Jeffrey Gettleman’s article in today’s New York Times, “Darfur Withers as Sudan Sells a Food Bonanza,” is an excellent overview of the issues surrounding food production and food relief. Excepting solely the current context of high international food prices, it could have been written at any time in the last thirty years.
In the 1970s, Sudan sought to become the “breadbasket of the Middle East” even while it failed to tackle undernutrition in the provinces. The 1984 famine in western Sudan and the Red Sea Hills occurred while the Gedaref grain merchants exported food to the Middle East. Trains taking sorghum to Port Sudan to be shipped abroad passed relief convoys moving in the opposite direction, while the starving Beja—neglected in the early days of the relief effort—lined the roadside. Sudan recorded a record harvest in 1988, just as the Southern famine hit its nadir. And in 1990 there was a reprise of nationwide famine alongside food exports. Especially ironic, given the Islamist colour of the government, was the destination of some of the food exports—pig feed in Spain, Heineken production in Holland. And so it went on during the 1990s, albeit on a less egregious scale.
Of course there is nothing exceptional about countries or provinces exporting food during famines. It happened in Bengal in 1943, in Ethiopia’s Wollo in 1973, and on many other occasions. Hunger amid plenty is frequent and the result of how markets work. Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines (1981) begins with the commonplace but nonetheless repeatable observation that “Famine is the phenomenon of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the phenomenon of there being not enough food to eat.” People starve if they don’t have sufficient resources to buy food or haven’t grown enough themselves. Merchants sell to those with money to buy, they don’t give away food to the hungry. If there isn’t enough food in the country, but there is enough purchasing power, traders import food.
Some relief agencies have tried to tackle this issue with cash grants to the poor and purchase of local surpluses. This is also an attempt to remedy the absurdity whereby food aid, tied to agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries, has to travel half way around the world when there are local surpluses available. The European Union moved its food aid programme to market-based purchase a decade ago, allowing it to buy locally. It has regularly bought food in Sudan. Four years ago, USAID tried to do the same for a proportion of its food aid, but was blocked by a combination of vested agricultural and shipping interests and the lobbying of NGOs which have guaranteed incomes from food aid disbursement (CARE was an honorable exception). (It’s an interesting question if the current U.S. embargo on trade relations with Sudan would allow USAID to buy food there if it wanted to.)
There are some good arguments in favour of not using exclusively market-based procurement for food relief. For example, market purchase may be slow in getting moving in response to a rapid-onset emergency, whereas the existing system means that there is usually enough food aid on the high seas for a ship to be in the vicinity of the disaster, ready to be diverted. But more common is the phenomenon of local surpluses remaining unsold, or being exported, while food aid is shipped from the mid-west.
Another set of issues is Sudan’s agricultural strategy and its relationship to land tenure laws, labour market regulation, commercial interests, counterinsurgency strategies, and international food aid. These were explored a decade ago in African Rights’ report, Food and Power in Sudan. Analysis of each of these five elements shows that Sudanese agriculture is subject to systematic distortion, through policy. Day-to-day commercial decisions—such as whether a supplier sells to the EU for local distribution or exports to Saudi Arabia—are based on market criteria. But long-established policy biases provide a huge subsidy to commercial agriculture, at the expense of smallholder farmers and their communities.
Since colonial days, Sudanese land tenure has failed to recognize customary land tenure. The resulting inequities were the focus of a debate on this blog earlier this year. Whatever are the merits and disadvantages of different approaches to addressing the problem of tenure security for smallholder farmers, there is no doubt that land dispossession is both a major reason for famine and an important motive for insurrection. Current land law facilitates expropriation by well-connected elites at the expense of rural people. It is particularly pronounced in Eastern Sudan, Blue Nile, Upper Nile and South Kordofan.
Sudanese commercial agriculture is labour intensive and suffers chronic labour shortages at peak times. Commercial farmers have always relied on a labour force which lacks full citizenship rights and is therefore cheaper to employ. In the colonial era the labourers on the Gezira Scheme were chiefly migrants from West Africa, notably the Nigerian-origin Fellata. In the late colonial period, large numbers of Masalit and Fur also migrated to central and eastern Sudan as agricultural labourers. Under the strict tenancy requirements of the Gezira, few could obtain land rights. It was easier to do so in eastern Sudan, as a result of which some Masalit migrants from Darfur’s far west cleared farmland on Sudan’s furthest eastern border with Ethiopia and Eritrea—and tried to escape the insecure livelihood of a casual farm labourer. In the late-1960s, Eritrean refugees swelled the ranks of farmworkers. And when the civil war resumed in 1983, Southern Sudanese and Nuba migrants replenished the labour force.
Today’s enthusiasm for agricultural investment by Middle Eastern companies is a reprise of the 1970s. Then it generated quick profits for commercial investors but was a social and environmental disaster. In 1986, the World Bank reversed its earlier support for expanding mechanized agriculture. This didn’t stop a continuing expansion of commercial schemes, many of them without formal registration. When backed by money and local policemen, the absence of proper documentation in Khartoum doesn’t matter too much. The CPA envisaged land commissions to examine this and other issues. They are not doing their job.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, counterinsurgency strategies in agriculturally-productive areas, such as the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile, involved forcibly congregating villagers in “peace villages” where they provided a cheap labour force for work on agricultural schemes. Military control converged with land expropriation and the commercial farmers’ interest. This hasn’t happened in Darfur because there are no commercial farms of significance. Although the soils in South Darfur are good enough, the area is simply too remote for commercial farming to be a viable option, at least for the time being. If Nyala city continues to grow and prosper, and the food aid subsidy to its grain market declines, then the incentives for commercial agriculture in South Darfur will certainly change.
Food relief plays an interesting role in this process of political-economic change. This was first analyzed by Mark Duffield (in several reports and two chapters of Global Governance and the New Wars). When large number of war migrants first began to arrive in South Kordofan in 1987 and 1988, the authorities were at first resolutely opposed to giving them any food aid. They saw the displaced as a burden and a threat and would rather that they disappeared. But the alternative of them finding their way to Khartoum was less attractive, so schemes to keep them in South Kordofan in aid-supported peace villages were put forward. For the government and commercial farmers, these served the purposes of maintaining a cheap labour force. For the aid agencies, they were presented as the beginnings of new settlements that would ultimately become self-sufficient. In pursuit of this, people were only given part rations, on the grounds that this would create incentives for self-reliance. Given that the displaced were denied land rights, what it did of course was simply to subsidize their employment as labourers. This arrangement persisted for many years—it still exists—creating what Duffield calls the “permanent emergency” on the frontiers of the areas of consolidated government control.
Thirty years of studies of Sudan’s agricultural sector have consistently recommended major reform in favour of customary tenure and smallholder production. In the commercial farming regions, very little has ever been implemented. (Ironically, Darfur did much better with the Western Savanna and Jebel Marra projects, which were supportive of smallholder agriculture.) If world food prices remain high, we can expect that commercial farmers will be the main beneficiaries of the bonanza, and in turn this will encourage more land allocations for mechanized food production, more expropriation of smallholders, and more rural distress and grievance. It’s time for these studies of Sudanese agriculture to be dusted off and their recommendations examined again.