adequately subsidise agriculture and therefore fail to support what should be the number one sector.

If pushed, you might correctly say that Motia Chowdhury was a better minister than the following hapless ministers in BNP-Jamaat were, but that is not saying much. Take it beyond to the Asian scale, and we have done precious little for our farmers.

The East Asian economic miracle was built on first ensuring that the rural and agricultural sectors created jobs, with the government paying farmers higher prices for rice. The key was "guaranteed prices" so that a small farmer (in actuality, the owner of a small business) could plan production, and borrow, knowing what his or her income would be.

Forget the stuff coming out of the Bank, DFID, and USAID. Look at the experience of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Look at China post-1978 and the phenomenal rise in food production after procurement prices were raised.

Even within restrictive WTO rules, we can provide subsidies of up to 10% of agricultural GDP.

Munir Uz Zaman/ DRIKNEWS

What is our track record?
In 2002-3, only 0.54% of agricultural GDP was provided in subsidy. That figure rose to 0.77% the next year, and to 3.6% in 2004-5. Even the latter only amounted to less than 2.5% of the total budget and was a one-off reaction to devastating floods that year.

Despite the WTO arrangement, governments are loath to boost the sector, which happens to employ 60% of the population.

To compound this, subsidies are preferred for the inputs needed in production. Primarily fertiliser and pesticides. This benefits dealers, including importers, and they do not care about the appropriate level of usage.

Very few people wish to concentrate on the output side, i.e. the price the farmer obtains. Have we considered whether the level of price and the volume bought are anywhere near where we should be? Very little is ever written about this or discussed among the intelligentsia.

We hear more about rogue traders, hoarders, and distributors. Well, the private sector is simply maximising profits and where were you when the government agencies were being disemboweled?

Politics has revolved around promoting urban over rural needs. Thus, when it comes to food, the issue is prices in urban markets rather than the price earned by farmers.

Some suggest that the urban-rural divide is outdated. They view the rapid growth in urbanisation as a sign of success, another excuse to move to "modern" thinking. That view does not see the forced migration by landless labourers to filthy, crowded slums as a failure. This is compounded by the attack on rickshaw pullers for blocking "their roads." Thus, we complete the circle by demolishing slums, restricting rickshaws, and beautifying the city.

This model of economics works if the air-conditioned supermarkets could import their food at low prices. When it does not, it becomes an issue.

Here is where we come up against the concepts of food security against food sovereignty.

In theory, you can gain food security by buying in, i.e. importing food. If a country can export and therefore earn sufficient foreign exchange, those dollars and riyals can be used to buy rice, wheat, and sugar from India, Thailand, Vietnam, and others.

The last twelve months have shown us that we were not "secure" at all.

That applies to dozens of poor countries, which is not altogether surprising given that they are slaves to World Bank-IMF policies. Why not check how many governments the IMF advised in reducing their stocks of food over the years?

It does make you nauseous when you hear talking heads from those agencies cry crocodile tears about why "something must be done" for the poor. The first thing to be done is to reject their own prescriptions. We need to move the concept to "food sovereignty" rather than "food security."

With food sovereignty, we move our objectives to producing as much as possible within the country, by upgrading the component of subsidies for procurement, i.e. focusing on output more than input.

Allied with that, is also the ability to pay. It is no use having warehouses full of food (produced here or imported), if the poorest cannot afford to buy that food.

Starvation occurs even when warehouses are full.

Take an extreme example. If the country produced 40 million tons of rice in large, mechanised agribusiness farms, the national figures would show a surplus of, say, 8 million tons over need. However, if small farmers and labourers were displaced and unable to earn a living, how would they purchase that rice?

The same problem applies to poor consumers (not just urban but in rural areas too). That can only be solved through rationing for the poor, as well as providing jobs for infrastructural work, thereby boosting incomes.

Note that globally small farmers are not reaping the benefits of the red-hot commodity markets. Instead, look to the giants such as US's Cargill and Monsanto and Argentina's Bunge. The urban middle classes are hurting and deserve support too. However, they need to find a more lasting solution than simply hoping for a bumper boro harvest and food aid. They need to ask how much subsidy and government investment is washing through the system for urban transport, property, power, and water.

