Institutional Racism Ensures Colonial Dominance Still Exists

The European colonial period ended in the mid-1900s, after more than three centuries which saw European nations take political control of other countries around the world. Colonialism had accommodated the slave trade which peaked in the mid-1700s and ended with the outlawing of slavery in the early-1800s, led by the UK abolishing slavery. After the end of the Second World War, the United Nations agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.

Former slave outpost at Cape Coast, Ghana

The end of the colonial period and slave trade, and the global recognition of human rights, each mark a step of progress towards every individual being recognised and treated as equal, rather than some population groups having dominance over others. Although the first of these three steps occurred over 200 years ago, and the most recent step was over 50 years ago, globally we are still a long, long way from seeing every individual being recognised and treated as equal.

Neo-Colonialism

Within the international development sector, some have argued that neo-colonialism persists, particularly within Sub-Saharan Africa. Some have argued that the infiltration of Chinese business into the African context represents neo-colonialism as China takes control of African natural and mineral resources. Others have suggested that the G7s initiative, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa, represents neo-colonialism by enforcing governmental regulation which favours the profits of Western business.

These may or may not be the case, and perspectives on this are subjective, but this is not the topic of my argument here. Here, I am addressing the role of institutional racism and how this enforces colonial ideologies in a covert, and often invisible, manner.

I am going to use an example of the UK and its former colony of Ghana, although I know that this issue transcends countries and the UK takes the same approach to a huge number of developing countries, including those which are not former colonies. While this example refers to Ghana, I know of very similar examples from other countries in Africa. Also, although my experience is with Africa and the UK, I strongly suspect the story is very similar for relationships between other developed countries and other developing countries.

Institutional Racism Creates a Lack of Trust

Solomon Abeinge

A friend and colleague of mine, Solomon Abeinge, was recently supported by a UK-based non-governmental organisation (Self Help Africa) to apply for a scholarship from a UK-based foundation (Marshal Papworth) in order to undertake a three-month course on agriculture at a UK college (Moulton College). He was awarded a fully-funded scholarship and offered an unconditional place on the course, due to run from April to July 2017. Solomon is Ghanaian. His application for a visa to the UK in order to attend his course was denied, twice. Why? Because the UK Immigration Service don’t trust him because he’s Ghanaian.

The reason the UK Immigration Service gave for denying Solomon’s visa was because they don’t trust his intentions to return to Ghana after the course because he doesn’t earn enough money in Ghana for there to be any reason for him to want to return to his home country.

The UK Immigration Service is institutionally racist. A strong claim, yes, but justified. The judgement over Solomon’s visa is because the UK Immigration Service consider the UK to be better than Ghana: the UK is a desirable country to live in and Ghana is undesirable. Ghana is a developing country, so apparently, when compared with a ‘developed’ country such as the UK, it has very little going for it. The derogatory, prejudiced, racist stereotype of Ghanaians is that they are poor, uneducated, underdeveloped, and always seeking a way to a “better life” in Europe or North America, a stereotype which is applied to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s true that in Ghana there are many people living in poverty, and the incomes of those not in poverty are low relative to the income of a UK household. But living costs are also much lower in Ghana than the UK, so the salary of employed people is lower to a relative degree. Solomon’s low income wouldn’t go far in the UK, but in Ghana it does.

The UK Immigration Service assume that living in a ‘better’ country earning more money is the driving factor behind choosing which country to live in and applying for a visa to the UK. The assumption is that Solomon would readily leave his wife and children, his job, his home, his friends, his community, his culture, and his country because he could earn more money in the UK, as he doesn’t earn a huge salary in Ghana. This sweeping assumption is wildly incorrect and has a prejudiced, racist and false stereotype at its heart. In Ghana money does not dictate society, a sense of community and traditional cultural values does.

Solomon has been discriminated against, not because of who he is, or his knowledge and expertise, or his personality, or his reason for applying for a visa, or who supported his visa application, or any other credentials, but because the UK Immigration Service maintains institutional racism which perceives Ghana (well, Africa more broadly really) as bad and undesirable and the UK as good and desirable.

The perception that the UK is intrinsically better than Ghana, and therefore Ghanaians who don’t earn much in Ghana would obviously rather live in the UK, is racist. It creates a lack of trust of Ghanaians, denying them opportunities they should rightly have access to, and which could benefit their lives in Ghana. This institutional racism creates a perpetuating system of inequality where developing countries continue to be undermined and marginalised globally and individuals pay the price. In the case of Solomon, he literally paid the price.

Rubbing Salt in the Wounds

Unfortunately, for Solomon the denial of his visa has left him notably worse off financially at a time when his finances are particularly vulnerable. Including the cost of two visa applications (the first one was denied so he applied again with the evidence they said was lacking from the first application, and in fact submitted more evidence than they asked for) and the required trips to and from Accra to submit and collect his applications, Solomon spent the equivalent of approximately six month’s wages. This was savings he had for supporting his three children through high school and university. The scholarship he was awarded was fully-funded for all expenses plus a stipend, including flights, internal travel, accommodation, food, tuition, and equipment cost. The only thing he needed to pay for was his visa. Now he has paid for his visa, twice, only to not be able to take up the scholarship anyway.

