Development Issues

0

AFGHANISTAN/DEVELOPMENT: Afghanistan’s surprisingly predictable economic crash

By Jared Ferrie  Asia Editor  14 March 2016 IRIN

People lined up at the passport office in Kabul

Afghanistan’s economic collapse was sudden, surprising, and entirely predictable.

When the United States withdrew around 60,000 soldiers just over a year ago, much of the money propping up the crippled economy left with them. Their departure was part of the end of a NATO mission that at its peak included 100,000 US troops and 30,000 from other nations.

The mass withdrawal was scheduled years ago. But nobody – neither the previous Afghan government nor international donors – came up with a comprehensive plan to ease the blow of the economic shock that would surely follow.

“I have not seen anything that would indicate that we developed any programmes anticipating this tremendous negative impact on the economy,” John Sopko, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction who reports to Congress on how US aid money has been spent, told IRIN.

“Shame on us,” he added.

Likewise, Afghan officials in former president Hamid Karzai’s administration seemed oblivious of the economic catastrophe that was bearing down on them.

“Not enough people grasped the meaning of it and looked at the macro and micro economic impact that it might have on Afghanistan,” said Omar Samad, a senior advisor to the current government and former ambassador to Canada and France.

“People assumed that it would be business as usual.”

It wasn’t though. Instead, a lot of business left with the Americans.

In comments included in a January report by Sopko’s office, SIGAR, President Ashraf Ghani said at least 100,000 jobs were lost in the transport sector alone, which had contributed about 22 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP. The construction sector and services connected to it had been driven by US military contracts and accounted for 40 percent of GDP.

The loss of the money flowing into the economy from jobs and contracts connected to the US military had an immediate effect. Economic growth plunged to 1.3 percent in 2014, down from an average of 6.9 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the World Bank. The average yearly income per person fell from $730 in 2013 to $680 the following year.

Afghanistan economic growth rates

World Bank Afghanistan economic growth rates

Who’s in charge?

IRIN requested comment from the US Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Department of Defense about the current economic crisis, the lack of preparation for it, and failures that SIGAR has uncovered with American aid projects. Only USAID responded.

“In advance of the drawdown of international troops and the 2014 election, USAID developed a transition plan to guide our support for agriculture-led economic growth, with a particular focus on supporting the Afghan government’s ability to generate the revenue needed to support the Afghan private sector,” said Larry Sampler, who works with the agency on Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs.

As an example, Sampler cited USAID’s development of an electronic payment system for customs duties on imports. Previously, payments would be collected in cash, which would then be driven to the bank in an armoured car. The electronic payments are quicker, safer and allow the government to more efficiently collect customs duties, a key source of revenue.

Sopko said many US-funded programmes were successful, but overall reconstruction has been characterised by mismanagement and waste. Such a scattershot approach has led directly to the current economic crisis. While USAID and other agencies may have had their own strategies to ease Afghanistan through the transition period, there seems to have been little coordination and no overarching plan.

Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry also declined to comment.

What went wrong?

The US alone has pumped at least $113 billion in reconstruction aid into Afghanistan since helping to overthrow the Taliban at the end of 2001, according to SIGAR. That does not include having the US military on the ground fighting, which would bring the cost to almost a trillion dollars, but it’s more than America spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

Despite that staggering investment, Afghanistan in 2016 looks nothing like West Germany 14 years after the end of the Second World War. So what went wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

SIGAR has published a series of reports exposing waste, corruption and mismanagement of programmes led by USAID, the Department of Defense, and the State Department.

They include an investigation into the DoD spending $486 million on cargo planes for the Afghan Air Force, which found that “those aircraft could not even meet operation requirements in the Afghan setting”. Eventually, 16 of them were sold for scrap metal at six cents a pound, fetching $32,000.

Another investigation showed that the DoD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations spent almost $150 million on housing for staff members who oversaw “unfinished, poorly planned, and ill-conceived projects”. They included a $6 million plan to import nine Italian goats to stimulate a cashmere industry. The Task Force has been disbanded and the fate of the goats remains unknown.

Not all projects were failures, of course, and there’s no doubt that Afghanistan’s economy is better off now than it was under the Taliban. But the overall approach to rebuilding Afghanistan was haphazard, say insiders.

“There were problems with aid being asked to be spent too quickly, and too much of it, and not directed at the longer term,” said Bill Byrd, who was country manager and economic advisor at the World Bank in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and is now with the United States Institute for Peace.

Byrd and others, including Samad, said donors neglected the key sector of agriculture, as well as other important areas like water management and infrastructure development. Samad said the main focus had been on security, while development planning was “erratic”.

“Every year, or every other year, everybody got together and changed course, changed priorities,” he said. “We were not very consistent with follow-up and implementation.”

That lack of focus meant that some sectors of the economy and some people benefited greatly, while others were left behind. A World Bankreport shows that the poverty rate stayed at 36 percent between 2007 and 2012 even as there was strong economic growth, including an astonishing 21 percent in 2009. Instead of raising living standards for the majority of Afghans, inequality increased.

