The European: Dr. Nwanze, you have been at the helm of IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development) for almost six years. With the Millennium Development Goals coming to an end this year, what’s your appraisal of the progress that has been made?
Nwanze: Well, I do not recall a time in my life – which has been quite a long one already, I’m past 65 – when a particular agenda item has stayed so long at the top of international discourse than this issue of food security. So you could say, the fact that we have been able to focus ourselves around one set of goals for such a long time is something quite unique. And we have a system of peer review among the G20 countries where they are continuing to challenge themselves. So this is a new era for international development, in spite of all the negative press that we get, and I hope that the MDG continue to remain for us as pillars of reference.
The European: With the Western world’s governments’ support, how does IFAD ensure that its funds reach the historically disenfranchised, hard-to-reach farming populations that developing countries rely on for sustenance?
Nwanze: Our target population has always been clear. We don’t have to go looking for them. We know where they are, and we go to where they are. And, at first, those were the only people – the Western governments – who we worked with. We had no choice. We were created and established by them to focus on these marginalized groups. How do we convince governments that investing in IFAD is worthwhile? With results. I can give you examples from Guatemala to China where we have had results on the ground. And our institution has itself evolved, such that, just today, we were able to have a large development bank like the KfW provide us with loans, transforming us from just an ordinary (I’d say) UN aid agency to a financial institution that can borrow from commercial institutions and expand its work. So there is growing confidence that what IFAD is doing makes ample sense. It is not just a social good. It’s good business. It makes economic sense. And this is what makes the difference.
The European: Economist and Nobel Prizewinner Amartya Sen said: “There is no such thing as an apolitical food problem.” Does IFAD ever run into problems while working with the local governments in developing countries, particularly in regions with instability?
Nwanze: At least 20 percent of our portfolio is in countries with instability, due to political unrest, climactic stress, or diseases like the one we are currently facing in West Africa. We know that these are the places where we have what you’d call “problem projects”, not because people don’t want to invest, but because the necessary institutions are either weak or absent. There, our emphasis is not on just carrying out the project, but also on strengthening local institutions, because the stronger their institutions are, the more likely we are to make an impact. So you see, that is the whole paradigm shift in development. It’s not just a question of putting money into a country, but deciding where best to use the money such that the people have the capacity to absorb it and make better use of it.
The European: Because they heavily depend on it.
Nwanze: In a good number of these countries, 40% to 80% of their resources come from development assistance, but you cannot develop your country on the basis of development assistance alone. You cannot! I know it. I keep saying: “Development starts first and foremost from within.” That means having committed political leadership at the highest level, good and transparent governance, right fiscal macroeconomic policies, infrastructure investment, and social services. Countries want to develop. There is no country that just enjoys being poor. The question is how can we help them make smart decisions, make the right investments, and to see their own development as a long-term process. It is not like building a 100-kilometer road that you can inaugurate in six months by cutting a ribbon [laughing]. It takes decades. Look at the United States 200 years ago, or Europe! I saw pictures from the Netherlands 150 years ago of women carrying hay on their backs, barefoot, with sickles. Only 150 years ago!
“If they haven’t produced food today, what are they going to eat tomorrow?”
The European: You mentioned the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. What are your views on the responses to the outbreak, both locally and internationally?
Nwanze: Until July, I think, both the response to Ebola internally and internationally was very poor. Everybody admits it. But you know why, of course. As I’ve said, it was a disease in remote parts of Africa, since 1976 when it was first recorded in the Congo. It affected what we call at IFAD “the invisible and forgotten world”. So nobody cared. And then you had these three countries that were affected, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, which have very poor infrastructure. These countries just emerged from long civil crises. Sierra Leone had one doctor for 10,000 patients. You can imagine. Then the international community was slow. Of course, the problem migrated from the rural areas into the capital cities, so everybody panicked, and then it moved from both countries into Europe, and then to the United States. Then we started to react.
The European: How could the international community have responded better?
Nwanze: The main priority should always have been: How do we stop Ebola from spreading internally in those countries where it first broke out? At the same time, the rural people whose populations have been decimated are the farmers who produce the food. If they have not been able to produce food today, then what are they going to eat tomorrow? Are we already preparing ourselves for the long-term impact, the secondary impacts of Ebola, in terms of food production and food security? This is very important. This why IFAD is saying, “No, it’s not that your focus is wrong. The focus is correct. But think about tomorrow, because the absence of these people’s ability to produce food, out of fear, out of population decimation, is going to have a large impact on both food security and intraregional trade in West Africa.”
The European: How has it affected your mission in the countries in question?
Nwanze: We have projects in all countries heavily affected by Ebola. We have local staff who are still there, who are managing to avoid infection, and we’re beginning to ask ourselves: how do we retool, reorganize the objectives of our projects to meet the new demands? So flexibility is necessary. It’s going to take a multifaceted approach.
The European: How can the world respond faster to future crises?
Nwanze: I wish we could look into a crystal ball and see where the next crisis is going to come, but I only hope that we can address the root causes of today’s problems, which are, from IFAD’s point of view, the malalignment of development priorities. The governments of developing countries believe that if they take care of their urban population, everything is fine, they can get all the political votes they’ll need for reelection, and therefore they feel that they can neglect the rural areas. But the rural areas, we know, even in the developed world, provide the food, services, and employment, because through increases in production here you can feed the agroindustrial sector. All economies in the world, apart from maybe Singapore, went through this process of agricultural transformation. Only then can people move away from primary production, due to the implementation of larger farms, and go into secondary production.
“A question of balance”
The European: How can this be achieved?
Nwanze: We must create the conditions for rural transformation, create the conditions where young people want to stay in the rural areas because they have opportunities of employment. And that doesn’t necessarily mean just planting a single seed in a single hole, but also buying what is produced, adding value to it, creating small and mid-scale enterprises, with the market information that can be accessed today anywhere in the world. You can use your phone and get information and supplies to farmers in your community. It is being done already. You can do banking without having to go to the bank. A balanced development calls for first and foremost a transformation in the rural space; otherwise, this migration of young people from the rural areas to the urban centers will continue. They leave because they can’t make a good living without the proper infrastructure. Without their produce being able to reach the market, people in the country are unable to all be farmers, planting crops, milking the cows.
The European: Most are unable to make a good living in the cities, too.
Nwanze: They don’t! But the food system involves planting the crop, milking the cow, and what happens between there and the consumer’s table. You can enter into the food system at any point. And we have to create this possibility by building the infrastructure, and for that we need the energy, we need the services, schools, and hospitals so that the rural environment becomes a sort of rural city. It’s as simple as that. In the United States, people talk about the Midwest; don’t they have everything in the Midwest that they have in New York City, except the skyscrapers? I went to school in the state of Kansas. You know how people talk about the rural areas? They say, “Oh, nobody wants to live in the countryside.” The rural space, as somebody once said, is the lungs of society, and we should give people there more reason to stay.
The European: What is the environmental impact of agricultural development, and how is IFAD looking to mitigate the negative impacts through sustainability, especially in countries where there is water scarcity?
Nwanze: In terms of environmental sustainability, it’s like using a knife to operate on somebody with a heart condition, by only further cutting him up. We have to look at how complicated it is now. It’s not as simple as some of the solutions being put forth. Environmental sustainability is a question of balance. How do we balance all of the damage we have done over hundreds of years? When people talk about humanity’s impact on the climate, they tend to forget it didn’t start 50 years ago [laughing].
The European: Right; that’s just when we started to really notice.
Nwanze: Exactly. So we have to ask ourselves what we’ve been doing wrong, first of all. This discussion goes into people’s behavioral patterns. And that is very key. Crops are going to be more susceptible to extreme weather conditions, heat, floods, droughts, what have you. For example: take the population of East Africa that depends mostly on corn and maize. They’re not rice eaters. And the maize varieties they have are no longer able to tolerate the extreme droughts they experience. You don’t change people’s eating habits overnight. But we know that because of these droughts – I’m a scientist, so I can go a little bit into this – require a new type of maize crop that is produced through genetic engineering.
The European: So the implementation of genetically modified crops is a part of IFAD’s effort to help develop agriculture in regions with harsh climates?
Nwanze: Not necessarily GMOs: The problem is that people make the mistake of thinking that biotechnology only produces GMOs. Biotechnology can also produce better crops that don’t necessarily require “transgenics”. But I think there are many positive aspects of genome technology. Do you know that the human vaccines we take against yellow fever are all GMOs? And you know all the miracles these vaccines have done for us? So why can’t we use them on plants? You see, people blame some multinational corporations, and say, “Oh, they’re exploiting genetics for profit.” Tell me one profession in the world where there are no quacks and cheats! We shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some very good things that can come out of biotechnology, and we have to make use of them for the benefit of humankind.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Thomas Pogge: "We are not really improving the situation of the poor"