Solomon (left) supporting a group of women farmers

Worse still, Solomon has not been paid his typical salary for over a year. A little over a year ago he was involved in a serious road accident while doing fieldwork in a rural community. He suffered a severe leg injury and had to take several months off work to undergo surgery, recovery, and rehabilitation, and has been left with some deformation of his leg. As he was beginning to return to work, the organisation he works for had to make the very difficult decision to stop paying him and other field staff because their funds had run out after their main source of funding was suddenly stopped a few months previously. Solomon, and several other staff, have been working unpaid since because they are so committed to the rural communities they support that they preferred to continue working despite being unpaid for it.

So, after a work-related accident put Solomon out of action for months and then the organisation had to stop his salary, he has spent the equivalent of six month’s income to be told the UK doesn’t trust him. Just because he was awarded a scholarship. He was awarded a scholarship following standard evaluation of his credentials. He deserved his place on the agricultural course he was due to attend because he has decades of experience working in the agriculture sector. The savings he spent on his failed visa applications is lost money, wasted to the UK Immigration Service instead of supporting either his education in the UK or his children’s education.

As an aside, the very reason Solomon’s salary in Ghana is reasonably low (even when he is actually being paid) is because projects funded by UK Aid show such little regard for field staff in developing countries, who bust a gut every day working with rural communities in all weather conditions, that the programmes which fund their job pay them a pittance. While international development projects funded by UK Aid pay decent salaries for the UK-based middle-man, the people working on the ground in the developing country are paid a pathetically small amount, even by local standards. The projects which Solomon has been working on in recent years have been indirectly funded by UK Aid but pay the Ghana-based staff a third of what would be expected for this role compared to other Ghanaian organisations. This also creates a self-reinforcing system of racism against Ghanaians, and Africans more broadly.

The context around Solomon’s denied visa makes this particular case more tragic, but it isn’t the issue under discussion here. The problem is the institutional racism associated with the denial of his visa, which, if it had been granted, would have made the cost justifiable because he would have been able to take up the scholarship and study in the UK for three months, benefitting his employment and capacity to support rural farming communities in Northern Ghana.

The Problem with Being the Best

It is not only the Immigration Service though, and institutional racism is able to proliferate in the actions of the Immigration Service because there is a whole rank of policy and governance structures behind it which are also institutionally racist. UK politics and institutions work to a notion of countries competing against one another to be the best country, rather than simply securing a happy, healthy, sustainable society.

This concept of a nation ‘being the best’ is evident in rhetoric from the UK and US in recent months, as well as other nations. The call for the UK to “once again become a world leader” was widespread during the UK campaign leading up to the referendum on EU membership last year, and has appeared often in political discourse since the referendum. This same sentiment has been projected during the Republican campaign for the US Presidential elections, also last year, and again often reflected in the words and actions of the Trump Presidency since.

Why is there a need for one nation to be perceived as better than all other nations? Why should one country be the “best”, or a “leader”? Did society not learn from colonialism that when one country (or a few countries) ‘lead’ the world, it undermines the rights of all people in the countries which are dominated by the ‘leaders’? Does society not recognise that equality is the preferred, best, and most sustainable option? How can there be equality among individuals, population groups, or nations if our political and social institutions believe that they are better than others?

Solomon (foreground) helps sow seeds on a farm

I acknowledge that ‘being the best’ is a human characteristic which reflects the Darwinian evolutionary concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. I appreciate that competition is a basic principle of business, and selling or buying the best product at the lowest price is a basic concept of trade agreements and other economic structures. However, these forms of competition and being the best function at a very different level to the racist assumption that one nation is better than other nations, with different outcomes. By assuming that a country, or continent, is lesser than your own country, that enforces racism and allows inequality to proliferate.

Ending Racism to Ensure Equality and Rights for all Humans

A photo of a mixed-cropped farm taken by Solomon

Policies which intrinsically assume that the UK (or any other Western country) is better and more desirable than a developing country must end if we are going to see equality and human rights for all.

I recognise that there are some individuals who attempt to enter the UK illegally, or remain past their permitted period, and this helps to create a lack of trust of people coming from countries which may be a source of illegal immigration. Controlling immigration is one thing, but doing it based on prejudiced perceptions of some nationalities or races as less trustworthy is racist.

I believe that if every individual was recognised and treated as equal, and institutional racism in every form ended, then the driver behind illegal immigration would vanish too. If the UK stops telling the world that it is the best place to live and far better than other countries, then people in those other countries would stop thinking it is a better place to live and try to illegally immigrate.

I appreciate that it is a much more complex issue than the picture I have painted here. I am aware that for this form of institutional racism sits within a globalised world with unbalanced economic, labour, and resource systems. To rid the world of racism and ensure equality, a fundamental and transformative shift in the functioning of society would be required. This is a huge issue, perhaps something for a future post.

In a world where the international Declaration of Human Rights perceives each human as equally human, racism continues to treat large numbers of people as less valued, less respected, less trusted, and less needed. This racism is so institutionalised and so engrained in the UK that it often goes unnoticed. This must change, it has to stop, now.

As for Solomon, he is poorer and worse off from this experience, but he is happy to be spending the next three supporting farming communities living in poverty in Ghana instead of studying in the UK.