A shoeshine boy in Kabul

Jim Huylebroek/IRIN Many poor families send their children to work like this boy shining shoes in Kabul

What now?

It’s not all bad news. The World Bank predicts economic growth to rise steadily for the next few years. There have been major successes in health and education, as well as training and equipping the Afghan military, which is now facing a rising insurgency from not only the Taliban, but from other groups including the so-called Islamic State.

Worsening security is feeding the economic crisis, and fractures in the government are not helping, said Byrd.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government was created as a way out of a political crisis, after the disputed results of 2014 elections threaten to tip the country into another armed conflict. The UN oversaw an extensive audit, but the results were never made public. Instead, Ghani was appointed president, while the new position of Chief Executive Officer was created for his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

“It seemed almost like the NUG agreement was a recipe for inaction, and that is a problem,” said Byrd. “The National Unity Government needs to act more like a unified government that’s responding to what by consensus is a national emergency.”

There are indications that the NUG can be decisive. Byrd pointed to the government’s success in getting tax hikes approved by parliament and improving tax collection, which increased government revenue by more than 20 percent last year.

“I think it’s an example that its not impossible for the government to function and it achieved a credible and significant success,” he said. “The situation would have been worse if the hemorrhage of revenue had continued in 2015.”

Samad said it’s impossible to disentangle poor security and governance from the economic crisis, and improvements in those fields are key. He downplayed divisions in the NUG and pointed to Ghani’s widely heralded commitments to fighting corruption, as well as efforts by the government to create political space for peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Even if the government’s anti-corruption strategies and peace negotiations are successful, it won’t be any time soon.

“Nobody’s holding their breath for peace tomorrow,” said Samad.

Voting with their feet

Many Afghans have grown tired of waiting for things to get better. Instead, they are leaving the country in higher numbers than at any time since the Taliban. Afghans comprise the second largest number of arrivals in Europe after Syria, making up almost a quarter of asylum claims, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

The Tahiri family, for instance, is packing up shop and heading to Europe – anywhere in Europe – despite the considerable costs and dangers.

Standing outside the central passport office in the capital, Kabul, Ahmad Tahiri (not his real name) explained that sales at his fabric shop have been so slow over the past year that he can barely support his wife and three children.

“Now we have come to a conclusion that if we stay things will even get worse,” said his younger brother, Abdullah. “That’s why we will spend everything we have to reach a better place – if not for us at least for our next generation.”

(Nisar Ahmad contributed reporting from Kabul. Cover photo: Afghans line up at the central passport office in Kabul in August 2015)

0

DEVELOPMENT: The Empowerment of Women Will Be Central to Realising Sustainable Global Development

By Mary Robinson   original

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland,(1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997 to 2002).

DUBLIN, Mar 4 2016 (IPS) – “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” – the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day serves as a timely reminder that, despite incremental progress of recent years and the ambition of the new global development agenda, we must redouble efforts to achieve a world underpinned by gender equality. All women must be empowered to realise their full and equal rights. But what does it actually mean to step it up for gender equality?

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

For me, this requires targeted approaches to ensure that all women have a voice in the formulation of decisions that impact upon their lives. This is particularly important when it comes to facilitating the engagement of grassroots women. To realise the “leave no-one behind” approach called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the commitment “to reach the furthest behind first”, grassroots women must be recognised as key actors in global sustainable development.

Grassroots women around the world hold a wealth of knowledge which we will need to manage the impacts of climate change and accelerate sustainable development. However, in order to properly value this knowledge and put it to use, women must be allowed to participate meaningfully in the design, planning and implementation of policies and programmes that impact on their lives. Ensuring women’s voices are heard and their needs acted uponis central to advancing climate justice.

The impacts of climate change are different for women and men.

Grassroots women are more likely to bear the greater burden in the face of climate change, particularly in situations of poverty. Climate change exacerbates existing patterns of inequality, including gender inequality. Grassroots women have limited access to productive resources; restricted mobility and little voice in decision makingleave them highly vulnerable to climate change. Climate policy, to be effective, must understand these underlying inequalities in order to address the different ways in which climate effects grassroots women.

Enabling the meaningful participation of women is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. The global development sector has learned, sometimes the hard way, that programmes designed for vulnerable communities, without engaging with the women of the community, rarely achieve their desired outcomes. This important lesson is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goal 5 https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) which includes a target to: ‘Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’. This need is particularly acute in the case of grassroots women. Unfortunately, the importance of including women in decision making and promoting women’s leadership is less well understood by the climate regime. Yet the majority of those on the front lines of poverty and climate change are women.

