A Discussion with Andrew Natsios, Professor, Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

October 16, 2009

Background: This conversation between Andrew Natsios, Katherine Marshall, and Thomas Bohnett was conducted in advance of a World Faiths Development Dialogue-sponsored consultation held at Georgetown University on links between faith and agriculture on November 13, 2009. Natsios highlights the central role of churches and mosques (far beyond NGOs) in providing basic social services, extending to road building and irrigation planning. He argues strongly in favor of engaging religious leaders and institutions on agricultural policy issues, at many levels. GMOs is an example. He argues for a much sharper focus on agriculture but also on the importance of learning lessons from past bitter experience with agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s.

We are in the midst of an investigation of current and potential faith work on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. What thoughts can you offer from your time at USAID and with World Vision?

To start with you have the churches and mosques in their roles as direct providers of social services. People tend to look at—particularly in Africa—faith-based NGOs as the principle manifestation of the churches, but that is not really true. When Zaire virtually collapsed in the mid-1990s, I was travelling through a rural area, and all these roads were being repaired. I said, “Who’s repairing these roads?” And I was told, “The Church is doing it.” I said, “You mean an NGO?” And the reply was, “No. The Church is doing this.” The local churches actually run basic social services. They have no money, but they are organized. They are the only civil society organization in many parts of the Congo.

USAID was asked after 9/11 to do a training program for mullahs at the Koranic Institute in Bangladesh by the Bangladeshi government. The U.S. Ambassador had said, “Well I don’t know how to do this. USAID, do it.” The program now trains 5,000 mullahs a year in development. USAID runs the curriculum, which is a two-week course that’s added on to the end of this refresher course in Quranic studies. It is the most popular part of the course, people say. The mullahs actually go the field and learn about women’s issues, health issues, microfinance, and fish farming. I don’t know whether you can actually show that it has a result in the villages, but there is an attempt to use the mosques in rural Bangladesh to do development work. I would look at the church in sub-Saharan Africa, but I would look at the mosque too.

Another thought I have is from a conversation with John Garang. Garang said that there is a particular area in southern Sudan, near the headquarters of the guerrilla movement, where there were periodic droughts. There was a river nearby, a tributary of the Nile, that was always full of water. And Garang, who was a Ph.D. and agricultural economist from Iowa State, wanted to do irrigation using the river. A project was started, but all of the local chiefs objected to it. The chiefs said, “You can’t do irrigation. You’re diverting the waters of the river.” And Garang said, “That’s what irrigation is. You divert the waters to protect against drought. And there are droughts here all the time. There are crop failures; and then people are hungry and they die, and we have a disaster!” He had a way of telling the story that was very funny. The chiefs said, “If God intended the river to move in this other direction, that’s what he would have done when he created it. You are now altering God’s plan for the universe. He will get angry, and we may even have the river’s water stopped. And so we don’t want you to do this.” I don’t know how it was eventually resolved. I don’t think they actually did the irrigation projects because the chiefs were so adamant against it. I’ve heard these kinds of stories in other parts of Africa, that there is a theological element to discussions about altering the natural world.

We find that religious leaders are often powerful advocates and political forces in their countries. Is this something you have observed around agricultural issues?

I have, and I think engaging with religious leaders is very important. Sometimes they can be hugely obstructionist. There was a Jesuit priest in Malawi who, in the middle of a drought in 2002, said that the huge amounts of food that Europe was shipping to Africa was poisoning the population. Greenpeace said the same thing. Meanwhile, there were food riots in Zimbabwe where people actually looted the WFP stocks because the government had said, “We can’t distribute this food, it’s poisonous.” The Jesuit priest was saying publically that we were sending poisonous food aid.

I got very angry, because the NGOs, who’ve been distributing the food all these years, knew very well it was GMO food. I said, “Haven’t you been telling the government and having discussions about the food? And they said, “No, we don’t have these discussions.” I said, “Don’t you think you should? You guys could have prepared the way for this, so we wouldn’t have had kind of a debate.”

I think the only way this is going to work—not on the food aid thing, but on the larger issue of scientific agriculture—is engagement. Scientific agriculture isn’t rooted in societies in the developing world, and so it needs to be a conscious, intentional process of introduction.

I asked someone, “Do you understand the difference between improved varieties and GMOs?” Because we’ve had improved seeds for several hundred years—they are not new—people started manipulating seeds on a scientific basis in the late nineteenth century. When you ask people, “Are you opposed to improved seeds?” they say, “No, we’re not opposed to them.” And then you ask, “Do you know what GMO seeds are? They simply speed the process up. If you’re opposed to moving genes from one kind of wheat to another, then you should oppose any improved varieties.” In which case, the Green Revolution goes down the tubes, and in fact, we would all starve to death. GMO is a more sophisticated way of doing what we’ve been doing for a long time. The process allows us to do more things, but it’s not technically different.

There are risks to it. Have you seen this book by Per Pinstrup-Anderson? It’s called Seeds of Contention. It’s a little book for the lay people about the issue of GMO. And it goes through what the risks are on both sides.

