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Summary of Career History

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1980 - 2003

In Mogadishu, Somalia.

Tanzania National Food Strategy Project

In the latter part of 1980 and early 1981, I undertook this FAO project for six months, with a team of two others. Its planning was left to my own judgment, and the agreement could be extended for a further six months if desired. As a nutritionist, as well as an agricultural economist, the concept was promising.

I used the six months to visit nearly every District in the Territory, to assess current conditions and future prospects. There was great scope for large scale commercial cereal production in the higher southern areas, particularly around Iringa, optimally by contract arrangements with groups of villages as the landowners, who of course would also have their own smallholdings.

In those days, a number of very effective expatriate managed enterprises had survived with the support of the government, in spite of its increasing Marxist orientation.

The Commonwealth Development Corporation controlled the Tanganyika Wattle Company at Njombe in the extreme southwest. This company had moved far beyond wattle, and in our field had an experiment of growing 300 hectares of milling maize. Average yields were around seven tonnes per hectare, reaching ten tonnes in some fields. The latter is about twenty times average subsistence yields.

Clearly Tanzania would be able to produce its national requirement of basic cereal, at an acceptable cost to the consumer, just as Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi had been doing.

A second successful expatriate managed enterprise, the Brooke Bond Mufindi Tea Estate, had also launched into the production of hybrid maize seed to support these developments. Contrary to public opinion, developing country farmers will always go for hybrid seed, even if they have to borrow money to get it..

We surveyed the whole range of commodities and the nutritional contribution that they could make. We slightly over-ran our six months and my Tanzanian counterpart and I went to Rome to discuss the next stage. We were told abruptly that the direction of our programme had to change completely. The President of Tanzania required that all farmers should be moved from their distant farms to be near the main roads, to make economical the provision of services such as education. I knew the British economist who had made this proposal! Moreover, agriculture had to be collectivised on Marxist lines.

I had already visited an area where this arrangement had been tested. It enormously increased the already heavy workload of farmers and their families, greatly reduced agricultural output, had been received in a hostile manner, and was totally impractical. In no way would I extend my contract on this basis.

Here we move into politics, rather dangerous politics. In those days, all the international agencies had a marxist component. Back in the FAO, a Hungarian was keeping an eye on us. In Dar-es-Salaam, we were quite friendly with these agents of the Soviet bloc among us. They had to do their job. The C.I.A. was also present. My wife and I changed quarters from time to time in accordance with what was available, and on one occasion we inhabited the flat immediately below the organisation’s Chief. He purported to be a livestock man, and therefore of interest to myself, but he was never prepared to discuss livestock. Dar-es-Salaam at that time was a dangerous place, and his two sons with high-powered rifles had established a defensive position at the head of the staircase, covering its entire well. They assured us that they would protect us from any attack on our front door.

My Tanzanian colleague, who had become a great friend, knew about the C.I.A., as did everyone else, and I asked him about the Russians, who had a very large closed base on a promontory north of the capital. He said they did not come out and were no problem. I pointed out that any party could obtain whatever information they wanted by offering payment to any number of impoverished Tanzanians, without coming out of anywhere. This point had not apparently been considered by the local politburo, of which I had always assumed he was a member.

On one occasion, he told me that the politburo was planning to close all the markets, as being undesirable capitalistic institutions. I pointed out that while this might not produce a rebellion, it would inflict even greater hardship on most of the population, and would be by-passed by the establishment of local markets out of sight of law enforcement agencies. The markets were not closed. But we had now, I suspect, become enemies of the Marxists.

The retail sector had, before my arrival, been largely closed down as being capitalistic, but more likely for racial reasons, as most of the sector was Asian owned. We ourselves obtained our supplies from a friend in the European Union Embassy.

But we had bother from things like bread, when we were not living in a hotel, and obtaining it was in itself an experience of living under Marxist control. I drove the Landrover about five miles up the road, and walked off to find a village where there was an illegal bakery. There I stood in a queue with a fair number of large and belligerent women, and a very large number of active small boys, uncontrollable by the law, eagerly learning the principles of the capitalistic retail market.