Some progress has made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2012 the Parties to the Convention adopted the Doha Miracle (Decision 23/CP.18), a decision to enhance the participation of women in climate change negotiations.Parties will review progress against the ambition this decision at COP 22 in November. When they do, however, they will see that only slight gains have been made in terms of equality of representation at negotiations. For instance, the latest UNFCCC Gender Composition Reporthighlights that only 36% of delegates were women at COP 20, and this figure drops to 26% when considering heads of delegations. In Lima Parties agreed to commence the Lima work programme on gender, a two year exploration of the gender dimensions of climate change and the Paris Agreement on climate change recognises the need for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

These are all signs of progress, but a lot more needs to be done to be done in order for women’s voices to be thoroughly included in the formation of climate action. A key next step is investment in training and capacity building for grassroots women in order to enable full and effective participation. This is captured in SDG 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) which includes a target which calls on States to promote capacity building mechanisms in small island developing states and least developed countries to assist women, youth and local and marginalised communities to take part in climate change-related planning and management. Operationalising this target will be critical to achieving a harmonised and people centred approach to both the sustainable development agenda and the new climate agreement.

In 2015, the global community laid a foundation upon which we can build a safer world with opportunity for all. In concluding the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, world leaders signalled a willingness to change course – to leave behind the unequal and unsustainable traditional development models and move towards a future free from poverty and want, with abundant clean energy and a healthy environment.

In 2016 we begin to plan and implement these two ambitious, universal international processes; we must ensure that women’s voices, and human rights, inform our actions. Grassrootswomen must not be seen simply as passive recipients of climate assistance. They are key actors in achieving their right to development. By acknowledging grassroots women as agents of change within their communities, valuing their knowledge and building their capacity to adapt, decision makers can develop sustainable, long term climate solutions at a local level which will strengthen whole communities.

As we “step it up for gender equality”, I call on all those in positions of influence to provide the platforms for grassroots women to speak to for themselves. Listening to, and valuing,theirknowledge and experiencewill help to shape progresstowards 2030 that is good for people, the planet and gender equality.

0

AFGHANISTAN/DEVELOPMENT: Afghanistan’s Path to Women’s Rights Is Paved With Risk, but Built on Hope

Women in the Afghan National Army. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Laura R. McFarlane/Released. Creative commons.

For Afghan women, the systematic repression and violence of the Taliban era was replaced by opportunities, but also fear and insecurity in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of their country.

Today gender politics in Afghanistan are more complicated than ever, with victories in some areas qualified by setbacks in others.

Since the beginning of this year the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, while Sumaya Ghulami won gold in taekwondo at the South Asian games held in Guwahati and Shillong, India, an achievement unthinkable during the Taliban era.

But women have been among the greatest victims of the intensifying Taliban insurgency and a rise in criminal violence that neither the frail government in Kabul nor the shrinking American military contingent on the ground have been able to contain.

Read and weep

The age of social media has shone a spotlight on some of the most egregious examples of violence against women in recent times.

Last November, in a Taliban-controlled village in Ghor province, central Afghanistan, a 19-year-old woman, Rokhshana was stoned to death for adultery.

The adultery charge was technical in nature — an escape from a marriage that had been forced on her — and the viral video of the stoning seemingly filmed on a cell phone inspired widespread disgust across Afghanistan’s growing online networks.

Ghor province’s  former governor Seema Joyenda, only the second woman governor to be appointed in Afghanistan, became one of the main champions for justice for Rokhshana.

But Joyenda herself was eventually pushed out of office after conservatives led a successful — if not uncontested — campaign to remove her from office.

Rokhshana’s stoning came just months after another horrific incident that attracted the attention of the world, when a mentally ill woman, Farkhunda, was beaten to death and burned for allegedly setting a Koran on fire.

One of the most horrible incidents of gender-based violence in the post-2001 period took place at the very end of last year.

Pajhwok Afghan news reported that eleven men, including four policemen, gang-raped a girl of nine in the country’s northwest, where the government and the Taliban are vying for control.

Afghan women in the spring

But the news is not all bad.

This month Sumaya Ghulami returned to Afghanistan to a hero’s welcome after her taekwondo gold in 2016 South Asian Games. She was publicly congratulated by President Ghani and widely lauded in the press.

Ghani’s wife, Rula Ghani, recently announced plans to build the country’s first women-only university with funding from the government of Turkey, a move seen as key to guaranteeing women’s access to higher education.

Meanwhile, over a hundred Italian MPs suggested the Afghan women’s cycling team for the Noble peace prize earlier this month. The nomination thrilled the Afghanistan section of Twitter.

Such events are symbolic of a growing visibility for women in public life. In the parliament, women make up 28% of the seats — a bigger proportion of women than in the US Congress.

However, no woman has headed the parliament, indicating that a female presence in domestic politics can expand without necessarily translating into real power.

A clear example of this was Ghani’s attempt to include a woman judge into the national high court council, which was swiftly blocked by a parliament where conservatives are gaining ground.

Long road to respect

The Afghan woman’s position in society is thus subject to flux, varying from community to community.

Hazara women have seen a particularly fast-paced change in their lives, influenced possibly by higher rates of female education relative to other ethnic groups in the post-Taliban era.

Among Afghanistan’s most influential women are Sima Samar Head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission and Afghanistan’s first female governor Habiba Sarabi of Bamiyan province, both ethnic Hazara.