As for me, I do not believe the UK is a desirable place to live, to the extent that I have moved overseas. In fact, I have moved to Ghana because it is a much more desirable place to live than the UK. I have not been denied a visa for Ghana.

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The Failures of International Development Funding

Funding in international development can be quite a contentious issue. Whether funding for international development projects comes from governmental aid, charitable trusts and foundations, or individual donations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there is often debate on what is funded, why and how. Some question who provides funding for international development interventions and whether they have a hidden motive or a conflict of interest. Others have more concern with what the development funding is spent on, the type of intervention it supports, or the possibility for short or long-term impacts from the input of funds.

In the UK, the government has committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. Some celebrated this while others protested that money should not be spent overseas while there are widespread austerity measures in place in the UK. For many there are further concerns with who handles the funding once it has been committed to an international initiative. Corruption is still rife in many developing countries so some argue that international funds should not be managed by governments because they get siphoned off before reaching the intended beneficiaries. Meanwhile, others argue that small NGOs should not manage international funding because it is easier for the money to be used for purposes beyond the stated development project.

There is no right or wrong to this, studies in the past and recently have found examples of corruption in a range of circumstances. Likewise, the nature of the funder, the level of governance of the international funding partner, the size of the project being funded, or the type of the intervention can result in both positive and negative outcomes. The reality is that there is not one recipe for good, positive, beneficial international development funding and there cannot be. The world is a vastly diverse place with a near-infinite range of needs and wants.

Farmers prepare the land to plant vegetables after their cereal crop of millet failed due to drought.

Farmers prepare the land to plant vegetables after their cereal crop of millet failed due to drought.

Although there is no one right way of ensuring that all international development funding from all sources and for all types of intervention can be beneficial, through my research I have identified some ways in which it is failing which should and could be avoided. This is not what my research is about or has focused on but it has become clear that the nature of international funding associated with the case studies for my PhD has influenced the type and scope of positive outcome for beneficiaries. Here I will briefly reflect on the failures of development funding in relation to the case studies in my PhD research in Northern Ghana.

What happens when the international development funding system fails?

International development funding is very often short-term for a period of three to five years for a specified project or intervention with a specific target beneficiary group. Typically, planning a development project involved setting out a series of activities which are expected to trigger a linear cause-and-effect. For example, building a health centre means more people can get treatment when unwell, meaning mortality rates are reduced. But this isn’t how things work out in practice because societies are more complex and heterogeneous than this model accounts for.

Development projects typically have little flexibility built into the project activities, so those which are specified and funded before the start of the project are those which are implemented. There is little room for evaluating the project as it goes, instead conducting evaluations at the end of an intervention. Projects get stuck inside a metaphorical box so those responsible for implementing the activities can’t always see what is or isn’t appropriate in the context and change the way things get done accordingly.

Context is important. In fact, context is crucial and paying attention to this when an intervention is first envisioned, throughout the implementation, and beyond the formal intervention is essential.

Supporting the wrong initiatives

Both of the case studies for my PhD research are participatory agricultural development interventions, working with small-holder farmers in Northern Ghana. Both projects sought to increase the sustainability of agricultural livelihoods through enhancing the adaptive capacity of farmers. One of the strategies used to do this in each of the projects was through the introduction of new crop varieties which had been bred to be drought-tolerant.

The agricultural sustainability project of the NGO Trax Ghana is one of my case studies. In this case, the international funder made a decision to introduce a variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) which had been bred to be drought-tolerant and have a higher Vitamin A content than native varieties. From a remote, international perspective, this seems like an excellent initiative because it tackles two problems at once: vulnerability of crop production to drought, and unusually high Vitamin A deficiency in children in Northern Ghana. Two birds, one stone, or one potato as it is in this example.

While I was doing my fieldwork and talking to the farmers participating with the Trax project, I heard another story. In this part of Northern Ghana they don’t eat potatoes, it is just not a component in any of their traditional dishes. As a result of this is doesn’t sell well in the markets because no one wants to buy and cook it, and it won’t improve infant nutrition because they’re not eating it. Other vegetables which are in some of the local dishes, such as leafy greens or carrots contain higher Vitamin A content than the bred variety of OFSP. Even during a drought year the native variety of potatoes grows to four times the size of the newly introduced bred variety of OFSP. Also, once dried, potatoes don’t store well, lasting only for three months compared to a year for cereal crops.

Left: the introduced drought-tolerant variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Right: the native variety of potato when grown during a drought year.

Left: the introduced drought-tolerant variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato.
Right: the native variety of potato when grown during a drought year.

These were the complaints I heard from farmers about the OFSP. I recognise that some of their feelings about the OFSP may have been because it was still a particularly new crop, they were only in the second year of growing it when I did my fieldwork, and that they may become more used to eating it over time. But it occurs to me that encouraging an increase in consumption of green vegetables and carrots would have had more desirable outcomes for improved childhood nutrition, and encouraging production of the native variety of potato would have been more beneficial in terms of overall food produced during drought years.

It became clear that although it’s promises when viewed remotely, the introduction of the OFSO had not been considered in relation to the farming and cultural context where this initiative was implemented. The international funder had made a decision about this initiative remotely without first referring to the farmers. As a result, international development funding had been spent on an initiative which was destined to not have positive outcomes, and potentially have negative ones (i.e. farmers using their land and labour to grow crops they won’t eat and can’t sell).

