Colonizing Ethiopia?

Agro-imperialism. Andrew Rice asks if there is such a thing. And the answer is, of course there is. It goes by another name–colonialism. As when the French appropriated lands and extracted peanut oil from Senegal. Or the Belgians rubber, cocoa, and all manner of other natural products from Congo. Or the U.S. latex from Liberia. The history is clear.

Local people are exploited for low wages, face periodic food shortages, pay taxes for unprovided services and are politically marginalized. Nothing new here.

Rice reports the latest version being planned by Saudis, Indians and Chinese. Rich but resource-deprived countries are looking to Africa for its land and cheap labor to develop food for their own populations, he says.

If I sound skeptical, I am. I also admit to impatience. I even risk ranting here. But this is an old story and it’s aggravating that we’re looking at a new chapter. Besides, the older I get the more passionate I become.

A key to ending poverty, as Muhammad Yunus has illustrated is economic self-development. It’s not merely charity, nor compassionate relief. These are useful under certain circumstances. But in the long-term, the most effective means to close the gap between the rich and the poor is to resource and train the poor to do for themselves.

Granted, many non-profit groups are doing economic development and doing it well. And they attempt to influence agricultural and food policy albeit somewhat less successfully because they don’t have the clout of government policymakers or well-heeled multinational corporations.

I suppose what aggravates me is this lack of voice around the tables that matter. One corrective might be for mainline seminaries to partner with other grad schools to devise degree paths that incorporate economic and social policy with theological studies. I’m talking about more than classes in social ethics.  Currently, if it exists at all this approach to practical theology is informal. As a result, critical ethical connections between policy and faith values are not made. Faith is compartmentalized and individualized.

This is important because global faith communities such as mine have contacts, infrastructure and resources that are critical to development. And development is a moral issue as important, in my opinion, as other forms of religious expression. Missional theology is too often defined in terms of evangelistic outreach or by  individual or small-scale acts of charity. The faith communities should be around the tables where global food policy is discussed because they have a direct interest in the outcomes. It’s our own brothers and sisters who will benefit or be deprived when these policies are implemented.

Further, the abysmal lack of global awareness in the U.S. is tantamount to unfaithfulness. It leaves the content of faith hostage to national cultural contexts which are limiting and dangerously chauvinistic. Look only so far as the evangelical right to see what can happen when religion is wedded to narrow political interests.

Nearly every purchase we make today has a consequence for someone in another part of the world. We are inextricably interconnected. When we buy clothing made offshore, a tank of gasoline that transfers wealth to the oil-producing states that are using that wealth to buy up African land, or a cellphone that uses precious metals mined in Congo under dangerous conditions and corrupt business practices, we’re implicated. As people of faith seeking to live ethical, moral lives we should be aware and concerned. But our global education has been neglected.

I don’t think most people want to be implicated. But I don’t think they’re going to hear these connections drawn by global corporations, governments and, unfortunately, educational systems. Faith communities have a direct interest in addition to a value system that motivates them to speak out. But their speaking cannot amount to the appearance of moralizing. It should demonstrate clear theological and policy analysis. It should draw connections between our values and the way we live our lives.

If the religious communities absent themselves from policy conversations and continue to  view mission as small-scale projects apart from large-scale policies, then it’s quite likely that agro imperialism will advance. And with it will come disenfranchisement, corruption and hunger. We’ve seen this before.

2 Responses to “Colonizing Ethiopia?”

  1. Margaret Novak November 29, 2009 at 12:40 am #

    Because our son’s three years in the Peace Corps, working with Paraguayan farmers, this whole topic of development as a way of faithfulness interests me. I agree: seminaries need to be looking at the incorporation of economic/public policy in the center of their curriculum. For the church to do less than this further marginalizes those in the church who would be faithful, and it turns the Church of Jesus Christ into a nice club with charity projects that earn points for the upwardly mobile. To do less than this gives Empire free reign (and the reins. . . )

    • Larry December 1, 2009 at 8:59 am #

      I agree that development is one path of faithfulness. It’s a bit more complex to interpret but never the less Jesus and virtually all other great world religious leaders spoke of freeing people in body and spirit, living life abundantly, or some similar spiritual tenet. And your point about charity is something I’m thinking about a great deal right now. Charity makes the giver feel good but it doesn’t truly empower the recipient for the long-term–I’m talking here the short-term gift that meets the needs of a day but doesn’t help the individual experience the change necessary to get beyond the immediate situation of need. Development should enable long-term growth and skills that move people into self-sufficiency, awareness of their own strengths and new skills.
      Thanks for your comment. I’ll be giving this more thought and writing attention. Take this an invitation to contribute a post, or add comment as you feel moved.

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