Laila Haidari, another Hazara, is a woman social volunteer who has found the Mother Camp which treats drug addicted men.

But women across groups in the country remain prejudiced by Afghan civil law, which reserves the right of divorce exclusively for men, while family matters remain under the control of the head of the family in most cases.

And critically, the Taliban is gaining ground across the country, even as the movement itself splinters, while hardline clerics have continually decried women’s rights as a Western imposition.

In such a fluid environment, women are locked in a contradiction: they enjoy more space for participation than they did 15 years ago, but are also most likely to be a lightening rod for the inevitable conservative backlash.

0

DEVELOPMENT: The Great Land Rush Series: Ethiopia: The billionaire’s farm

The Great Land Rush

Across the globe, investors are betting billions on land. Tom Burgis reports from Ethiopia, where a tycoon has planted a vast rice farm in soils tainted by years of conflict

1. THE HARVEST

As an orchestra of mosquitoes and crickets greeted the dusk, Bedlu Abera looked out over fields of rice stretching across the Ethiopian lowlands towards the horizon. A flicker of contentment crossed his face. “It’s satisfying,” he said. “We are making progress.”

Mr Bedlu was overseeing Saudi Star Agricultural Development’s first substantial harvest. Every few minutes he answered a crackling query on his walkie-talkie. There was urgency to his farmhands’ work. The land here is almost too fertile. It must be cleared and planted again swiftly, before the rains return.

The deepening darkness formed a canvas for an orange flame in the distance, beyond the perimeter of the farm. A hunter had set a fire to send prey scurrying from the undergrowth into his snares. Closer at hand, parked beside an irrigation canal, stood a combine harvester, at rest after a day in the rice fields.

This remote spot is a frontier in a contest for land that stretches from Myanmar to Saskatchewan. Investors are betting billions on an asset that is both more abundant and more fiercely contested than any other. The struggle playing out in the Ethiopian lowlands is a glimpse of others to come in a crowded, warming world.

Mr Bedlu, pictured, is 40, stocky and thoughtful. He wore hobnail boots and a scruffy goatee. He took over as Saudi Star’s farm operations manager in 2014. He made light of the hardship, but swapping the pleasant warmth of his home in the highland capital city of Addis Ababa for the fly-blown humidity of the lowlands had been tough. His family had yet to join him.

Saudi Star’s proprietor, a Saudi-Ethiopian tycoon named Mohammed al-Amoudi, has spent more than $200m turning a swath of bush into a farm the size of 20,000 soccer pitches. That puts the sheikh, as he is known, in the vanguard of the global land rush.

As the populations of better-off nations move to cities in ever greater numbers, the gap between the amount they grow and the amount they eat widens. Agricultural trade has long filled this gap. But a price shock in 2007, when staple crop prices doubled in a few months, demonstrated that global markets for food can break down. Then the financial crisis created demand for investments that were not linked to volatile equities and bonds. Governments, multinational companies and institutional funds started to pour millions, then billions, into other countries’ land.

From Southeast Asia to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, investors are seeking to profit not simply by trading the fruits of the earth — the rice and the coffee, the oil and the gold — but by controlling the land itself.

Few countries have attracted such attention from land-hunters asEthiopia. A nation plagued by famine now envisages vast commercial farms pumping food around the region. But for millennia, land has been the source both of great advances and of bloodshed. Saudi Star’s patch of earth is no different.

Back in the cabin that houses his office after sundown, Mr Bedlu cradled a few grains of the farm’s rice in his palm. Saudi Star’s agronomists have bred Indian and Pakistani seeds into 62 varieties, testing each for their fecundity, resilience and flavour. Mr Bedlu spoke with relish of his three favourites. Two of them, Midroc 1 and Midroc 7, were named after Mr al-Amoudi’s conglomerate, the latest additions to a business empire that extends from Swedish oil refineries to Saudi defence contracts and has made him what Forbes estimates to be an $8.5bn fortune. The third, Gambella 1, took its name from the poor region in whose soils the sheikh has planted his grains.

Some of the variations are bred for the domestic market. Others are blended to suit the tastes of the wealthy rice eaters across the Red Sea. The price crisis exposed the vulnerability of countries that import what they eat, none more so than Saudi Arabia. It is said that Saudi Star was born after Mr al-Amoudi presented a sack of Ethiopian rice to King Abdullah. The monarch, delighted by its quality, gave his blessing to the sheikh’s plan for a vast farm across the sea.

In 2009, Saudi Star took a lease on 10,000 hectares in Gambella for 50 years. Later it added 4,000 more hectares when it bought an adjacent state farm. But the project struggled at first. The site is remote, the roads mostly unpaved and the locals are sceptical, even hostile.

Saudi Star’s was one of the most high-profile projects of an investment drive in which Ethiopia’s government leased 2.5m hectares, an area slightly smaller than Belgium. More than the same again is on offer. The government’s goal was to bring in modern farming technology to generate exports that would help a serious balance-of-trade problem and, some say, cement the ruling elite’s control over the fertile lowlands.

