If we’re ever going to figure out the best way to help fight poverty in the Third World, we need richly-detailed reporting about what sort of aid works and what doesn’t. I wouldn’t expect such reporting in Reason, a mostly staff-written magazine with a limited travel budget. But their editors had the good sense to print Tate Watkins’s piece about Haitian coffee growers and, more recently, an article by Francisco Toro about Ugandan farmers and seeds, titled "Uganda's Bad Seeds" (the article is not currently online).

Toro’s piece, funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, explores a simple problem. If farmers in Uganda are going to increase their yields, they need better seeds. There’s lots of high-tech equipment in Uganda ready to preserve high-yield seeds. Toro explains why this equipment isn’t used and why the grants spent on them were squandered.

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is apparently a very pleasant place to work; “in the nicer parts of Kampala, every third building hosts one aid organization or another”: the Americans, the Dutch, the Germans, and at least a dozen organizations connected with the UN. Private charities are here too, ranging in size from the Gates Foundation down to Homeopaths Without Borders.

These organizations have an eager audience with Ugandan officials because they all pay a per diem in hard currency for any Ugandan bureaucrat who shows up for training. So the Ugandans have developed what Harvard’s Lant Pritchett calls “isomorphic mimicry”—organizations which appear to be thickly-developed, highly functional bureaucracies but are for the most part places where government officials spend their days doing nothing at taxpayers’ expense.

An anonymous Dutch source told Toro that whenever they proposed a capacity-building workshop to officials of the Ugandan agricultural ministry, “you can be sure the first question they ask is about the per diem.”

As a result, consider the National Seed Testing Laboratory, a branch of Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture and funded with a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the Danish International Development Agency. The place brims with cutting-edge equipment designed to certify seeds. But there’s only one technician (who isn’t in when Toro visits) and none of the equipment is usable because it’s all been fried by the frequent outages of the Ugandan power system.

In 2014, James Joughin compiled a report for the World Bank about the Ugandan seed problem. His report, which begins with a chart of 63 acronyms, notes that at least six international agencies produced reports about the Ugandan seed problem and that no one ever acted on them. Among his findings: the Ugandan government was supposed to create a National Seed Board to oversee seed regulation in that country, but there’s no evidence that the board ever met or even that anyone was appointed to it.

If the government isn’t supplying high-yield seeds, who is? In many parts of the world, corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta do the job, and are periodically blasted by environmentalists for their purportedly sinister nature. Well, neither Monsanto, Syngenta, nor Dow AgroSciences does business in Uganda.

“The only thing worse than being exploited by Monsanto,” Toro writes, “is not being exploited by Monsanto.”

The seed multinationals stay away from Uganda because farmers have been so burned by “high-yield seeds” that aren’t what they appear to be that they’ve stopped buying them. Some farmers have occasionally accepted seeds handed out by politicians at election time. But these seeds are often contaminated by questionable chemicals (such as excessively high levels of fungicides) and farmers shun them.

As a result, most Ugandan farmers obtain seeds the way they’ve done for a long time—saving seeds from one year’s harvest to plant the next. These farmers are assured of the source of their seeds—their farms.

Toro says one promising way to sell Ugandan farmers high-yield seeds is done by Tetra Tech, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor. Tetra Tech has a scratch-off card attached to their seeds with a code. Send in a text with the code and a response comes certifying that the seeds are indeed high-yield. The Ugandan Ministry of Agriculture has nothing to do with this process, which enhances farmers’ confidence.

The private sector, Toro reports, is also active in Zambia, ensuring that the country is a seed exporter. “Larger firms have the confidence to invest there,” says Toro. “They trust their intellectual property won’t get ripped off by fakers.”

I wish Toro had talked about constructive activities nonprofits are doing in Uganda. Surely there must be something useful they’re doing. For if all charities do in their Ugandan agriculture programs is hand out per diems to avaricious Ugandan bureaucrats, why should they stay there?

Photo credit: Friends of the Earth International via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND