Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor

(…) The United States, Western Europe, Japan, all countries in developed parts of the world that have significant hydro potential, have used more than 80 percent of that potential. In Africa, they’ve used 3 percent.

So you have countries like Norway and Switzerland and others that have developed 90 percent of their hydro potential, then sitting on the boards of their aid agencies and the World Bank and they say to Ethiopia, “We don’t like dams. We don’t like hydropower. You can’t have it. We won’t support it.” This is done in the name of environmental concern and it’s deeply, deeply resented by these countries.

(…) In my view, there’s a deep problem with the aid business. You read the UN Millenium Development Goals and in my view they put the social cart before the economic horse. They are all about social outcomes, but nothing on the economy that’s produced those outcomes, so infrastructure doesn’t figure, agriculture doesn’t figure. These global solutions are driven by rich countries and rock stars and just sort of run from fashion to fashion.

Marc Gunther interviews Harvard development expert John Briscoe.

(…) John, who was trained as a civil and environmental engineer, has worked as an engineer in the water agencies of South Africa and Mozambique; as an epidemiologist at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangladesh; as a professor of water resources at the University of North Carolina; and, for the past 20 years in a variety of policy and operational positions in the World Bank. Most recently he has served as the Bank’s Senior Water Advisor and the Country Director for Brazil. John is now a professor of environmental engineering at Harvard.

This is a terrific interview — I learned several things about water resources. Unfortunately, the rich country “environmentalists” don’t like dams, or GMO. Here’s an excerpt on Brazil and the 2008 food crisis:


JB: Yes. I think the energy, water, and food—this is a bad metaphor–but they are three sides of the same coin. You can hardly deal with one without the others. They all are interrelated.

Here there’s an extremely worrying situation. Look back to the 1960s and the success of the Green Revolution. People were saying that poor countries like Bangladesh could never feed their people. We now have India, Bangladesh, all these places, essentially, self sufficient in food production. We had in the 1960s and 1970s a yield growth of 3 to 4 percent a year. This was just incredible and had huge positive impacts. Even today, food prices are less than half than what they were in 1960 in real terms. So, this has been, in my view, one of the greatest achievements of science, contributing to the well-being of billions of people.

MG: But those gains are petering out, correct?

JB: Essentially, yes. Because the scientific ingredients of the Green Revolution have largely run their course, we now have yield improvements of half a percent and one percent, with large growing populations. and markets are becoming very, very thin. When there is some disturbance, the market tips and we food crises as in 2008.

Let me give an example: I lived in Brazil for the last three years. Brazil has had an amazingly positive experience. The value of agricultural output in Brazil today is three times what is was 35 years ago and Brazil is an agricultural superpower, one of the biggest producers of bio-fuels, of soy beans, meat, fruits, etc.

It turns out that of that 300 percent increase in production, 90 percent is attributable to productivity increases. Only 10 percent of that increase is accounted for by increases in input of land, labor, and capital. Most it comes from being much smarter. This is because Brazil over this period – even through hyper-inflation, through economic crises — never stopped investing massively in agricultural research. So they have today, without anybody being a close second, a research establishment on tropical agriculture that is by far the best in the world. They’ve seen enormous returns on investment in agricultural research.

Strikingly, look at that same period and see what the development agencies, including the World Bank, did in agriculture. In 1975, about 20 percent of development assistance went to agriculture because it was, in my view, correctly perceived that agriculture was one of the bedrocks on which countries developed. By 2008, agriculture had slipped from 20 percent to around 3 percent of official development assistance.

Why? Like all things, it’s complex. One contributor was that there was a lot of opposition to modern agriculture from green groups, environmental groups and others who don’t like irrigation and large scale agriculture, just as there was opposition to large-scale infrastructure. There was also a sense that the private sector would take care of this. The private sector, of course, does do quite a bit with agricultural research, but there is an enormous role for the public sector as well.

So, we get to 2008 and I was actually in Brazil when the food crisis struck. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development — a twenty million dollar project done by the World Bank and 17 other partners – then came out telling us why the Brazilian approach (heavily scientific, large scale, and technologically sophisticated) was the wrong way to go and that the right way was small, beautiful and organic. And the Minister of Agriculture of Brazil quite rightly tore me to pieces and said, “This is bizarre….”

(…) Fortunately, I think what is very good in the international scene is the rise of the middle income countries, like China, India and Brazil. They are much closer to the issues of poverty, much more pragmatic, much less ideological and bring much more common sense to the discussion.

Bizarre indeed. Thanks Marc — an important interview for everyone to read.