November’s harvest, covering only a portion of the allocated land, was long overdue. It was initially forecast to yield 10,000 tonnes of rice but Saudi Star halved the outlook after poor rains. The company plans to spend another $100m by 2018 completing 21km of irrigation canals, levelling the ground using lasers and bringing in more machinery. That would double the farm’s yield, allowing annual production of 140,000 tonnes, more than enough to supply the entire Ethiopian market.

Mr Bedlu, who studied plant science at university in Egypt, blamed the farm’s initial troubles on mistakes by inexperienced managers and consultants. He was part of a team that Mr al-Amoudi installed in 2014. It has brought expertise of large-scale commercial farming and is trying to improve community relations. The 4,000-strong staff includes 1,300 locals: 300 on permanent contracts and 1,000 seasonal labourers.

Temesgen Desigew, a rangy 23-year-old from a nearby town, has already risen to the position of agricultural supervisor. He joked that he wanted Mr Bedlu’s job one day. Asked whether his father, who grows maize on the family plot, used a combine harvester, Mr Temesgen’s eyes widened. “No, no,” he said. “An ox.”

Temesgen Desigew, who works as a supervisor at Saudi Star

Temesgen Desigew, who works as a supervisor at Saudi Star

Education in Gambella is rudimentary for most, so local hires are trained from scratch. In the rice-processing plant housed in a vast hangar rising from the scrub, a Pakistani technician took pride in the skills he was imparting to his local charges. “It’s difficult,” he admitted, his grin unwavering. “There are 86 languages in this country.”

Mr Bedlu was learning the language of the Anuak, the main ethnic group in the area, one of the two biggest in Gambella. Their livelihoods are rooted in farming and some have found work at Saudi Star. But armed guards on the perimeter were a reminder of what happened on April 28 2012, when decades of lowlander grievances were unleashed on the sheikh’s farm.

Guards on duty at Saudi Star's farm

Guards on duty at Saudi Star’s farm

A group of gunmen, widely held to have been Anuak militants, opened fire at the company’s compound. They killed at least five employees before fleeing. Reprisals followed. According to Human Rights Watch, the military rounded up villagers, beating the men and raping the women.

The attack was a lesson for the new lords of the land, whether in Gambella or Brazil, Madagascar or Scotland. They can come with the promise of jobs, technology and progress. But land is like the lion that prowls near Saudi Star’s farm: hard to tame.

2. A NATION OF FARMERS

From the air, most of Ethiopia looks like a vast patchwork of tiny plots, each a slightly different shade of ochre or green.

This is a nation of smallholders: 85 per cent of employment is in agriculture and 95 per cent of all agricultural produce comes from small farms, typically the size of a couple of football pitches.

Of that, 80 per cent is consumed by the households that produce it; only 20 per cent is sold. These farmers rely on their hands, some rudimentary tools and the fickle rains.

A mere 5 per cent of agricultural output comes from big commercial farms. Yet they form an important plank in the government’s strategy to complete a journey from famine to prosperity by the middle of the century

Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have starved to death in periodic famines. Another 8m were declared at risk by the UN in November. Nonetheless, a country once synonymous with deprivation has found its swagger. Official figures in this country of 97m people show more than a decade of double-digit growth, with strong exports of coffee, livestock and cut flowers.

Some analysts question the numbers, especially when they are accompanied by famine warnings. But there is physical evidence of advancement too: the smooth new roads, the telecoms infrastructure, the dams — and Barack Obama, who in July last year became the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia. The country is a self-styled “developmental state”: a nation, like China, Singapore or Rwanda, where an authoritarian government sets a strict economic path.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front took power when it toppled the communist regime in 1991. Dominated by highlanders, as those from central and northern Ethiopia are known, it established a record for economic competence and intolerance of dissent. A surge of opposition support ahead of 2005’s elections prompted a crackdown: government forces violently dispersed protests against alleged rigging. In last year’s polls the party and its allies won every seat in parliament. Resistance to government high-handedness has boiled over in recent weeks into protests that have drawn a deadly response from the authorities. Ethiopia sits in the bottom 25 of Freedom House’s press freedom rankings, close to Russia and Saudi Arabia. Under a counter-terrorism law that human rights activists and lawyers say is used to stifle criticism, dozens of politicians, protesters, journalists and bloggers have been jailed, along with critics of the land deals.

For years, the EPRDF was opposed to the idea of starting big commercial farms. That changed about a decade ago as donors encouraged foreign investment in agriculture. Since then, Ethiopia has been at the forefront of a global phenomenon.

Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development, has tracked the evolution of transnational land deals. “Land might be seen as an asset class by a fund manager,” he says, “but for many rural people it is a foundation for social identity and food security.” Most “wild west” deals failed after the food price shock of 2007, Mr Cotula says. Still, in a report published last year, he noted that momentum is again building. “Demographic growth, climate change, urbanisation and changing consumption patterns are widely expected to continue . . . compounding pressures on valuable lands.”

