African Debt – Getting to the Heart of the Matter


“If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem,” said the late industrialist J. Paul Getty. “If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

And if you owe the bank $40 billion, apparently that’s everybody’s problem.

So goes the logic behind the push to write off $40 billion in debt owed by 18 of the world’s poorest countries to global lenders. The effort will generate plenty of fanfare this Saturday when rock stars such as Paul McCartney participate in Live 8, a group of international concerts whose purpose is to demand that leaders of the G8 nations cancel loans, increase aid, and deliver “trade justice” to the developing world.

It’s not hard to sympathize with the motives behind all this. Who doesn’t want poor countries to improve their lot? Africa is home to more than two-thirds of the world’s 50 most impoverished countries. Eleven percent of humanity lives there–yet they account for only 1 percent of global economic output. Over the last two decades, their food production has actually fallen.

Confronted by such grim facts, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and their G8 colleagues are likely to finalize some kind of relief package at next week’s meeting in Scotland.

Let’s not kid ourselves, however. The world’s poorest countries aren’t poor because of unfair lending practices, but primarily because of the political instability. Debt is not the problem – it is a symptom. Will any of the Live 8 performers mention the fact that Zimbabwe confiscates land from property owners, including farmers, and shuts down its critics in the press? I hope so. Behavior such as this–rather than G8 usury–lies at the heart of Africa’s poverty crisis.

There are no easy solutions to this dilemma, which won’t go away anytime soon no matter how sincerely we commit ourselves to them. Improvement will require a mixture of bold political reforms, measures to fight the spread of AIDS, and integration into the global economy. Another critical piece of the equation, I believe, involves biotechnology.

A generation ago, the Green Revolution improved farming practices on every inhabited continent. Today, we’re in the midst of a “Gene Revolution” that promises even greater transformation.

But not everybody is taking advantage of it. Consider the case of cotton. A new report released by Rabobank Groep claims that within two years, more than half of the world’s cotton output will be grown from genetically-enhanced crops. This is already the case in the United States. In Australia and China, more than three-quarters of the cotton farmers now use biotechnology. Their peers in Brazil and India are racing to catch up.

And what about Africa? Tragically, it’s been left in the dust. But, that may be changing. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing a grant of $16.9 million to Africa Harvest (one of the 43 announced as part of the $436 million Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative) to support a project that will improve sorghum for human consumption. Researchers with Pioneer / DuPont will take the scientific lead, using biotechnology to develop a more nutritious and digestible sorghum.

African farmers will benefit enormously from biotechnology – increasing yields, lowering costs and improving nutrition. Yet many of their political leaders have taken cues from the European Union and rejected the innovative techniques that the rest of the world is scrambling to adopt. The situation is so severe that several nations suffering from drought recently refused to accept emergency assistance that came in the form of donated corn – some of which might be biotech enhanced.

South Africa is an exception to this predicament. It has chosen to take advantage of biotechnology, and increasing numbers of its farmers plant biotech corn and cotton. “Agricultural biotechnology feeds and keeps South Africans warm,” says Koot Louw of Cotton South Africa. Small-time farmers are some of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend, according to research by the University of Pretoria. In a four-year period, their use of biotech cotton seeds grew from 7 percent to 90 percent.

“The global biotech train has left the station and South Africa is firmly on board,” says a government official in the latest issue of Africa Harvest.

The challenge is to make sure that other African counties get the train tickets they deserve. Without them, their food production will continue to suffer–and the economic inequality separating rich nations from poor ones will widen.

Biotechnology is, of course, no panacea for the problem of global poverty. But neither is the foreign-aid cash that so many activists are now vigorously pursuing. Failure to confront the actual causes of economic misery in a sophisticated and comprehensive way–and refusing to let biotechnology realize its full potential–means that everybody’s problem will only grow worse.

After the world writes off that $40 billion – let’s never have to do it again.

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