One suspects that if commodity markets took a temporary tumble, the issue of food would slide down the list of priorities.

A wider angle
For 18 months, much of the media dialogue has revolved around "will they, won't they." I will attempt to withdraw from all this pointless analysis about whether there will be elections or not.

My final thoughts for this year on that subject are as follows:
I expect the current regime will follow the Thailand-Pakistan model, i.e. elections will be called and the military will withdraw to barracks, though not before introducing the National Security Council. Then, I expect the Awami League to win comfortably, with some collective face-saving regarding the prime minister. Note that Thaksin Shinawatra's party has won, the military have bowed out but Thaksin himself is not the PM. In power in all but name.

What is exercising me is not the identity of our next PM or his or her government. Well before the aborted 2007 election, I said we should ignore the election and focus on the following one (then slated for 2012). I continue in that belief that we should focus on the election after next (assuming we have one this winter).

What I mean by that is not the identity of the future winner, but the basis on which our political debate will be conducted in the future.

The victor of the election this winter will have hell to pay. The new regime will not be able to control the country. Two years into its tenure, it will be in crisis. We can get into the details of that scenario in another article.

Whatever the complexion of our next overlords, we will have to change course. As usual, I expect the victors to ignore another piece of advice.

If I were they, I would move to an agenda of the Left, centred on the farmer, the landless, and the small town. We need to ask questions and find answers for the survival of the majority. That means recognising the small farmer as a key component of the engine of growth. For those scared of all things left of centre, they should understand that the business sector would benefit if domestic demand for goods and services could be increased. The last year or so has put paid to the notion that only the right wing can get things correct with the economy. The regimes before this one showed that only big corrupt business got the lion's share of the spoils.

Crucially, I would ignore the phony war about religion.

Pakistan's recent elections clearly show there is very little political support for religious parties, despite the media (and US think-tank) attempts to divert us into that debate.

Shafiq Islam of DRIKNEWS

I do not claim to have any great insight in to what makes tens of millions of rural voters tick. Then again, if I were wrong, I would be in exalted company.

Many intelligent people in Dhaka like to read magazines such as The Economist. Read their take on the Nepalese elections (before the election results were announced). In conjunction with the US, UK, and Indian diplomats, they got it completely wrong. They underestimated the feeling of the Nepalese for fundamental change and their support for the Maoist party. They assumed the two long serving political parties would return and enjoy being manipulated by diplomats and aid agencies.

(This should make you wonder why we should believe that diplomats in Dhaka know any better than those in Kathmandu -- they do not, despite sounding good in front of our TV cameras).

Our middle classes can relax: there is no significant Maoist force within the territory of Bangladesh. The steady decline of the nation state will continue for a few more years, in parallel to apparently rising prosperity in urban areas.

The middle class should also ignore the inexorable advance of Maoists (Naxalites) in India. That is being fuelled by farmer suicides, indifference to the farmer and landless, and an unfair economic model that does not care to distribute the fruits of wealth created.

Bihar, Jharkhand, and now Nepal are a stone's throw away but, so what? Our middle classes are more concerned about Hillary than Prachanda!

For those who have greater ambitions for this country I would suggest minimising the debate about who will be PM in Dhaka come March 2009.

Rather, I would ask for a radical overhaul in the terms of the debate about national development. For those exercised about protecting resources such as gas and coal, an equivalent "committee" to protect the small farmer and landless is needed.

While some doubt where the money will come from, I prefer to ask, where is the money going?

With remittances at record levels, who is deciding how those billions are being used? How much is being used to import products for the urban consumer or subsidise the city? What proportion is being invested, if at all, and how much in rural areas?

Has anyone talked about setting up a rice procurement fund for the small farmer?

Would it not be just if the uprooted labourer-turned-migrant were to support his compatriots by sending some of his riyals, euros, and dollars into a Fund for Small Farmers?

When I hear the phrase "New Politics," what enters my mind is the need for new political alliances between millions of migrants and the tens of millions dependent on farming. I stand guilty of believing in a pipedream.

I would humbly suggest you are, too, if you believe everything will be just fine and dandy after yet another election. While I do not support what we have now, a return to what we had before that is not much good either. We have to change the debate, radically.

Farid Bakht is now based in London.

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