Ethiopia has tried to make itself the most attractive destination for land investment. More than 50 foreign investors, from India, Turkey, Pakistan, China and Sudan as well as Saudi Arabia, have leased Ethiopian land. The rents are often very cheap. Saudi Star’s contract stipulates an annual rate of less than $3 a hectare. Investors enjoy tax holidays and access to guaranteed credit.

Yet only 35 per cent of the leased land has been developed, according to official figures. That is partly because of the sheer difficulty of getting agricultural machinery and skilled manpower to the most remote corners of a landlocked country. The government has cancelled seven leases after investors failed to deliver on their promises. Some of the domestic investors, who cumulatively have taken much more land than the foreign ones, have simply stripped their plots for charcoal and left them idle.

The biggest lease, taken by Karuturi Global of Bangalore, has not fared well. The Indian group had sought to diversify into food from its multinational roses business but struggled with flooding and debt. Initially 300,000 hectares, the government cut the lease area to 100,000 hectares. Abera Mulat, head of Ethiopia’s land investment agency, wrote to Karuturi in December, saying its lease had been terminated because it had failed to bring its plot in Gambella into cultivation. Karuturi declined to comment but its boss was quoted saying the company would challenge the cancellation.

In an interview in his office in Addis Ababa in November, Mr Abera insisted that, despite allegations from activists, no one with a rightful claim had been forcibly moved to make way for investors. “There have been cases where people have come and said: ‘This is my land.’ If we are mistaken, then we will leave that land.”

There have, however, been forced relocations under the government’s separate “villagisation” programme. This, the government says, is designed to group scattered communities into larger settlements to make it easier to deliver basic services. Some Anuak, including victims who spoke to human rights activists, have reported beatings and rapes by the soldiers who enforced their resettlement. One Anuak activist notes a bitter irony: that some of those who were self-sufficient before they were moved now depend on food aid.

Mr Abera stressed that “the point of resettlement is not to clear land for investment”. He added, however: “After the land is vacant and we have done surveys, then why not?”

3. RESISTANCE

Okello Akway Ochalla had been in exile for a decade when he checked in to a hotel in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in March 2014. An Anuak, his homeland lay across the Ethiopian border in Gambella, where Saudi Star and other flagship ventures of the Ethiopian government’s land drive have their farms. But Mr Okello could not go home.

He had been the governor of Gambella in 2003, when mobs of highlanders set about slaughtering the Anuak, after Anuak assailants allegedly staged a deadly ambush on a government vehicle carrying highlanders. According to testimony gathered by human rights groups, the Ethiopian military joined in the massacres. More than 400 people died.

The government claimed the deaths arose from inter-ethnic clashes between indigenous groups in Gambella. But Mr Okello refused to peddle the official line. Threatened with arrest or worse, he fled. He was granted asylum in Norway but maintained contact with Anuak scattered across east Africa, some of whom, according to his associates, were involved in the small resistance groups that have taken up arms against the authorities.

In exile, Mr Okello developed twin agendas, says Gora Ojulu, an Anuak refugee in Kenya who worked as a finance official in his regional government. “One, to have a strong political organisation that can oppose the government. Two, advocate around land: be against the narrative from the government that ‘we must move you to a place where we give you infrastructures, then we give this land for investors’.”

For Mr Okello as for many other Anuak, the dispute over the land deals has fused with their people’s century-long struggle to claim their rights from British colonialists, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian empire, a communist dictatorship and, most recently, a federal government dominated by highlanders.

Ethiopia receives more food aid than any other country. But starvation’s domain is the highlands, where the soils are thin and the droughts unforgiving. The lowland arc that has Gambella at its centre is bountiful, watered by the Nile and its tributaries. The Anuak would typically clear a patch of forest, cultivate it for 5–10 years growing maize, sorghum and groundnut, then move on to a fresh patch. If the crop in one area failed, those with a fuller harvest would come to the rescue.

It is in the lowlands, perennially resistant to highlanders’ diktats, that the vast majority of the land deals have been struck. Federal officials stress that many of the deals were agreed by local authorities. Opponents counter that local leaders who signed off on them were often stooges of the powers in Addis Ababa.

Whatever the motives of the land policy — and its proponents argue passionately that they have locals’ interests at heart — the sorry history of the lowlands was always going to colour the programme.

In March 2014, Mr Okello embarked on a tour to organise Anuak resistance. He went to Eritrea, Ethiopia’s sworn enemy, then on to South Sudan, home to many thousands of Anuak. On March 22, two South Sudanese security agents entered the hotel where Mr Okello was staying.

According to a relative who was with him, Mr Okello was led away with four other Anuak men who had been visiting him. They were taken to a military prison near the airport. All were flown to Addis Ababa. Mr Okello has been in prison since. He faces charges under the counter-terrorism law. The maximum penalty is death.

