In May 2001 Andrew Natsios was sworn in as the head ('administrator') of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It is the lead U.S. government agency concerned with providing economic and humanitarian assistance to developing and transitional countries but, as Natsios candidly admitted shortly after taking up his post, it also 'serves to accomplish our foreign policy objectives' (May 8 2001).
Natsios had served previously at USAID as assistant administrator for the Bureau of Food and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID and director of the Office of its Foreign Disaster Assistance. He had also been active in local and state politics. Natsios has served in the U.S. Army Reserves since 1972 and is a veteran of the Gulf War. He served on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon on active duty in 1993, working on issues facing Somalia and Bosnia.
In August 2002 Natsios accused environmental groups of endangering the lives of millions of people in southern Africa by encouraging governments in the region to reject the US's GM food aid. Natsios said, 'They can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake.' He added, 'The Bush administration is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign.' Natsios has also attacked the President of Zambia for his reluctance to take GM food aid.
However, Dr Charles Benbrook, a leading US agronomist and former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences, has contradicted the claims made by Natsios. 'There is no shortage of non-GMO foods which could be offered to Zambia by public and private donors. To a large extent, this "crisis" has been manufactured (might I say, "engineered") by those looking for a new source of traction in the evolving global debate over agricultural biotechnology. To use the needs of Zambians to score "political points" on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical and indeed shameless.'
Natsios claims that President Bush has given USAID 'instructions not to politicise food aid anywhere in the world.' However, promoting GM is an official part of the role assigned to USAID which publicly boasts of how its activities create major markets for America's agricultural exports (See USAID and GM food aid). The USAID website candidly states, 'The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States... Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans' (USAID and GM food aid). USAID also states that one of its roles is to 'integrate GM into local food systems.' George Bush has increased the US aid budget specifically for this purpose.
Reporting on the GM food aid issue in the context of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) where Natsios launched his fiercest attacks, the corporate lobbyist Roger Bate noted, ' One of the more interesting aspects of the debate was that the most fervent pro-GM attack on the Zambian President did not come from the biotech industry but from the head of the aid agency that sent the food. Andrew Natsios is the Director of the US Agency for International Development [USAID]. And he was easily the most effective proponent of the technology at, and after, the WSSD.' (From Jo'burg to Des Moines, Tech Central Station)
Natsios again played the role of the propagandist in June 2003 when he addressed a Congressional panel on plant biotechnology in Africa. On that occasion he described to them how the South African farmer TJ Buthelezi had benefitted from Monsanto's GM cotton. Natsios described Buthelezi as a 'small farmer struggling just at the subsistence level.' However, independent reporters have revealed that, with two wives and more than 66 acres, Buthelezi is one of the largest farmers in his part of South Africa (Makhathini). This 'small' 'subsistence' farmer also chairs the area's farmers' federation encompassing 48 farmers' associations.
Before becoming the boss of USAID, Natsios had a spell outside of governmental organisations, as vice president of World Vision US, a private relief and development charity. During the North Korean famine, Natsios criticised the US government for withholding food aid, calling the Clinton Administration's response 'too slow' and its claim that politics was not a factor 'total nonsense'.
But as boss of USAID Natsios has been pursuing a very different line, as the writer Melanie Klein notes, 'On May 21 (2003) in Washington D.C., Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, gave a speech blasting U.S. NGOs for failing to play a role many of them didn't realize they had been assigned: doing public relations for the U.S. government. According to InterAction, the network of 160 relief and development NGOs that hosted the conference, Natsios was "irritated" that starving and sick Iraqi and Afghani children didn't realize that their food and vaccines were coming to them courtesy of GeorgeW.Bush. From now on, NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to U.S. foreign policy and making it clear that they are "an arm of the U.S. government." If they didn't, InterAction reported, "Natsios threatened to personally tear up their contracts and find new partners."' USAID has also told several NGOs that have been awarded humanitarian contracts that they cannot speak to the media - all requests from reporters must go through Washington. (Watch Your Mouths)