I believe that a private debate is the only way to talk about this. The leading agricultural scientist at Harvard is a Kenyan, and he is in favor of GMOs. And the leading opponent in Africa is an Ethiopian agricultural scientist. So you have Africans fighting each other, and the debate is taking place in an emotional place, not based on scientific research.

What has not been studied much is what the indigenous debate is on all of this. I remember in South Africa, the Parliament and the church leaders wanted to ban the use of GMOs. There were huge demonstrations around the legislation by black South African farmers who said, “Look, we were poor. Now we’re rich. Don’t ever even consider banning this.” And they killed the legislation. Once the GMO seeds get into the system and actually affect people’s incomes, then you have a natural constituency. Much of the argument against GMOs is centered around an assertion that they impoverish small farmers. And so I asked some of them, who were protesting, “Well, Monsanto is charging you for these seeds. Are you making more or less money in net terms compared with what you were making before?” And they said, “We’re making a lot more money. We’re now middle-class South Africans because of this.”

I have been somewhat taken aback by the Asian companies buying up large tracts of land in Africa. The Koreans have a massive plot in Madagascar. Mozambiçans have leased huge tracts to a bunch of Afrikaner farmers. I asked a Mozambiçan, “Is this working? Are these farms producing jobs?” He said from their perspective the venture has been very successful.

What has your experience been with Gates and agriculture?

Bill Gates Sr. came to see me when I was head of USAID. I was furious with them for only focusing on health, and I said, “We can’t get any money from Congress—both because the farmer groups don’t want us competing, and the environmental groups don’t like fertilizers and irrigation, so they quietly kill everything I propose. And so, we do health, which I am supportive of. I mean, who can be opposed to health, you know? You can’t be opposed to health unless you’re nuts!” I told them, “This is unacceptable that you are only doing health.” I did yell at them, and that was the last time they came. They were very shaken up and upset by that.

I ran into a guy from Gates who was in that meeting about five months ago and I asked him, “Do you remember that meeting?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I apologize for being so aggressive, but I’m just fed up with you people not getting this message.” And he said, “It shook up everybody that you yelled at us in your office, and you would not let us talk about health. We went back and had this big meeting about what we were going to do about this.”

I’m not saying I’m not responsible for this, but I think the conversation did tell them that they couldn’t just focus on one sector. To have them involved without the political constraints, is very useful, and I think they’ve done some very good things. Gates does many things in agriculture, and I support that view. I think doing only one part of is a mistake, because you can’t have an agriculture system based only on subsistence, and you can’t have one based only on large farming.

The renewed agriculture push must be giving you, as it has given me, a strong sense of déjà vu. I only hope that the lessons that were learned in the '70s and '80s haven’t been forgotten.

Peter McPherson raised the agriculture budget in USAID to $1.2 billion by the 1980s. By the time I got there [in 2001] the agriculture budget was $267 million. You had the agricultural interests on the right saying, “They’re competing with domestic producers.” These people opposed the local purchase of food initiative that we started with the Bush administration. On the left are the environmental interests saying, “Irrigation salinates the soil. If you use too much pesticide, it damages the soil. Fertilizers are bad.” So everyone got stuck, and the result is that there isn’t investment. It’s a very bad climate. The 1990s was a disaster for African agriculture.

The extension services went back where they were, the research stations were abandoned. We had one in Liberia that we started in the 1970s, and it was doing pretty well. And then, of course, the civil war started, and it is now completely gone.

The World Bank studies that came out on the failure of integrated rural development (and we didn’t call it that in USAID, but it was the same thing); they all showed that we took a large-scale approach that simply didn’t work in Africa. That doesn’t mean it won’t work, but if we try to do the same thing we did before, I think the same thing’s going to happen. I keep telling people working on agriculture that they need to go back to the World Bank and USAID studies as to why this stuff failed, because if we don’t learn those lessons we are just going to repeat the whole thing. There are different approaches to take, around market-based solutions that Emmy Simmons pushed us into.

I have a friend, an evangelical Christian and a Ph.D., who is engaged in large-scale agriculture in World Vision, and he said, “Andrew, we’re making the same mistakes.” I said then, “Jim, you need to tell me what the mistakes were, so we don’t do them all over again!”

Have you dealt at all with the Millennium Villages?

Sometimes I agree with Jeffrey on some things, actually. The problem with the Millennium Villages is the same problem with the NGOs—and I say this coming out of the NGO community. They are islands of prosperity in a sea of misery. They don’t have scale enough to cover the national economy or even the local economies of enough areas in these countries to have an influence. They don’t deal with policy.

That’s a lesson we learned in the World Bank.

That is something the bank does well, and USAID does well. The national groups, the NGOs don’t like to deal with policy as much. If there are grain boards that are keeping prices depressed in order to keep food cheap in the cities so there’s no unrest, it undermines the rural areas—that has a big effect! If you keep investing money in a system with a screwed-up price system, you’re not going to have success.

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