4. ‘A BLESSING FOR ETHIOPIA’

Jemal Ahmed quivered with anger. “Some of the figures are mind-blowing,” the chief executive of Saudi Star said one morning in November. Sitting in his office on the 15th floor of the Midroc skyscraper in Addis Ababa, he rattled off some of the wilder claims of profiteering that critics of the Gambella rice farm have cited. “It makes my blood boil.”

Mr Ahmed was a leading Ethiopian cooking-oil trader when he formed an agro-business partnership with Mr al-Amoudi in 2008. In 2014, the sheikh asked him to turn round the troubled Saudi Star project.

“I’m an African,” Mr Ahmed began. “And whenever I read my history, when I see how our forefathers suffered . . .” He broke off to tell the story of his grandfather. The 23-year-old man who looked out proudly from a black and white picture on Mr Ahmed’s phone was killed days after it was taken, fighting off Benito Mussolini’s Italian colonisers.

“After colonisation and slavery, Africans are still not able to use their resources,” Mr Ahmed went on. “Take Gambella. That land is infested with mosquitoes. The indigenous survive by eating roots from the forest. They don’t have food shortages but their mortality rate is so high. They don’t go to school. The only thing you see when you fly is not factories or businesspeople: you see NGOs.”

He was resentful that, when a company such as Saudi Star tried to invest, it would come under attack from foreign activists. “I get happy when I see an Anuak boy operating a Caterpillar machine the way an American boy would do on the Mississippi delta.”

Saudi Star has tangled for years with activists from the Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch, who have compiled detailed reports on Ethiopia’s land investment programme and the heavy-handed ways in which, they allege, the government shifts locals out of the way. Mr Ahmed flatly denied such claims. “No one was living in this area,” he said of Saudi Star’s plot.

On the wall of Mr Ahmed’s office hung a framed picture of him and Mr al-Amoudi, whose closeness to the ruling party has exacerbated resentment among Gambellans. Mr Ahmed objected to attempts to portray the sheikh as “a man who came to take advantage of Ethiopia’s resources at the expense of the indigenous people, to take their ancestral land”.

Instead, he argued, the farm made economic sense. “Saudi Arabia is a rich country and imports food. We have rich lands but we need capital. If Saudi hunger for food lets us bring in capital, that is a blessing for Ethiopia.”

‘If I had invested $200m in Thailand, we could easily have produced more rice. Why do we do it in Gambella, with no roads, no electricity, no skilled workers? Because if we don’t, no one else will’

Contrary to press reports, Saudi Star had yet to export a single grain of rice, Mr Ahmed added. Higher prices at home meant that it was more profitable to sell domestically. Saudi Star’s rice production would cut Ethiopia’s import bill by up to $100m, Mr Ahmed forecast, and generate more foreign currency through exports. That hard currency is precious: Ethiopia’s trade deficit stood at $8bn in 2013 and, the International Monetary Fund forecasts, will be twice as big by the end of the decade.

Despite the early setbacks, Mr Ahmed was contemplating expansion. He had his eye on as much as 100,000 hectares in the area around Saudi Star’s farm that he expected to come free as the government cancelled failed leases.

“If I had invested $200m in Thailand, we could easily have produced more rice,” Mr Ahmed said. “Why do we do it in Gambella, with no roads, no electricity, no skilled workers? Because if we don’t, no one else will. The Indians came but they could not do it. We have a sentimental attachment to our people. Gambellans are Ethiopians too.”

By now, Mr Ahmed had calmed down. The view from his window is spectacular, taking in the national stadium and, beyond, the capital’s fast-rising skyline. For him, the land venture in Gambella is part of a plan to drive Ethiopia into the 21st century.

“All the indigenous groups have had a rough time,” he said. “They need more investment. And better governance. And civilisation.”

5. EXILE

In the cramped living room of a one-storey house on the mud-spattered outskirts of Nairobi, 14 of the men and women scattered by the long tussle for land and power in Gambella gathered one recent afternoon. A picture of an Anuak woman torn from a calendar adorned a wall.

One after another, the refugees recalled when they had fled Gambella. Some arrived recently, driven by evictions linked to the villagisation programme. Others, such as Omot Oluwoch, 37, came to Kenya after the pogroms of 2003.

“I was taking tea on a veranda and I heard a gunshot,” Mr Omot recalled. “I saw soldiers shooting Anuak. They saw that I was Anuak. I decided to run — but I can’t run.” Mr Omot’s leg was damaged when he was small and he walks with an awkward shuffle. “Because I am disabled they did not shoot because they thought they could catch me and kill me with their hands.”

Omot Oluwoch, who escaped to Kenya via South Sudan

Omot Oluwoch, who escaped to Kenya via South Sudan

He limped as far as a nearby empty house, went inside, locked the door and hid in the roof. He heard the soldiers taunting him that the land of Gambella was theirs. They called him “tyre”, a highlander term for darker-skinned lowlanders. Eventually they lost interest. Mr Omot crawled out of a window. He spent two days in the bush before he hitched a lift to South Sudan. From there, he came to Nairobi.

