Is it fair to exchange roads for food?

Gepubliceerd op
31 juli 2013

For years, China has been improving the Ethiopian road system in exchange for sesame seed. Is such an exchange model fair and sustainable? Despite that famine is of the past in Ethiopia, some Ethiopians are still hungry or rather euphemistically called have ‘structural food insecurity’. In addition, the amount of food available to the average Ethiopian is still below the recommended dietary reference intake. It seems unfair that food should be exported while the population is not getting enough to eat.

Let us look at the situation from a broader perspective.  First of all, a good infrastructure enables quick transport of food to areas in acute need. Moreover, a good road system helps farmers to transport and sell their products faster and cheaper. But there are also risks involved. As soon as there is no infrastructure to be built, a significant market will disappear. Furthermore, because sales to China are guaranteed, there is little orientation towards international markets, meaning that creating new markets takes considerable effort.

So, infrastructure alone is not enough. In the long term, there are other issues which are structurally more important than roads. In terms of agricultural production, these issues include access to high-quality means of production, to larger markets and to knowledge.

Importance of means of production and knowledge

As an example of the importance of means of production and knowledge, the Ethiopian government provides subsidised extension packages to a limited number of farmers. In other words, the roads are being built not only so that products can be transported from farms, but also so that materials can be delivered to farmers. These extension packets contain productive seeds and inputs, extension and supervision for the farmers based on the relatively well-developed Ethiopian agricultural knowledge and information system. The packages are implemented on existing farms and show that production per hectare can be doubled and be profitable. If these 'best practices' are implemented on a significant scale, Ethiopian farmers can produce more food than they need for their own families. This means that a growing population will be adequately fed while Ethiopia can still earn foreign currency by exporting agricultural raw materials.

In reality

But why isn't this win-win situation a reality yet? Unfortunately, not all farmers receive the subsidised extension packages, and many farmers are dealing with the following issues:

  • Farmers' current production is not sufficient to feed their families and to sell products in exchange for basic needs such as clothing and housing. The farmers do not have enough products to sell to build up a small reserve. As a result, there are too few financial means to invest, for instance, in better sowing seed or fertiliser for the next harvest.

  • In addition, the system of granting credit is insufficiently developed to enable farmers to call on loans easily.

  • There is also insecurity regarding sales and the risk of poor harvest. The farmers prefer to continue to use traditional and proven methods, so food security dominates their way of farming.
Merely build roads in exchange for agricultural raw materials is therefore neither fair nor sustainable. At least, simultaneous efforts should be made to utilise knowledge to increase production and to learn about the conditions for access to international markets. Only then, will infrastructure become the road to a sustainable future by efficient access to means of production and markets and at the same time the population is assured of fair amounts of food.