Here, the local context in which the intervention was to be implemented, and the culture and social preferences of the beneficiaries of the project were critical to its success. However, they were overlooked in the planning of the intervention and as such the funding supported the wrong type of initiative.

Not supporting the right initiatives

Staying with the same case study, Trax’s sustainable agriculture intervention, there is another clear example of the failure of international development funding. During my fieldwork I saw first-hand how the field staff work with farmers, how the Trax project considers the needs and priorities of the farmers, and the strength of the relationships they build. When talking to farmers I heard again and again stories of how the Trax intervention had benefitted them and changed their families, farms, and communities more broadly. There is no doubt that the social elements of the participatory activities within the project have far-reaching benefits for the farmer groups.

Women farmers in Upper East Region, Ghana, self-oranising to establish a Village Savings and Loans Association

Women farmers in Upper East Region, Ghana, self-oranising to establish a Village Savings and Loans Association

I have met with farmers who participated with Trax over 20 years ago and who still recognise the extent in which the collective action, empowerment, and agroecological farming practices introduced by Trax continue to benefit them and have a positive influence on the lives of their community. This is sustainable development, an intervention which supports social, environmental and economic sustainability while also ensuring the intervention is sustained long beyond the end of the implementation by Trax.

Despite the fact that Trax support widely beneficial and sustainable development, and have a 27-year track record of doing so, Trax have a fight on their hands to continue to operate. Their main funder, the same one that introduced the poorly-considered OFSP intervention, have ceased to fund Trax in 2016. This has left Trax with a massive shortfall of funds and a serious threat of closure. It strikes me as incredibly unjust that an initiative which is so incredibly successful should not get the funding required. To add to that, Trax run on an incredibly low budget compared to other development interventions. It would appear that development funding does not necessarily fund things which are known to work and be cost effective. It is certainly a failure of international development funding when a relatively cheap yet endlessly beneficial NGO is threatened with closure.

I have been helping to fundraise to cover the immediate gap in funding, and seeking longer-term funding through developing project proposals and new partnerships. So far, this is keeping them going but by only just scraping through. Trax and the thousands of farmers they support desperately need your help to continue to provide the life changing project that they have been doing so successfully for 27 years. Donations go a long way for Trax and really do make a difference. I’m currently crowdfunding to help Trax to continue the work they do while a longer-term funding solution is arranged. Please donate so that the lives of poor small-holder farmers in Northern Ghana continue to receive the valuable support they need.

I have written about working with Trax many times and you can read more about this here. There more information about Trax, their project activities, and testimonies from farmers they support on their website here. Please support this incredible NGO by donating any amount you can. Thank you.

Successful Agroecology Reverses Environmental Degradation in Northern Ghana

My PhD research has been investigating the ways which agricultural development interventions in Northern Ghana can, and do, support smallholder farmers to adapt to change. For this I have been focusing on two projects which seek to enhance adaptive capacity among farmer groups. One of the projects I have used as a case study for my research is the Sustainable Agricultural Livelihoods project facilitated by Trax Ghana.

Agroecology and Environmental Sustainability

Trax facilitate activities based on the principles of agroecology. This means working with the local environmental conditions to grow crops rather than trying to alter them to suit crop production. For example, this might mean growing a range of crops in small areas to suit the local micro-climate or using mixed-cropping to support soil fertility.

Agriculture relies on many factors and different stages - from land preparation, to plant growth, to harvest

Agriculture relies on many factors and different stages – from land preparation, to plant growth, to harvest

Northern Ghana is semi-arid and has particularly poor soils for cultivation. This means that there is only one wet season and when it does rain the water is not retained in the soil well, limiting plant growth. It also means that the soils are easily degraded, being blown or washed away because it is so dust-like.

To overcome some of the challenges the climate and soils present, Trax facilitate training in the production of compost from crop residue and farmyard manure. The compost functions as a fertiliser so it saves the farmers money because they don’t need to buy agro-chemicals. All of the farmers which Trax support use organic farming methods.

Thanks to analysis of some soil samples we took while I was in Ghana last year, the application of the compost has been proven to increase soil fertility when compared to no fertiliser application. The fibrous nature of the compost (because of the crop residue in it) also means that it helps to prevent soil erosion by protecting the top layer from wind and rain.

Farmers building stone bunds, Upper East Region, Ghana

Farmers building stone bunds, Upper East Region, Ghana

Trax activities also reduce soil erosion in other ways. They train farmers in building stone bunds or grass strips along a contour which catches any top soil being washed away, preventing the loss of soil. They also provide tree seedlings for planting to develop woodlots. This reduces soil erosion because tree roots bind the soil together, also increasing the water content of the soil.

Livelihoods beyond Environmental Degradation

The use of agroecological practices in this area of Northern Ghana means that land degradation and deforestation is being reversed. In the farming communities which Trax support, trees are being planted and existing bush cover is being protected. Soil erosion is being prevented and soil fertility is being increased through the application of compost. From an environmental conservation perspective this is all good. But Trax first and foremost support smallholder farmers to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Reversing environmental degradation is helping to achieve that.

