In some ways I've flown through these past eight months in a haze. To get by from day to day... it's like I've been staring at my feet this whole time. But in the last few days the ground came rushing up beneath me again.
What I mean by this is that I had forgotten why I am here — what passions had driven me to this point, what riled me up, what inspired me to come back to West Africa and work in development. And then I picked up a book my father had sent me — Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, by Wall Street Journal correspondents Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman.
I live in Dogon country, Mali, on the edges of the impoverished Sahel that stretches across this starved continent. And I am here in the capacity of a development agent representing the United States government. To be more specific, an agricultural and natural resource management development agent, from one of the most economically, agriculturally and politically powerful countries in the world.
And I sit here, reading about how for decades, domestic agricultural subsidies in the United States and the E.U., coupled with the food aid industry and economic restrictions imposed on Africa, have perpetuated and worsened famines, malnutrition and economic ruin in the very countries these policies are ostensibly trying to help. In the developed world we are dependent upon protectionist policies in the sacred area of agriculture, and yet we indirectly deny the use of similar mechanisms in Africa by way of Structural Adjustment package prerequisites demanded by the WTO. The push for African countries to embrace free market capitalism and the "Green Revolution" of chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds to maximize agricultural yield has not been effective here. And why? Because even with a bountiful harvest season and plenty of international aid to support the purchase of modern farm tools, alternative technologies and high-quality hybrid seeds, American and European farmers out-compete their African neighbors by dumping their subsidized crops on the global market. This in turn cuts world prices on agricultural goods to a point where African farmers actually start losing money. The book brings up several poignant examples, all with the same message: in "blessed areas, especially the United States, a crop fails and the government writes a check. In Africa, a crop fails and people die."
Because African governments are discouraged from, or can't afford to subsidize their crops, there is no social safety net to protect them during droughts or pest infestations. And even when they have a good crop and produce well, it floods the international market because the EU and US are already overproducing, and the price drops. Our governments push Africa to embrace and rely upon the private sector to develop agriculturally, but in most of Africa there IS NO private sector, nor the infrastructure to compete internationally. And so, local grains rot in African fields because cheaper grain surpluses (or free grain, in the form of food aid) from the US and EU are dumped on their markets.
I was distraught to learn that the food aid we so altruistically give to starving countries is actually exacerbating food insecurity in some African countries. Billions of dollars of food aid flows in from developed countries, but far less is spent on agricultural development aid to prevent starvation in the first place. Indeed, our international financial institutions and governments often discourage these countries from implementing policies or devoting federal funds to bolster agricultural development. We don't want to spend US dollars on development efforts that would lead to increased competition for our local farmers on the global market.
And so, when a famine sets in in Ethiopia or Sudan or Mali, the international community's conscience is pricked, food aid flows in and politicians make heart-wrenching speeches about ending world poverty. Then, when the world stops watching, the food supply is cut off, and these countries are left with weak infrastructures, a ruinous agricultural base, and no tools (political or real) to become self-sufficient. There is no private sector to rely on. Local markets aren't developed enough, roads from farm to market are poor, transport is unreliable and often nonexistent, and food is difficult to transport from the lush areas to the poor.
And I see all of this; I feel it and I live it every day here. In Mali people haven't been victim to outright famine since the drought of the early 1980s. Politically, Mali has been relatively stable since colonial independence. Mali was once home to a burgeoning salt and gold trade, and even today Her southern fields are ripe with cotton, shea, bananas and mangoes. And yet I sit here, a 12 hour drive east of the capital into the Sahel, and there are no mangoes. It is garden harvest season, and yet of the families I've interviewed about food security, most only eat vegetables once or twice a week. Meat they only can afford once a month. People aren't starving to death here or killing each other, and as such, most Americans have never heard of this country. But Mali ranks amongst the lowest on development indicators: the infant mortality rate is shockingly high, as is the level of malnutrition.
This I see. I see it when I pass the village cemetery, where there are far too many fresh little burial mounds. I see the effects of geopolitics and global trade when I go to eat dinner every night with my host family, and Yacouba, the four year old with a belly distended from malnutrition, complains about having to eat toh again (a millet mush), like they do for every meal of every day. I feel the pain of what American and European trade policies help to perpetuate when I catch small children digging through my compost pile, eating moldy, hard pieces of bread and sand-covered vegetable scraps. It becomes real when I joke with kids about them not eating my cat when I go out of town, and then I see cat skins strewn about the edges of the village. I understand how my country's excessive subsidies for crops like cotton — which is also Mali's biggest cash crop and export — effect my friends here, when I watch women hand-pick cotton from the fields and laboriously hand weave string, then cloth, and walk the 7 km to market just to sell a bolt of cloth that took them nearly a month to make for a meager $26.
Amongst all this I remain an agent for agricultural development here in Mali. It tears me up inside that, while most Malians are enamored of the United States because of Peace Corps presence, my country is also doing a lot to prevent development from happening here — even if it is inadvertent or stemming from good intentions.
I am learning more and more that perhaps the most important part of my being here is to give me a wake-up call. One of the main goals of the Peace Corps is to "Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans." This, at first, I took to be secondary to the goal of training and teaching Malians useful skills. But now I'm realizing that the real impact is in putting us young, perhaps naive, but ambitious and courageous volunteers in the places most marred by global economics, politics, natural disaster and misfortune, where we can better understand the functioning of the world, and what roles we can play to better it.
So if all of this can be imprinted in the minds of even some of the nearly 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers this world has seen so far, it is achieving something extraordinary. I will continue to plant my trees and water my garden, if only to go home at the end and sound my barbaric yalp.