“The reason why we are being killed is because of the land,” Mr Omot said, to nods of agreement from other refugees. “Because the government look down on us, they don’t want us to live there. They don’t consider us, because we have dark skin. It is like what happened under apartheid.”

Anuak leaders who had opposed Addis Ababa were simply swept aside. “Some have fled, some have been taken to prison, some have been killed. So [the government] can come and sell the land,” Mr Omot said.

Some of the refugees had known Mr Okello in Gambella. Since his arrest, the former governor’s supporters have lobbied the government of Norway, his adopted home, to intercede on his behalf. Norway’s foreign ministry says the country did not interfere in the judicial process abroad but that the embassy in Addis Ababa was monitoring the case. Diplomats visited Mr Okello early in his detention but were prevented from doing so again last year, the ministry says. It added that the embassy planned to contact Ethiopian authorities about Mr Okello’s allegation that he had been subjected to violence during interrogations. A judge in the terrorism trial has concluded that the prosecution case is compelling. A verdict is due on March 7.

The refugees rattled off names of other Anuak intellectuals consigned to Addis Ababa’s jails. In some cases, the detentions appear directly linked to criticism of the land deals. One prisoner is a relative of Mr Omot’s. Pastor Omot Agwa worked as a translator for a World Bank inspection team that investigated allegations of forced evictions and other abuses in Gambella. The pastor was arrested in March last year and faces what Human Rights Watch called “spurious” charges of terrorism.

Gora Ojulu, a former finance official in Gambella, now exiled in Nairobi

Gora Ojulu, a former finance official in Gambella, now exiled in Nairobi

Akoth Adhom, a woman in her sixties, claimed she knew of villages in Gambella that had been forcibly relocated. Asked who controlled the land now, she said: “Al-Amoudi.” Yet there was little evidence, even anecdotally, of evictions specifically to make way for investors.

No one challenged the thrust of Saudi Star’s argument that there was enough land in Gambella to accommodate some big farms. But the Anuaks’ claim to their land was not based on title to this or that specific plot, explained Ojunni Ojulu Ochalla, a former nurse who escaped the 2003 massacre.

“It does not mean that there is someone on every piece of land. Even in the bush, you have demarcated land. Areas for hunting, fishing, conserving the forest, farming. The narrative that this place is empty: if you take the whole world, you are living only on a small part. But that doesn’t mean that, in the rest of it, someone can just walk in and decide they can do what they want to do.”

In Abobo, the last village before the checkpoint that marks the start of Saudi Star’s farm, the school and most of the houses are made of mud. Four-wheel-drives bump along the road, carrying farm staff or aid workers ministering to refugees from the war across the border in South Sudan.

When one passed recently, half a dozen children raced alongside, waving giddily at the windows. They wore Ethiopia soccer kits. Both the national flag and that of Gambella fluttered outside the ramshackle town hall.

A faultline of history — or, perhaps, of modernity — has opened up in Gambella. The forces of global markets have smashed up against the instinct to preserve a homeland. Some of the youngsters in Ethiopia kits might find themselves spurred to resist the government, like Mr Okello and the Nairobi refugees. Others might embrace a job at Saudi Star, maybe rising to run the farm. But it is hard to see how any will do both. If a global land rush is at hand, Gambella’s rift will not be the last.

Project manager: Christine Spolar
Design and production: Kari-Ruth Pedersen
Editors: Christine Spolar, Sue Matthias, Orla Ryan and Chinny Li
Maps: Steve Bernard
Graphics: Christopher CampbellWith support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Across continents, big investors are pouring in billions into one of the world’s most precious resources – land. They promise progress. But their arrival can upend livelihoods and spark life-and-death struggles.Read more

Read more

0

ON DEVELOPMENT: Aid work: an insult to the poor? – poem

A Zimbabwean aid worker shares his reflections on the NGO sector through a poem

By: Admiral Ncube  original

Zimbabweans collect grain distributed by World Food Programme (WFP) on November 25, 2013 in East Mashonaland, Zimbabwe.

‘Where there was need, a hand would help.’ Photograph: Xinhua/Landov/Barcroft Media

Decades ago, I heard life was simple and it was so
Where there was need, a hand would help
Where there was a tear, a heart would ache
Willing hands and hearts would meet the lack
Charity they called it, for it was so
Now an industry of sorts – an insult to the poor

Now in my day I see things do change
Experts have risen who have not been poor
Whose studies and surveys bring no change
Whose experiments and pilots insult the poor
Whose terms and concepts, tools always change
An industry of sorts – an insult to the poor

What greater insult could there be
When a fellow man calls me just a beneficiary
When our pictures of desperation are used for marketing
When our dignity is insulted just for fundraising
When trainings and awareness are imposed on us
When the life of another is planned by another
When the gift we got is never disclosed
When overheads are deducted before we know
When we smile for pictures we never see
When our children seek to change our ways
When we waste our lives responding to assessments
Indeed an industry sorts – an insult to the poor

Page 6 of 28« First...45678...20...Last »