Why bother with history

African Green Revolution, is no joke

Since my early days in Secondary school, I have always wondered at the benefits in history as a subject: Why, because nothing ever seems to be learned. We just repeat the same mistakes and re invent the same old wheels

Asia’s Green Revolution was an economic and ecological disaster and should have taught a final definitive answer to the damage intensive farming can cause. But what are all the gurus teaching Africa to do, you got it; repeat the same old failed model

Sustainable farming techniques are being sidelined in favour of a quick-fix solution; modern seed varieties (MVs) that produce better yields if treated with synthetic fertiliser and pesticides.

Such inputs are expensive and the seeds need frequent replacement. In Asia, the use of MVs in a head-long rush for bumper harvests has been shown to accelerate soil degradation, destroy crop diversity and encourage farmers to go into debt.

As Africa seeks to banish hunger, sustainable alternatives that can boost production, incomes and food security, help conserve soil and water and build resilience to climate change remain badly are treated as a backward joke, because a myriad of per diem agents as advising a better way and I’m sure the Mont Santos of this world are contributing to the pot as well. I have no axe to grind with either side in this biased debate between the financial and farming world, but I do know how the poor farmers in Northern Malawi should go, and I would like my grandchildren to know what good soil is, and what noxious pesticides can do to our health.

Speaking of grandchildren as we, today, await a second bundle of joy, I feel that the good message will be handed on very well. Our oldest has already made the move. Having done a PhD in Chemistry and then spent a couple of years in the strange world of agrichemicals, he went to South America for a few months, which showed him in the error of his ways. Re returned, gave up the job and now plays music full time. (That’s his story). Of course this weekend playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival is not wholly unattractive!!

The Green revolution of Asia should have warned Africa, but maybe the usual corruption, by the really corrupt, deliberately ignored the possible lessons which include widespread soil degradation, increased vulnerability to pests, farmer debts, a decline in traditional farming knowledge, increased inequality in rural communities, loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture.

In recent years, interested parties including the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), USAID, the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and African governments have promoted a Green Revolution for Africa where solutions they advocate seem to focus too narrowly around promoting synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which were behind many of Asia’s problems.

There are concerns about a number of initiatives funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundations, and supported by DFID (and maybe the Irish Government).

Working in 12 African countries, it funds important projects promoting improved seeds, soil health, market access for farmers and finance and policy work. It also aims to increase productivity by improving farmers’ access to mainly hybrid seeds – part of the MV range – and inputs such as chemical fertilisers.

A recent report says that AGRA funded agro-dealers in eight countries are selling ‘ever more quantities of chemicals to farmers and increasing their reliance on inputs’.

In Malawi, where AGRA operates, ‘the principal beneficiaries of these efforts are the key suppliers of the inputs, mainly Monsanto,’ it says.

To me it looks like there is a pact to promote particulat products

The report says 70 per cent of the world’s nearly 1 billion hungry are smallholder farmers and the rural landless who have been long locked into a cycle of low productivity, lack of assets and services and weak market power.

Today, they also face the effects of climate change, land degradation and ground water depletion.

The report gives examples of successful sustainable agriculture techniques that can help.

They include:

–          Diversification: cultivating a wide range of crops; introducing mixed systems of crops, livestock and aquaculture; and increasing biodiversity

–          Nutrient recycling (waste from one sub-system is used as an input in another)

–          Maximum use of renewable, locally available resources (such as seeds, manure, mulch, nutrient-fixing plants)

Low external-input organic soil and crop management techniques such as integrated pest management and zero or low till farming, enabling a radically reduced reliance on, or complete avoidance of, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, looks like a no brainer, but what has that got to do with anything.

We use these techniques on our farms in Northern Malawi and encourage the farmers we work with to do the same. It’s a tough job, because even if we show them, there is such a hurricane coming from the experts and gurus that seeing is no longer good enough. Our first Ministry ally has come on board, but as I said before it’s like bows and arrows against the remote controlled drones

But after all: Who the hell do We think W are. And maybe History need to get off the page.


The death of the good deed

This is part of an article from the Irish Mail on Sunday, July 16, 2012 by John Waters, outlining the difficulties facing small, volunteering charities in a World where Aid and Charitable works have become, in reality, big business, with highly paid executives, big offices, perks, cars and shiploads of funding. 

A much sadder reality is that fifty years of increased funding hasn’t made any significant difference in Northern Malawi where, we minnows, work. Why is it that almost 60% of the rural population do not have access to clean water, sanitation or sufficient food, let alone a healthy diet. And why is education so poor.I would like to explain that I speak only of things and places where I work. I am not generalising or commenting globally, just relating what I see.  

My friends the Coyne family from down home, have in recent years been running a charity called Wells for Zoe (W4Z), which provides water, agricultural advice and education schemes for some of the world’s poorest people in Malawi. W4Z functions on an absolutist principle whereby all overheads are paid by the Coynes, which means that every donated cent goes directly to the organization’s projects. Such a description can nowadays invite cynicism: why would anyone want to spend their own money to devote their lives to helping others?

Answer: this is what charity is.

But the dilemma is obvious: by investing more in advertising, for example, could W4Z increase its capacity to do good? The flipside of this issue is that, once you surrender the absolutist principle of the present promise to donors, you lose the very thing that provides complete confidence. A further issue is that, the bigger the organisation becomes, the more difficult it becomes to administer on a voluntary basis. Having recently joined the W4Z board, I have been pondering these dilemmas a great deal. But the Coynes are adamant that they want the core ethos of W4Z to be maintained, and any doubts about the  practicality of this strategy were dispelled on reading the details of John O’Shea’s expedition to the High Court. Fundamentally, charity should operate on a human-to-human basis. The bigger it gets, the less personal the relationships tend to become, and this announces the beginning of an entirely different way of seeing and doing.

In a world where values and principles seem to easily get subsumed and dissolve into torrent of regulations on transparency and whatever the box tickers call it on any given day, We at Wells for Zoe will stick to being small, personal and principled. Maybe the idea that small is sexy and safe might even get its run sometime.

The full Article


A society needs to be capable of trusting people without allowing other self-protective characteristics – skepticism and caution for example – to impose levels of oversight and supervision that render spontaneity impossible.

That’s essentially what I wrote here last Sunday, but I didn’t expect to so quickly encounter such a graphic example.  This week, I picked up a newspaper in Andalusia and learned that John O’Shea has gone to the High Court to prevent people he appointed to the board of GOAL, the international charity he founded 35 years ago, from removing him as that organisation’s chief executive. I meet John O’Shea sometimes wandering around Dun Laoghaire and we sometimes have time for a cup of tea. I admire and like him. He combines passion, energy and conscience in a manner that causes problems to melt in front of him. O’Shea is one of those rare beings who see new possibilities and ask: why not? He has that entrepreneurial capacity to look at the world as a small place, in which all things should be possible. And when he considers the world’s smallness alongside the injustices that happen in it, he becomes angry, and that angry motivates him to do what other people recognize as great things, but which for him are painfully inadequate in the face of the problems he wants to solve.

I know about the dispute within GOAL only what I’ve read in the papers. Like most people, I’m dismayed. I hope that things will be resolved before long so the GOALies can go back to doing what they do best. Sometimes, yes, I think that O’Shea is not necessarily the kind of man I would be ecstatically happy to have as a boss. Sometimes I think my best chances might depend on my ability to see things his way. But this leads to two further thoughts: one, O’Shea’s way has achieved a great deal of good; and, two, the very personality quirks that I might anticipate as problematic – his bullheadedness, candour and single-minded clarity – are the qualities which made GOAL one of the most successful charity organizations in the world.

The facts speak for themselves: nearly three-quarters of a billion quid’s worth of emergency aid delivered to desperate people in more than 50 countries.  Many have continued to breathe and eat, to see their children happier and healthier than they dared to hope, because of John O’Shea.

