Recently, the G8 convened to discuss the most pressing issues facing the global economy. On the agenda yet again was Africa’s state of underdevelopment and poverty, with a particular focus on the critical role of agriculture in feeding the continent's people and boosting economic growth. The initiative under discussion, spearheaded by President Barack Obama's administration, is called the “New Alliance,” and it threatens to accelerate the transfer of resource ownership from rural Africans to multinational corporations while failing to meaningfully improve their lives.
Far from representing a ‘new’ approach to agriculture and development, the key policy objectives of the Alliance are reminiscent of an ugly past where engagement with Africa served to enrich foreign interests and domestic elites rather than the rural and urban poor. Only this time around, a broad spectrum of African organizations are up in arms against the initiative and for good reasons.
At the heart of the New Alliance is the idea that investment in African agriculture is needed to boost yields, feed the hungry, and turn underutilized land to productive and profitable use. No observer of the continent's agricultural sector would disagree with this premise – the question is, who is doing the investing and who will be the primary beneficiaries of this new initiative? A quick glance of the Alliance's corporate supporters reveals a cadre of the world’s foremost agribusiness interests, seed producers, and food distributors whose track records in the sector leave a lot to be desired.
On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough. The international private sector has a surplus of capital, demand for agricultural commodities is on the rise, and smallholders across the continent are in desperate need of investment and market access. Yet, as is often the case with development initiatives, what sounds convincing and reasonable in an air-conditioned American or European conference hall may hide a very different state of affairs from that on the ground.
The Alliance emphasizes the need to formalize land ownership systems and offers countries millions of dollars in incentives in exchange for opening their agricultural sectors to foreign capital. Where that capital promotes the growth of local business, establishes markets and builds infrastructure that can assist African farmers in selling more food, it holds the potential to kickstart a new era of equitable economic growth. However, reading between the lines of the policies underlying the initiative reveals a contrasting story.
In the current governance climate in many of the target countries, a far likelier outcome is that countries participating in the New Alliance will see another wave of land acquisitions by foreign entities, who seek fertile African land to grow lucrative commodities that can be sold on international markets – typically not even in Africa. That this land is often used – if not outright owned – by poor rural farming communities seems not to factor into the analysis underpinning the Alliance’s plan. Numerous human-rights organizations have commented on the improper and occasionally brutal methods employed by governments seeking to accommodate foreign investors who pay large sums of money for such land leases. At stake is the development model that will dictate the trajectory of life in rural Africa in the coming decades, and whether investment will strengthen accountability in African governance or weaken it.
When foreign investment serves to stimulate smallholder participation in markets and increases the profitability of their farms, it boosts the ability of the poor to re-invest in their own communities and gives them the financial security they need to challenge bad government policies. When investment dispossess them of their only valuable asset and relegates them to a condition of wage labour, it can cause dangerous resentments and worsen living conditions for community members who lose access to land but are not hired by investors.
As most menial jobs tend to go to men in these instances, the concentration of household incomes in the hands of men can also adversely affect the situation of women. Given the lack of real evidence that these land deals reduce poverty and bring meaningful benefits to the host-country economy, the question must be asked: whose interests are being served by the New Alliance, the poor or those with an eye on their land?
As activists in Liberia, we have seen the damage that can be caused by these deals. Communities are cajoled into giving away land and then get angry when vague promises of development are not fulfilled. At a recent conference on agriculture held by organizations in Monrovia, farmers and local agribusinesses complained of disorganization in donor programming, lack of government responsiveness to their requests, and a dearth of capital investment. None expressed a desire to see foreign companies come and take de facto ownership of the land they hope will lift them out of poverty.
Why would they want this, given how little such deals stand to benefit those who are most intimately involved in farming in Africa? If the public officials and development agencies who are promoting the New Alliance are truly serious about taking the important step of investing in African agriculture, they would be wise to listen to such voices, rather than those of the powerful and wealthy interests who stand to gain so much from this ‘new’ vision for Africa's poor and malnourished.
Silas Siakor and Ashoka Mukpo are community-rights activists for the Sustainable Development Institute, based in Liberia.