By Azeem Ibrahim, a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In Zugu, a small village in Ghana, most of the children are hungry most of the time. If you visited, the first thing you would notice is that the children go through their days – school, play, sleep – with stomachs which are swollen from malnutrition. Zugu was not like this a few decades ago.
Some of the women sometimes buy sacks of rice grain from the farmers. They take it down to the river to wash it, build a fire over to steam it so that the outer husk falls away, then dry it on mats. Then they can take it to the market to sell. But these days, they find that rice isn’t earning them as much as it used to a few decades ago. And that means they have less money for food. They go without more often than they used to.
One of the things which has changed is that whereas twenty years ago the women could sell the rice easily, now it is much harder. Rice imported from other countries is cheaper. And that’s a pattern, not just in Zugu, not just with rice, but with many other agricultural products in village markets all around the world.
The saddest thing about this situation is that it is a deliberate result of policies — European policies. The European Union makes a point of selling its extra produce – rice, milk powder, cereal, potatoes and so on – to poorer countries. All too often, it undercuts local producers, causing real hunger and entrenching dependency. This is Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, and it is a disgrace. If we really want to tackle poverty around the world, we should join Sweden in calling for its abolition.
Look at what it does around the world. It takes money from you and I, the taxpayers, and gives it to farmers. The intention is to ensure them a stable income. But the effects are devastating. It pays for cheap bales of wheat to be sent to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, undercutting local farmers. It pays for thousands of tonnes of packets of powdered milk to be sent to Mali, undercutting local cattle farmers and preventing them from growing their own agriculture. It pays for millions of chicken parts to be sent to Senegal and Ghana, where they are sold cheaply, undercutting farmers there too. In short, it is holding poor countries back.
The galling thing is that at the same time as locking out poorer producers from getting their produce to our supermarket shelves, it also makes the food on those shelves more expensive for us. And this from a subsidy which we as European citizens pay for through taxes — at a cost of 69 Euros per year per head in the UK.
But the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy doesn’t only make it harder for the world’s poor to trade their way out of poverty. It also moves money from the European taxpayer to often incredibly wealthy multinational firms. It wasn’t set up to be a Cognac arm of LVMH, the company responsible for Luis Vuitton, Moet and Chandon and Krug champagne, but it does. Nor was it set up in order to give money to the company which is now France’s largest beneficiary – Groupe Doux – one of the largest poultry suppliers in Europe – but it does. Its recipients in France include other food conglomerates and big spirits distillers. It was set up decades ago to help poor European farmers, but now it helps rich agricultural multinationals, at the expense of poor countries’ development.
If you cheered in 2005 when the G8 made their pledges in Edinburgh, if you wore a white band, or agreed that rich countries should be more proactive against poverty, I suggest to you that taking a scythe to the largest agricultural subsidy in the world would be the best place to start.