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Is Africa being held hostage in the politics of grain wars?


The first shipment of Ukrainian grain arrived in Ethiopia today, one month after it set sail from a Black Sea port. The delivery - six truckloads - is just a fraction of what's needed in Africa.

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of being greedy. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has been analyzing that speech and joins us now. Hi, Jackie.


CHANG: OK, so this deal to allow shipments of Ukrainian grain - that was agreed to back in July, so why did it take so long to get to Africa?

NORTHAM: Well, it's not just Africa. You know, there are about 90 ships so far carrying Ukrainian grain. And at the beginning, there were concerns about getting the ships out of Black Sea ports. The waters were mined, and there were other security issues. Also, one of the conditions of this agreement is that the ships need to go to Turkey, where they'll be inspected by officials - you know, Turkish, U.N., Ukrainian, Russian. All these officials need to look at what's in there before they can go on to their next destination, and so that takes time. But, you know, it doesn't fully explain why more ships haven't got to Africa, especially as so many have arrived in developed nations already.

CHANG: Well, on that, you know, as we mentioned, Putin is accusing the West of being greedy, of taking most of those first shipments of wheat and other commodities instead of routing them to poor countries. Can you tell us a little more about what he said exactly?

NORTHAM: Well, Putin was talking at an international economic forum in Vladivostok in eastern Russia, and he said only two ships have delivered Ukrainian grain to developing countries under the U.N.'s World Food Programme. Let's have a listen for a second here.



NORTHAM: And Putin went on to say that European countries continue to act as colonizers, he said, and, you know, and they're cheating developing nations.

CHANG: He is saying only two of the ships have made it to poor countries. Is that actually correct?

NORTHAM: Well, yes. I mean, he's not entirely wrong that these grains aren't getting to, you know, undeveloped nations. You know, the U.N. organization that's monitoring these ships gave a breakdown today, and it said 17% of the grains went to the whole of Africa. And if you look at Somalia, which is on the cusp of a widespread famine, it got just 1%. Nearly half the total of grains headed towards Asia, and that includes Turkey, which is actually milling the wheat into flour and sending it on to other countries.

But yeah, one third of the shipments have gone to Europe. And I spoke with Cullen Hendrix, and he's a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and he also studies the relationship between armed conflict and food insecurity. And he said Putin isn't inaccurate, but he doubts his concern for poorer nations. Here he is.

CULLEN HENDRIX: I think he's being a bit disingenuous in terms of his concern for the developing world in this case because if he were really all that concerned about it, he probably wouldn't have engaged in the kinds of policy choices that would kind of disrupt and add a lot of uncertainty in the global food markets in the first place.

NORTHAM: Yeah, and also, Hendrix says, you know, Putin framing this as Western greed probably has something to do with Russia's deteriorating position on the battlefield.

CHANG: Sure. Well, is there any concern that Putin's comments could jeopardize the grain deal?

NORTHAM: Well, his speech, he suggested that new routes could be drawn up, and that led some people to think maybe he's trying to wriggle out of this or reshape the deal - unclear at this point. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said today that tons of Ukrainian grain will be arriving in Somalia in the couple of weeks, so we'll just have to wait and see.

CHANG: That is NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.