O’Shea is the kind of man who gets things done for the right reasons and asks most of the questions afterwards. It’s hard to think of a more graphic contrast with the slow, plodding way that, for example, most State agencies go about their business, constantly looking for things to cross and dot before doing what needs to be done.  O’Shea has attracted the ire of such people from the beginning, especially when he speaks about the wholesale waste of Irish overseas aid budgets due to their being filtered through governments that are, in effect, the enemies of their own peoples.  One day over tea, hedescribed how, invited to a State reception in Dublin Castle to honour a certain diminutive African despot whom he knew to be as dodgy as a thirty-Euro note, he leant down and whispered in the guest-of-honour’s ear a diagnosis of his own tyrannical history, causing the visitor to howl in outrage. As nearby officials ran to damp down the diplomatic inferno, O’Shea stood back and shrugged: the truth hurts sometimes.

The time-servers mutter that this kind of behaviour is ‘inappropriate’, that O’Shea’s attitude ‘fails to appreciate the nuances of a complex issue’. (Some mutter that the reason O’Shea is so good at spotting tyrants is that he’s a bit of a despot himself.  A cheap shot, but with a grain of truth.) I can only dimly imagine what kind of ‘corporate governance issues’ have led to the present crisis in GOAL. The world, essentially, divides between those who are good at ‘corporate governance’ and those who get things done. John O’Shea is not the kind of man I’d expect to be good at filling out forms and sitting through interminable meetings to discuss GOAL’s risk management strategy or gender quota policies. One of the issues underlying the present dispute appears to be O’Shea’s continued insistence on retaining a family-business approach to the administration of GOAL, which started as his kitchen table in 1977. It is suggested that the organisation needs to develop a ‘more corporate style’, with  GOAL’s below-average expenditure on overheads mentioned as a symptom of the redundancy of O’Shea’s approach. But this may well be the crux of the matter. The basis of charitable work depends on the potential donor being convinced that the dosh will go to those in need. There have been far too many examples of charities eating up most of their collection proceeds in administration, too many suspicions that certain initiatives are simply ways for collectors to get other people to pay for your holidays, and too many stories of aid-officials driving around Africa in new jeeps, drawing European salaries and staying in Holiday Inns.

Yes, the administration of charities requires provision for transparency and accountability. But if, for example, your neighbour’s child requires an urgent and expensive operation in the US, should you be obliged to put in place state-of-the-art corporate governance provision before you start rattling tins? And there is a further complication, giving rise to a real dilemma. Experience indicates that increased investments in advertising and PR can yield big dividends for charities, which need to spend money to make it. But the question is: where to draw a line?


In Spain this week, I‘ve been inundated with emails from all over the world on behalf of a dog called Lennox, said to be under ‘sentence of death’ by Belfast City Council because, apparently, his breed-description runs foul of the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act. The courts have decided, I’m told, that Lennox represents a danger to the public and ‘sentenced’ him to die. In more than 30 years as a journalist, I have written about many issues of injustice and unfairness. I have issued pleas on behalf of people wrongly incarcerated and children snatched by social workers and placed for adoption against their parents’ wishes. But in all that time I have never seen anything remotely like the level of agitation summoned up on behalf of Lennox and his plight. People sent me emails from as far away as Canada and Australia assuring me that Lennox had ‘done nothing wrong’, attacking the Irish Government (they seemed somewhat vague about issues of jurisdiction), and, in some cases making comparisons with the Nazi death camps. ‘Kill someone (dogs or people) because of its appearance, reminds me of Hittler (sic)’, wrote one correspondent.’

For several years I have been arguing that the Internet is a place where the most asinine of human sentiments are given force and significance.  But I could not have imagined such stupidity as I encountered in these emails for the past week. My only remaining hope for humanity involves some combination of the following possibilities:

that Lennox does not exist, that it is all a wind-up spam-storm, that April Fools Day has been moved to July. Please tell me the explanation is any or all of the above.