Should we stop aiding small farmers?

In a recent piece by Ranil Dissanayake in Aid Thoughts he makes the point that “aid prevents economic transformation by artificially supporting weak pre-capitalist forms of organisation” especially with reference to subsistence farming systems in poor countries. While I agree with a lot of the other points made in the post (and with a lot of Ranil’s previous entries, which I have been reading with a lot of interest), I couldn’t quite take this without debating the particular point I highlight.

The same peasant farmer is today being backstopped not only by subsidised farm inputs and minimum support prices, but also by free education for his children, free vaccines, an employment guarantee, subsidised food grains etc. Suggesting this be taken off even as rich western farmers are fattened on government subsidies seems problematic to me. And that Ranil’s views seemed to suggest a process of natural selection leading to survival of the fittest. So I said, this is a recipie for massive distress, followed by death.

Ranil rebuts by emphasising that importance of dismantling unsustainable subsistence agriculture. He also claims that while there may be some distress and trauma when self-employed workers become wage labour, deaths may not necessarily happen.

To continue the discussion – Distress, followed by death – not an imaginary scenario. It has been playing out in India over the last decade. Spiralling cotton and other subsidies in the US – through capitalist empires like Cargill and Monsanto – have driven farmers in India and West Africa to suicide.

My point is – One, the arguments for non-subsistence aid and other forms of aid cannot be viewed in isolation from each other. If diminishing support for farming increases distress, it obviously will call for more investment in life-support systems in consumption, health, education etc.

Second, when it comes to fixing structural issues in development, we need strong advocates for changes in untenable practices at both ends of the spectrum – the rich governments and their economies on one hand and in the farming systems of the poorest on the other.

See this and this that lays out the impact of continuing farm subsidies in developed countries. The figures are appalling. If 70% of subsidies in the US go to 10% of the farmers, what is more painful – dismantling those subsidies, or taking millions of poor farmers off life-support systems? The politics of it is unlikely to allow this to happen though.

I worry that I read an inherent assumption in Ranil’s arguments that in the fragmented farms of the poor peasant in developing countries, capitalist systems should be left on their own to evolve. But recent experiences around the developing world with contract farming by corporates (multinationals as well as domestic companies) are still being watched – with fears that unroganised vulnerable farming systems might be unable to withstand the relentless corporate onslaught. P Sainath has written volumes on this and much more – blaming much of the spiraling farm suicides on the juggernaut of commercialisation of farming systems in India.

And sure, thousands were left starving in Britain even as ships sailed off with corn exports in the 19th century. Painful history. And look at where they are today. But just for argument, if we had not evolved from our 18-19th century ways, we would not condemn genocides in another country, rights violations or censorship would not be news and humanitarian foreign aid can just be dismantled right away. But thats not how we chose to grow, right?

Ranil responds


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