My agricultural colleague in the team had been in Addis Ababa when Mengistu took over. A number of his friends had been arrested as enemies of the people and handed over to the security service, manned by operatives from another Marxist country, which I would not want to name today. They were proud of their system of selecting a recalcitrant prisoner and pouring boiling oil in his ears. This apparently produces a scream so unpleasant, that other prisoners encouraged to hear it, immediately confess to crimes, which they have not committed. We had been warned!

The night before we left Rome, my colleague was approached by a very charming Ethiopian. Since our aircraft would be passing through Addis, his government would be most pleased if we could stop off for a day or two, be entertained and enjoy the sights of their capital city. He would join us at the airport. He was equally charming to both of us at the airport. We gave the matter careful consideration, but said that we had to get back to Dar, as our work had fallen behind during our absence. The result was extraordinary. Our Ethiopian raged at us in a fury, using the most extreme language and stormed away. I wonder if he got the boiling oil treatment, poor chap.

I returned to England, but declined work in Ethiopia until the regime changed. .

Exchange Rates

Tanzania was the first place where I thought seriously about exchange rates. One had always accepted fixed rates as the norm. But here one could see opportunities for massive corruption. Being international employees, we ourselves had to use the fixed rate, but people in other activities were at that time doubling their Tanzanian finances by exchanging at the so-called black market rate. And the black market rate was also ideal for senior politicians in developing countries, who had no intention of obeying their own laws, if it did not suit them.

 

Antigua, West Indies. Evaluation of UK Aid to the Agricultural Sector, 1970-1980

This work took place in 1982. I first read all the relevant files in the Ministry, then went to Antigua to check the results. The project had been served by a series of excellent specialists, who passed on valuable knowledge and skills to the Antiguans. At the London end, there was no administration, as we have already seen with our Sri Lankan project. All material and equipment for projects had to be ordered from separate departments of the Crown Agents, even down to spanners. If in an irrigation project, the pipes come on time, but the pumps do not come for another six months or more, nobody can do any useful work, and the project is unlikely to show an economic rate of return. Indeed it will come to a dead end. Moreover, no project will succeed if everyone goes home at the end of the development period, and there is no follow up to assist the people who have been trained. When I visited Antigua, virtually every project had come to a dead end. The Ministry subsequently remedied these defects and new projects had regular follow-up visits

 

Kenya Grain Marketing Study, 1983

This was a World Bank Project, the intention of which was to persuade the Kenya Government to liberalise its grain marketing system. To me, it was interesting and valuable, but the Kenya Government had no intention of liberalising its grain marketing system at that time.

 

International Fund for Agricultural Development, India and Bangladesh, 1984

This consultancy covered a series of Project Identification Missions in Madhya Pradesh, and in Kurigram in northern Bangladesh. The Madhya Pradesh Project covered much the same activities as in the Hindustan Fertiliser Corporation Indore Project, but on a very much larger scale, and with a much wider range of activities. The Kurigram Project revolved around the massive flooding by the Brahmaputra of agricultural land and its replacement by new areas of sediment.

These were the most valuable of my consultancies, taking me right down to the roots of the poverty problem, and forcing me to examine exactly how I would farm to improve my standard of living, if I was an impoverished peasant in India or Bangladesh. I concluded that in Bangladesh it would be almost impossible, and that smallholdings could not provide an adequate living, except as a side activity for people with other sources of income. I have always argued that in the long term farm size, whether in land or capital terms, depends on the income aspirations of farmers. Most developing country farmers will have to move into other activities, with agriculture as a hobby, or operate in much smaller numbers, on much larger farms, with completely different farming systems, if they are to achieve urban standards of living; a process which is still happening in the UK.

