Feed the people, or starve the régime?
On a recent visit to North Korea, I visited an EU project — a seed processing plant. Frankly I wondered why it was worth a two-hour journey on bad roads, dodging potholes, and two spine-jarring miles down a rutted lane that scarcely deserved the name, in order to see a seed plant at Unsan. But it proved to be interesting.
This plant is in the business of producing hybrid maize, which in the NK context enhances crop yields by around 15%. The seeds are widely used across NK, and have the potential to deliver total yield increases on a scale which is comparable to inward shipments of food aid. The project could go some way towards making NK self-sufficient in grains. Apparently to create the hybrid, it is necessary to grow two varieties of maize in the same field — one row male, three rows female, if you need to know — and to do various clever things to ensure that they hybridise appropriately. The resultant seeds are then dried and shipped across the country (after negotiating that non-road — my good friend and colleague Anna Rosbach of Denmark worried repeatedly over the lack of infrastructure and the barrier it created to food distribution).
The hybrid seeds do not reproduce as hybrids, but as a mix of the two original varieties, so it is necessary to repeat the process year after year. Interesting to reflect that when the EU funds a project like this, requiring farmers to source seeds from this plant every year, we all applaud. But if Monsanto produces seeds that also require annual purchases from a single source, people write to their MEPs complaining about the wickedness of American capitalists.
But the project got me thinking about the underlying principles of foreign aid, which deserve scrutiny, especially when, reputedly, DFID, the government’s department for overseas aid, has such generous funding that it struggles to spend it all.
The first line of argument against foreign aid is that much of it is unaccounted for, and large sums end up used for arms purchases, or in the Swiss bank accounts of leading local politicians. OK, say the proponents of aid. Let’s not give the money to governments. Spend it directly on projects that benefit the people — medical clinics, or agricultural projects like that at Unsan.
This is, if you like, “hypothecated aid”, by analogy with hypothecated tax. But such hypothecation rests on the dodgy assumption that you know what would have happened otherwise. If you hypothecate a tax for, say, cancer research, you cannot be sure that a cynical government will not simply cut back on what they would otherwise have spent in that area. Similarly, if you spend money in NK on food aid, or health care, or agriculture, you can assume that to a considerable extent you relieve the government of the necessity to spend in that area, leaving them more resources for nuclear weapons and missiles. In the case of food aid, you can bet that much of it fills the stomachs of NK’s million-plus soldiers.
No one wants anyone to starve. But therein lies the dilemma. In taking action — even rather direct action — on food or health-care, for the very best humanitarian reasons, are you in danger of unintended consequences and perverse incentives? Do you make it easier for a bad government to do bad things? More generally, are you actually helping to sustain a brutal and oppressive régime that denies fundamental freedoms, maintains vicious concentration camps, and undermines regional stability with nuclear weapons, posing a threat to its neighbours? It is a genuine moral dilemma. But given the parlous state of our own economy, I’d say “If in doubt, don’t”.
By the way I was very interested to see the bold red and gold sign outside the factory — no doubt also funded by EU money. Did it say “Funded by the EU”? Did it say “Unsan Seed processing factory”? I caused enquiries to be made, and found it translated as “We will follow our leader to the end”. I fear they will. And the end will be poverty and isolation.