April 16, 2010

Neoliberal food policies in Africa

In the PNAS article Neoliberal policy, rural livelihoods, and urban food security in West Africa: A comparative study of The Gambia, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali William Moseley, Judith Carney and Laurence Becker (whom I will collectively call MCB) tell the story of what they call "neoliberal" policy reform of the food industry in those three countries. Their narrative is very interesting and, despite their politically correct language, very enjoyable. I summarize it below but I recommend reading the original. Then in the article's conclusions MCB advocate some neocommunist policies.

Between 1966 and 1984 the Gambian government, with the help of foreign governments and aid agencies, planned and financed rice production. As is typical of government-run enterprises, "projects often ran aground" by "ignoring sociocultural norms" and by insufficient attention to detail.

Then, starting in 1986, the government removed subsidies, price controls and import tariffs, and dismantled the state bureaucracy that run the rice trade. This left rice consumers "dependent" on imported rice. What MCB mean by "dependency" is that the removal of import tariffs and the other reforms suddenly made imported rice cheaper and more attractive than locally produced rice. Nobody forbade consumers to keep buying local rice, but they have since preferred the imported one. MCB tell a similar story about the Ivory Coast:
Gone was the state agency with a monopoly on importing rice, control of rice supplies, and the responsibility for regulating the national rice price. Privatization meant that the state’s monopoly on imports shifted to a small group of private importers close to the president. With regulation gone, imports rose, because consumers preferred the less expensive and lower quality (yet better milled) imported broken rice.

In 2006 rice in the international market was cheaper than in 1980 but then in 2007 and 2008 it got very expensive. MCB explain that Malians suffered less from this price hike than Gambians and Ivorians because "Mali’s landlocked status made imported rice relatively more expensive, a factor that favors domestic rice producers," because Malians find local rice more tasteful and because Mali's government banned rice exports to neighboring countries. I can understand why distance to ports makes imported stuff more expensive, but I can't figure out why landlockedness may have a similar effect. Anyway, MCB are effectively arguing that there was less of a price hike in Mali because rice was already expensive there and because the government decided to depress local prices at the expense of local farmers and consumers from neighboring countries (those bloody Ivorians be damned).

In their conclusions, and out of the blue, MCB advocate reestablishing tariff barriers and subsidies to local rice production. Tariffs would make rice more expensive to consumers. Subsidies would make farmers happier but taxpayers more "vulnerable" (I love to use MCB's terminology). MCB also advocate that new seed technologies "should be designed with the needs of the poorest farmers in mind, including women," which reveals that MCB think that food production is a goal in itself and not a means to feed people. Finally, they say that consumers are "unidimensionally obsessed with rice" and that governments should make sure that they eat more of other foods that, as MCB also note, are less affordable and less convenient to cook.

Just as the "neoliberal" policies criticized by MCB are small steps towards a liberal society, the neocommunist policies they advocate would be steps towards a society where consumption is a means to production and, as a result, rice is scarce and expensive, especially for those taxpayers who would pay for it without actually eating any.

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