 

Somali Government/World Bank Agricultural Sector Survey, 1985

This was a very comprehensive and interesting project, in which I as Senior Adviser, produced a consolidated report from the individual reports of a series of teams. Unfortunately, law and order collapsed completely in Somalia soon afterwards, and there can have been little opportunity to carry out its recommendations.

At the time of the Survey, Somalia had a surprisingly complex agricultural sector, the notes filling four folders in my cabinet. Livestock exports and rangelands provided a major component. There were a large sugar estate at Juba in the south, appreciable citrus exports, an Australian managed dry land farming project, and a long list of miscellaneous projects going back over the years.

These had mainly been funded by external loans. In many developing countries, it is difficult to establish the correct level of external debt. Frequent political upheavals cause the records to disappear. Civil servants rarely last for long in a specific post. This was notably the case in Somalia. Our research ultimately came up with a figure of indebtedness amounting to US$ 836 million on 31/12/82. Even so, the World Bank was expecting to make further development loans. One wondered how they were ever likely to be serviced and repaid. The comment of the Finance Minister was that nobody ever died of debt!

 

Ethiopian Goatskin Tannery Study, 1986

This consultancy came through the private sector. There had been a major regime change in Ethiopia, I could go there in safety, and I made new friends among my counterparts.

Ethiopia had long had an export business in raw goatskins, of low value, and it made sense to process them in Ethiopia, so as to export a higher value article. The National Leather and Shoe Corporation had eight tannery and processing plants, but a new plant would be needed. Two technical specialists were dealing with this aspect of the project, but there was no centralised knowledge of the main sources of the goatskins, which would indicate the most appropriate site for the plant.

My role was to find out. This gave me an opportunity to travel all over the high lands of Ethiopia. I was surprised to find that old-fashioned agricultural extension services, which were normal in other African countries before independence, still survived. I even found, away out in the mountains, a fully qualified English-speaking veterinary surgeon It took me back to my early days in Mwinilunga. Like start, like finish.

I sent in my report on the geographical pattern of supply and the suggested location of the plant, and that was the last I heard of the matter.

 

Sri Lanka Mahaveli River Irrigation Development Areas, 1988

On a private visit, I was invited to make suggestions as to what alternative crops to rice might be produced on the irrigated land, if rice output ran into surplus, which might be difficult to market economically. An interesting feature of the visit was the improvement in the technical competence and prosperity of the farmers. Small tractors, which some farmers contracted out to their neighbours, had replaced water buffaloes, due to the cost and trouble of feeding them in the dry season.

Two likely answers to their problem were irrigated cotton, as in Zimbabwe, and irrigated cocoa, which had been shown to be very profitable in the Shire Valley in Malawi. These would of course be major projects, and I do not know if any action followed. However, the UK High Commission was glad to have a copy of my report.

 

Subsequent Activities

In the seventeen years since my last overseas job, I wanted first to master the many technical aspects of agriculture, about which I felt I had been inadequately informed. I did have a substantial knowledge of the many scores of world crops involved, but soil science, plant nutrition, pest and disease control, mechanical equipment requirements, all needed following up.

I early discovered the very poor and almost universal lack of understanding, even among colleagues, of the soil replacement needs of the twelve to fifteen macro and trace elements, which crops have removed after harvest. Hence the problem of soil exhaustion across the world over the past 10,000 years, about which one could write a book. So much for ‘organic’ farming!

In due course, I published my findings, both in the quarterly Tropical Agriculture Association Newsletter and, for the past fourteen years, on a very wide range of subjects, in the weekly UK Egg Producers Association News. The editor is a senior veterinary scientist, and therefore an appropriate referee. This arrangement originally arose, because I became so incensed by the science fiction emerging from government scientists and the media about the health ‘dangers’ of eggs, for which I could find no scientific backing at all.

Science fiction is also the right term for current explanations of BSE and Scrapie, which produce no antibodies in the sufferers, and consequently cannot be caused by an infection. This has been obvious to our senior brain chemist since the start of the epizootic, but has been completely ignored, in spite of a Parliamentary paper. Like scurvy, these conditions arise initially from nutrient deficits. I have published numerous papers on this subject, but one cannot get past clotted up mindsets.