Farmers who have been working with Trax in recent years have told me that they have seen an increased yield since they have adopted the agricultural practices which Trax introduced. Often the smallholders which Trax support are living in poverty, meaning they cannot afford to buy fertilisers and other inputs for their crops. By training farmers on compost production from crop residue and farmyard manure, the farmers now have a readily available fertiliser at no cost. The addition of compost to the fields has increase the soil fertility, subsequently increasing the yields the farmers are able to obtain.

In the communities which engaged with the Trax project between 10 and 20 years ago, the trees they planed are now fully-gown woodlots. This means the trees are mature enough for some wood to be harvested from them and the trees continue to grow. The harvest wood is used as fuel wood for cooking stoves. The tree plantations provide a sustainable source of fuel wood meaning there is no deforestation around these communities.

Continuing Agroecology to Ensure Sustainability

Trax have been working in Northern Ghana for 26 years and have supported many thousands of smallholder farmers to secure productive and sustainable livelihoods. Now their hugely beneficial, invaluable, and inspiring work is threatened.

Logo with Trax GhanaThe main source of funding for Trax’s activities is no longer available. Despite some small sources of funding for specific activities (education and non-timber forest products), this is not sufficient funding to keep the NGO in business. The loss of their main funding means that even these few activities that still receive funds from elsewhere may not be able to continue because the organisation as a whole will not be able to continue so staff will not be employed to facilitate these activities.

To ensure that Trax are able to continuing working with smallholder farmers to increase the sustainability of their livelihoods, I am crowdsourcing funding. The funds raised will ensure that Trax are able to keep working while seeking a longer-term funding solution. Please help Trax to continue their important work by donating anything you can.

You can read more about Trax on their website and other posts I have shared regarding Trax or the farmers they work with are available here. You can donate to Trax here. 100% of funds raised go directly to Trax and continuing their project activities.

The Unsung Heroes of the Global Food System

Smallholder farmers grow over 70% of all the food produced worldwide. Most of this is not traded internationally or through formal markets but is eaten within the farmer’s household or sold at local markets.

Smallholders are typically poorer than larger-scale farmers and often live in poverty, using subsistence farming as the only means to feed the family. Smallholders farm their fields in any conditions because their livelihood and welfare depends on the crop yield. These conditions may be rain or sun, peace or conflict, good or poor physical and mental health, or during periods of political or economic instability. Smallholders frequently face numerous risks to their livelihoods and have little access to resources for support or alternative options. But they keep farming.

Farming in the dusty soils of semi-arid Northern Ghana

Farming in the dusty soils of semi-arid Northern Ghana

Farming isn’t just a source of food and income for many smallholders around the world. Farming is a tradition, a way of life, a cultural bedrock. Societies as we know them today only exist because of farming. For many cultures and societies farming is what ties humans to the land on which we live and the resources we depend on. They have vastly more expertise in farming then so called ‘experts’.

Smallholder farmers are the unsung heroes of the global food system.

The Unsung Heroes of International Development

If smallholders are the unsung heroes of the global food system then the people who support smallholder farmers living in poverty through agricultural development interventions are the unsung heroes of international development. These are the people out in the farms every day, often farmers themselves. These are the people supporting farmers to overcome the challenges and risks they face. Like smallholders, they work in all conditions and just keep working regardless of the challenges.

In the West, typically when we think of international development charities working to support farmers in developing countries we think of organisations such as Oxfam, CARE International, and many, many others; we think of the work of the United Nations, the World Bank and governmental funding agencies. Without doubt such organisations and funding agencies do important work. What we hear less of in Western media are the people at a local level who are actually out in the fields with farmers every day. Often the local organisations these field staff work for are funded or supported by the international organisations we see and hear about, and we just don’t hear from the local field staff doing the groundwork at the other end of the chain.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time working with one of these local NGOs in Northern Ghana which are supporting smallholder farmers out in the field every day. The staff are local to the area they work in and have grown up in farming communities where farming is a way of life. They are farmers themselves. They are also my friends, my colleagues, and my PhD research would not exist without them. They have inspired me, taught me an enormous amount, and have let me into the reality of supporting smallholder farmers living in poverty.

The Trax staff team

The Trax staff team

I have been fortunate to see first-hand the life changing work the NGO does. I have spoken to and got to know the farmers they work with, and those who they have worked with in the past. I have seen the changes in the farms, the crops, the local infrastructure, and the livelihoods. I have seen the way farmers work together and with some guidance from the NGO they have created grassroots, autochthonous development initiatives. I have heard the farmers say “we are no longer poor” and “it has helped us a great deal, it is tremendous.”

Although I am now thousands of miles away finishing my PhD thesis, I value the contribution these few individuals make to the lives of the farmers who matter so much to me. Every day I am reassured by the knowledge that there are amazing people going to great lengths to work with these farmers in Northern Ghana. They are the unsung heroes of international development.

Through my time working with this small NGO in Northern Ghana I became aware that these unsung heroes are also working for a relative pittance, sometimes even going without pay at all but continuing to work because they care about the farmers, their communities, and humanity. Like me, they recognise the crucial importance farmers have in the food system and are passionate about doing anything they can to support farmers in overcoming the challenges they face.

