Sunday, September 05, 2010

this land is...

I mentioned that the Economics Fairy gives those people who prove themselves worthy of her their greatest wish: a chance to fail. That is, of course, as nothing to the opportunities for failure and disaster offered to people with good ideas about agriculture. (You ask Nikita Khrushchev, come to think of it.) Joel Hafvenstein reports on a British Provincial Reconstruction Team discovering the truth of this in Afghanistan.

In the FZ’s case, while the money was available on time, the expertise was not. The technical advisors hired to help with the project were stuck in Britain. The PRT team on the ground in Helmand (civilian and military) went ahead with buying the wheat to make sure they made the deadline for distribution. Because they weren’t development agriculturists, however, they made some critical mistakes – notably buying most of their wheat seed from local farmers. You can see how this seemed like a good idea.

Yes. Yes.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put a lot of work into developing, certifying, and monitoring a network of improved-quality wheat seed producers in Afghanistan. Most of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan are aware of this and insist that any wheat seed bought locally needs to come from FAO-certified suppliers.

Another data point for my as-yet unlaunched campaign to go round newsrooms making journalists say sorry to the UN for all the shit and vitriol they heaped on it over the last 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced Helmand PRT team responsible for FZ did not make use of the FAO network. They – or rather, the Afghan-staffed contractor agency operating under their instructions – instead bought thousands of tons of “seed” from local farmers outside the network. Then, showing that the PRT team knew just enough to be dangerous, they screened the wheat to remove weed seeds and treated it with fungicide. The resulting wheat seed was – in technical language – crap.

Oh dear.

When the distribution started, it was also a major disruption to local markets. A lot of previous US and UK money has gone into supporting agricultural input traders, particularly in Nad-i-Ali district, the heart of the biggest US-funded irrigation network. These bazaar merchants were understandably peeved that their pricy commercial stocks of improved seed now had to compete with handouts that looked suspiciously like trash. They sent samples of the Food Zone seed off for testing. When the test results confirmed that the seed was far below the national standards for seed distribution, they started to raise an almighty stink, with the added voices of Nad-i-Ali elders.

The FAO privately informed the PRT that its seed was flawed, and that the only responsible recourse (since it had been dressed in toxic fungicide) was to destroy all the remaining stocks. This didn’t happen. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture made an exception to its quality standards to allow the shoddy Helmand Food Zone seed to be distributed, and the PRT sent the seed to district officials for distribution.

And it goes on from there. Unsurprisingly, anyone with any sense is growing poppy, because whatever dangers international heroin smugglers expose you to, at least they don't pull this kind of stupid crap. There's more here, including the good point that many of the accusations of direct corruption (rather than just bungling) come from someone who's probably in the poppy biz.

There's an interesting data point in there - apparently, Helmand produced about 300 tonnes of opium over and above total world illegal demand last year. Evidently, if it was produced, not seized, and not demanded, it must be in store somewhere. This implies we'll probably see a significant fall in production some time soon, as the supply chain's buffers fill up and the market overhang drives down prices.

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