Differences of opinion within science, and there are many, cannot be decided by other scientists. Professor Steve Jones, the geneticist, somewhat rudely remarked in the Guardian of 30/8/03: "Science is a broad church of narrow minds, trained to know ever more about even less". There is a straight forward reason for our problems. Grants and reputations have become ever more important for every discipline. Any new problem is seized by the first in the field, however inappropriate the discipline may be. Where these differences within science may lead to very expensive errors of judgment by government (e.g.BSE), arbitration is needed, to impose logical inter-disciplinary analysis. Every viewpoint needs to be recorded, with none excluded. In my opinion, the arbiter should be an economist, not a lawyer.

I have written on other major concerns within British agriculture; Foot and Mouth, the absurd issue of GM crops, Subsidies, Biodiversity, Cultivation vs Conservation, Food Security.

I have written on Politics, being concerned about the steady, secretive incorporation of this country into a European political and administrative structure, which is based on a completely contrary fundamental legal philosophy to our own and that of the Commonwealth and the USA. I saw the effect of political over-centralisation, in the imposed Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which brought unnecessary political conflict to those countries.

In a recent paper, I discussed the need for the NHS to replace its drug culture with a nutrient supplementation culture. A good quality of life for our increasingly older population cannot be achieved by ever more costly quasi-toxic drugs, prescribed on a permanent basis, nor can the NHS sustain its cost.

Moreover, there is a major discrepancy between the 1997 human longevity record of 122; together with similar anecdotal records from Georgia and the High Andes, and the much earlier deaths, often after serious suffering and a poor quality of life, of the rest of us. (Jeanne Calment, living in southwest France, a lifelong smoker, was said to have been still cycling around Arles at 118). It seems to me very likely that the soils and diet in those areas contain optimum quantities of the trace elements that the human body needs for energy production, sexual activity, and the removal of toxins and free radicals from the system. My paper on Selenium, published on 16th August 2002, drew particular attention to this element. The British diet today appears to contain less than half the selenium required for optimum health.. Anybody else going for the world record?

 

Concluding Points for Practical Economists

In the public mind, there is an impression that some economists do not live in the real world, and in my experience there is a measure of truth in this. If one just sits behind one’s computer and sends out forms, one may obtain results which are far from the truth. The International Fund for Agricultural Development in my time often referred to the need to establish ‘ground truth’, and when one went out on to the farms, one discovered the relevance of the term.

One hears economists say, when they run into a problem, ‘so we commissioned a study’. But how often does anyone check in the field that those who are doing the study are actually providing reasonably accurate data. In my experience, much misinformation floats about, and later becomes gospel truth, because this is not done.

In agriculture, one must ask what crops a farmer is growing; how are they being grown; what are the yields; what steps, if any, he is taking to avoid soil exhaustion; what is his family food budget; what is his cash return; how far does it meet his family’s steadily increasing cash needs; and so on. Moreover, every farm, every field, every crop has varying characteristics. Only from the detail can one gross up a true picture of the economic state of the industry.

Thus real world checks are needed on computerised models, before serious authority is claimed. Ill-considered comments, such as those regarding the alleged disastrous consequences of GM crops for poor farmers, should be avoided, if one has never visited such a farmer. Farmers everywhere, as in any other activity, soon identify a promising technology, and go for it.

Hence the importance of micro-economic studies, and knowing what people are actually doing in the real world.

Tim Dening
(2003)

 
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All of Richard (Tim) Dening's papers relating to his career, first in the colonial administration in Northern Rhodesia and then as an agricultural economist, have been donated to the Bodleian Library  of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, in Oxford, England.

Tim kept very comprehensive records of all aspects of his working life. Anybody wishing to consult the archived papers should contact the library first for advice:

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Website: Copyright B.Corker 2008     Images: Copyright EGL Dening 2008