Why You Should be a Hero by Supporting Trax

Now even their small income is threatened and the NGO itself may have to end operation. For the past 8 years the main source of funding for Trax Ghana (the small NGO I worked with in Northern Ghana) has been coming from an organisation in the international development funding system I referred to above. That source of funding has now decided that they are no longer able to continue supporting the Trax due to constraints on their own budget.

Trax Ghana have been working in Northern Ghana for 26 years. They have supported many thousands of farmers and their families and communities in this time. They run on a relatively small budget and, although they could achieve more if they had more funding, they achieve enormous benefits for the farming communities which have a lasting impact. The cost-benefit of what Trax do is orders of magnitude higher than other development initiatives I have studied or worked with.

Peasant farmers in Northern Ghana making use of variations in soil conditions

Peasant farmers in Northern Ghana making use of variations in soil conditions

I know that what Trax Ghana do works and it keeps farmers farming, improving lives and welfare, while also reversing environmental degradation in the region. I know that what the farmers they support do is crucial for food production and for maintaining the cultural traditions in Northern Ghana. So I am not willing to let Trax cease to exist without doing everything I can to help keep them going.

I’m starting by crowdfunding to keep Trax operating while they seek a longer-term funding solution. I know that any funds raised through any means is going directly towards getting field staff out in the field with farmers every day. Any amount will help to keep Trax going, no matter how small. Just £1 is enough to pay for fuel for a staff member to travel out to distant farming communities. Please consider donating anything you can to help keep Trax getting support to the farmers.

Smallholder farmers are the unsung heroes of the global food system. Local NGO field staff are the unsung heroes of international agricultural development interventions. Keeping Trax working by funding them makes you an unsung hero of international development.

You can read more about Trax here and on their website. You can donate to Trax here. Thank you.

“Is Ghana Still Safe?” Revisiting Global Security Concerns

Back in January I posted a blog titled “Is Ghana Safe?” Skewed Views of Terrorism and Conflict in Africa. This post reflected on the fact that I frequently get asked whether Ghana is safe and this appears to follow a general perception that Africa as a generic entity is seen as unsafe. This blog has been read throughout the world during the intervening months. In fact, after my ‘home page’ where all my posts are found, it is the single most viewed post on my website. However, there has been a significant spike in the number of people viewing this blog over the past two days. A quarter of all the views of this blog have been in the past 36 hours.

Yesterday morning, terrorists took 170 people hostage inside a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, resulting in 19 deaths. The limited information I have from the statistics from my website bring me to assume that following a terrorist attack in one West African country (Mali), people have searched the internet to find out whether another West African country (Ghana) is safe because if one isn’t then the other might not be.

The attack in Bamako yesterday was horrific and deeply saddening, but I am again left questioning why people assume that individual attacks of terror such as this imply other, unconnected but geographically similar countries are also at risk.

With respect to violence and acts of terrorism, today Bamako, Accra, Abuja, and other African cities are not intrinsically less safe than Berlin, Tokyo, or Ottawa, for example. In 2011, one man killed 77 people during two terrorist attacks in Norway. November 2008 saw 164 people killed during three days of attacks in Mumbai, India. In 2012, one man killed 26 during a shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, Newton, USA. In June this year, 18 people were killed during violent attacks in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. In 2005, a series of terrorist attacks killed 52 people on one day in London, UK. Earlier this month, two car bombs killed 15 people in Mogadishu, Somalia. It is a sad coincidence that my original post on this topic came a week after the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and I am again writing this a week after another horrific terrorist attack in Paris.

These are just a select few of the numerous examples of violence and terror in cities around the world. None of these attacks were the same and none of them were followed by reduced human security in other countries. Despite what is often an overwhelming sense of sadness, anger and frustration at the few in our society that are intent on harming others, I see no reason why yesterday’s attack in Bamako will make Ghana or any other country less safe.

Searching for the Sovereign in Food: From Demeter, to Monsanto, to Food Sovereignty

Food is the foundation of life. In terms of human life, food sits alongside water, air, and shelter from extreme weather conditions as essential for maintaining life. As an essential component of every living thing, it is not surprising that food has been worshiped and celebrated throughout the millennia.

A sovereign is someone, or a group of people, who have supreme authority over others. A sovereign is sometimes a monarch, sometimes worshiped, often respected. Often a sovereign is seen to be independent of others in their society. A sovereign has authority and sometimes has power and overall control.

As the food sovereignty movement continues to grow and receive increasing profile among public media, this post looks at different forms of sovereign which have been associated with food.

Demeter and Ceres

Demeter is the Greek Goddess of agriculture, fertility and harvests. She was considered to oversee the fertility of grain and represent the giver of food. Demeter is representative of a civilised agricultural society within the ancient Greek religion. In some texts she is also referred to by the names Sito or Thesmophoros. Her name is derived from the ancient Greek for mother, being ‘meter’, so Demeter was thought of as a Mother-Earth figure.

A depiction of the Greek Goddess Demeter, seen here with a harvest of maize

Demeter was worshiped during the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria which was held during the hot dry summer months of the year. During this period Demeter was believed to take rest from being a Goddess of harvests. The festival was particularly marked by the sacrifice of pigs as few crops would grow in the Greek summer.

The ancient Roman religion also has a Goddess of agriculture, fertility and harvests. Although there are 12 Roman Gods and Goddesses identified as having connections to agriculture, Ceres is the one most strongly associated with harvests and caring for the earth to enable production. Like Demeter, Ceres was also believed to preside over grain crops and represented maternal fertility.

Harvest Festivals

Within British society there is a long-running tradition of celebrating harvest festivals. This tradition has been slowly dying out over the past couple of decades but I have many memories of celebrating harvest festivals as a child. In Britain the practice of harvest festivals takes place in late-September and can be traced back to Pagan times. It is often associated with religion and giving thanks to God for the harvest and providing food for the coming year. It is partly through the shift away from a majority Christian society that has led to the decline in the practice of harvest festivals in the UK over recent decades.

Harvest festivals are also celebrated in other countries around the world. In the US and Canada the harvest festival has come to be celebrated during Thanksgiving. Many countries have a similar festival to that in Britain, but throughout many developing countries there are traditional festivals marking harvests within various local ethnic groups. Harvest festivals can be widely diverse in the form of festivities and celebrations, but they have one common theme: celebrating the crop yield and being thankful that the earth has provided food.

CGIAR and Monsanto

In the 1940s, science, technology and innovation emerged as the new sovereign of food by taking a place as the primary authority on agricultural production. From the 1940s through to the 1970s, the Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation funded research institutions to develop high-yielding crop varieties in order to increase production. This period became known as the Green Revolution.

During the Green Revolution agricultural practices based around improved varieties of seeds (particularly maize and rice), fertiliser inputs, pesticide use, and mechanisation became the dominant model of production throughout much of Latin America and Southern Asia. The increased yields are cited as having prevented famine in Asia and saving many millions of lives. Due to this, the high-input, technology-based, mechanised agriculture system developed during this period became the reigning sovereign, the authority on how to increase production.

The sovereign ruler in this method of agricultural production during the Green Revolution was the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, commonly referred to as the CG). The CGIAR was officially established in 1971 but the research institutes which had driven the Green Revolution became members of the CGIAR. Today, the CGIAR consists of 15 research institutes which have specific mandates working on agriculture in developing countries worldwide. They continue to hold much of the authority in agricultural research in developing countries.

In recent decades the model of science and technology-based agriculture has seen the steady rise of the influence and authority of agricultural research corporations. The most widely known is Monsanto which now holds a position of sovereign due to the authority and power it holds. Monsanto are known for breeding improved seeds, producing fertilisers and pesticides, and developing genetically modified (GM) crop varieties. Monsanto products are so widely used that they hold a monopoly over the industry and Monsanto has become a household name.

Many would say that not only are large agri-business corporations considered as the authority on agriculture but that they also have power over others and thus can sway political and development the agenda towards their own interests. Corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta are known to lobby political and governing bodies and influence trade agreements and associated agricultural policies, including those regarding seed production. Along with public concern about GM crops, the political and financial lobbying power of large corporations have triggered widespread debate and numerous pubic protests. Thus, although they may hold a sovereign authority over the sector, many in society do not respect or worship this form of sovereign.

Food Sovereignty

It is from this context that we see the emergence of the global food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty as cause is best known through La Via Campesina, an association of peasant farmers which was founded in 1993. Since that time the food sovereignty movement has steadily grown globally, particularly in response to the emergence of other concerns such as environmental degradation, climate change, and demand for organic produce.

Peasant farmers in Northern Ghana making use of variations in soil conditions

Peasant farmers in Northern Ghana making use of variations in soil conditions

In the growing food sovereignty movement it is food and food producers who are the sought-after sovereign. Food sovereignty is grounded in securing the rights of food producers, the human right to food, and using agro-ecological practices. Agro-ecology is a practice of production which utilises natural ecological processes, limiting environmental degradation, and focuses on low external input methods of production. These methods of production work most effectively on a small scale to accommodate variation in environmental conditions. Therefore, agro-ecology and the food sovereignty movement focuses on local food systems. Within models of agricultural production systems, this method sits firmly opposite those advocated by research institutes and corporations such as the CGIAR and Monsanto.

Food sovereignty focuses on food for people and society, supporting healthy and local relationships between food and communities. In this movement, feeding people is the sovereign: it is the human right to food and local control over food systems which has the authority and is, in a way, worshiped and celebrated.

Although the food sovereignty movement originated in developing countries and continues to be particularly focused on peasant farmers in poorer communities, the movement is growing in the UK and other Global North countries. This movement is concerned with adoption of food sovereignty principles globally so although continuing to support peasant farmers in developing countries, there is now much encouragement for food sovereignty to be practiced in every country and on a bigger scale.

This weekend I’ll be at the UK’s first large food sovereignty gathering, organised by Food Sovereignty Now. I’ll be joining hundreds of other people to discuss the principles of food sovereignty and how this agenda can be advanced through activism, research, policy, and practice. I am looking forward to sharing thoughts and ideas with likeminded people and developing a strategy for action. I’m also looking forward to taking the opportunity to celebrate the only common feature of the various forms of food sovereign discussed here: food and food production.

Expect to hear more from me on this topic following the gathering at the weekend.

Crop Insurance – A Mitigation Strategy which Enables Adaptation

Adaptation and mitigation are typically strategies to reduce risk. Sometimes adaptation can be a means to optimise the potential benefits of change as well as, or instead of, a risk reduction strategy. This post considers how mitigation through the use of crop insurance can enable small-holder farmers to utilise their adaptive capacity.

Facing the Risks Caused by Adapting

For small-holder farmers in Northern Ghana, and much of the developing world, an adaptation strategy may be adjusting crop types, varieties, farming practices, and farming seasons. Trying out different crop types, new crop varieties, or experimenting with unfamiliar farming practices can in itself be risky. To experiment, innovate, and adapt in this way often means allocating land, labour, and other resources to a crop of farming method when you aren’t yet certain that the crop is locally suitable and will yield well under those conditions. This can be a risky practice but if experimenting works out well it could also present an excellent means of adapting.

Additionally, many small-holder farmers do not have good access to seasonal weather forecasts so they have to make decisions about which crops to grow, whether experimenting or not, long before they know if the season will provide an amenable climate for crop growth.

This field of maize should have been ready to harvest but drought meant it didn't grow.  Upper East Region, Ghana, 2014

This field of maize should have been ready to harvest but drought meant it didn’t grow. Upper East Region, Ghana, 2014

This can put farmers in a very difficult position, as the saying goes, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Change in local conditions – social, environmental, economic, political, or climatic – presents a risk so they need to adapt. But experimenting to help identify a suitable adaptation strategy also presents a risk due to multiple interacting unknowns.

What if there was another way? What if there was a way in which farmers could experiment and innovate to adapt while knowing that if things don’t work out they can still be certain they will be able to provide food for their family at the end of the season?

Mitigation Strategies Reduce Risk of Loss of Crops

My research data from Northern Ghana shows that small-holder farmers have significant adaptive capacity. I have numerous examples of farmers discussing innovative ideas, plans or experiences of experimenting with crop varieties, and of them facing a challenge and solving the problem themselves in ways that an external “expert” wouldn’t necessarily consider.

I have also heard from farmers about ideas they have but they are currently unable to try out because of a lack of resources – labour/time, land, inputs, infrastructure, and other physical capitals.

This is where crop insurance can play a role. The principle behind crop insurance is as a mitigation strategy to reduce risk. It is an emerging initiative but a range of organisations are pursuing the idea with keen interest.

At the start of a season, a small-holder farmer can take out an insurance policy on the crops they are growing. If environmental, particularly climatic, conditions during the season mean the crop doesn’t yield their expected amount then they can claim an insurance pay-out for the yield they didn’t get. This means that a farmer is certain they will have either a yield or finances to be able to provide food for their family. In terms of the unknowns due to climatic variability plus the need to eat for basic survival, a crop insurance policy eliminates the risk.

Some may argue that it means small-holder farmers, who often live in poverty, have to pay to take out the insurance policy, thus taking limited financial resources away from something else. However, that expenditure ensures they can eat and the risk of a loss of life or ill health due to malnutrition are surely greater than the small cost of an insurance policy. Furthermore, we know from experiences with other finance-based development initiatives that farmers are often very willing to pay small sums to assist their development and enable innovation. Initiatives such as micro-credit and Village Savings and Loans Associations have shown the eagerness of farmers to engage with these concepts because they have adaptive capacity. So evidence suggests that when the opportunity presents itself, small-holder farmers are keen to participate with financial initiatives.

Mitigation + Adaptation = Win-Win

The first section discussed adaptation strategies and the associated risks within a small-holder farming system. Then I outlined how crop insurance functions as a mitigation strategy to eliminate risk. So how do these adaptation strategies and mitigation strategies fit together and what is the role of adaptive capacity in each?

I briefly mentioned above that often farmers express eagerness to participate in financial initiatives because they have adaptive capacity. The forms of financial development initiative I referred to as examples present ways for a farmer to adapt. But crop insurance is a mitigation strategy so doesn’t use adaptive capacity in the same way. Yes, the availability of such an initiative requires a farmer to respond and may need them to adapt a few small things in order for them to divert funds to take out the insurance policy. However, in my mind, a strategy which mitigates risk in this way enables greater opportunities for adaptation.

A farmer in Upper East Region, Ghana, experiments with rice varieties - growing the local variety (right) next to a dwarf variety (left) for comparison

A farmer in Upper East Region, Ghana, experiments with rice varieties – growing the local variety (right) next to a dwarf variety (left) for comparison

From my experience in Northern Ghana, I know with certainty that farmers have the capacity to adapt, at least in some ways or to a certain degree. I have heard first-hand that farmers do not always have the time or land to adapt because that spend extra effort tending staple crops due to climatic variability. For example, some farmers in Northern Ghana explained that they now hand-water their crops where there are drought periods during the wet season – drought being two or more weeks. I also know that many farmers in the region are experiencing worsened mental health due to anxieties over whether their crops will yield.

Crop insurance cannot only relieve this anxiety but also has the potential to create an opportunity for small-holder farmers to utilise their adaptive capacity.

Change can present risk to a small-holder farmer. Responding to change through adaptation strategies can present risk. Mitigation through crop insurance can eliminate some risks. I think mitigation through crop insurance can enable adaptation. Mitigation + adaptation = win-win.