Carving up Africa’s hunger markets

July 28, 2012

In mid-May 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (the UNDP) released its Africa Human Development report for 2012. Entitled ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, the report is unremarkable for its assessments and language – these have changed but little where Africa is concerned over the last 30 years – and is remarkable for the implications it contains concerning the agriculture and food focus to human development.

The primary implication is an alarming one. The UNDP today (as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have done for decades, and as their cousin multilateral lending agencies, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank have also done), appears to be peddling an industry line, the industry in this case being the biotechnology-enabled food industry, strengthened by the calls for the provisioning of specials foods and of the money with which to support the industry.

For most of Africa south of the Maghrib (as northern Africa is known) wherever white settlement occurred in quantity, the pattern in land expropriation and the use of labour was set by the Union of South Africa. So said Basil Davidson in ‘Let Freedom Come’ (Little, Brown & Co., 1978). This pattern heralded a long period of rising white prosperity still continuing in the 1970s, remarked Davidson. He pointed out that South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 provided a model that abolished all African land ownership (ownership by what were at one time called ‘native’ Africans). Labour supply was increased and the wage rate was lowered and Davidson went on to say that “the same system of proletarianising self-sufficient peasants and of driving them into a labour market where they could have no bargaining power, was used elsewhere with local variants”.

Now, almost a century after that Land Act come into being (providing the precursor to apartheid) an African Development Report from the UN’s development experts has said that “addressing hunger is a precondition for sustained human development in sub-Saharan Africa”. Food security must be at centre of continent’s development agenda, the UNDP report has observed. Pithy statements of concern have been provided. Hence UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is quoted: “Impressive GDP growth rates in Africa have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. Inclusive growth and people-centred approaches to food security are needed.” Also quoted is Tegegnework Gettu, Director of UNDP’s Africa Bureau: “It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments.”

What are people-centred approaches in an African context? Since there are surpluses why are the food terms of trade for African countries still unequal enough to cause hunger? The UNDP’s Africa Development Report has not grappled with these questions as emphatically as it could have, especially when it is human development (and not the technical, financial and market development of food corporations) that is being discussed. Instead, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’ repeats the prescriptions that have been handed out so often by the organisations whose mandate it is to further the homogeneity of crops, to secure new food markets, to ensure tight control of a crop germplasm. These organisations are the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (the CGIAR, with its 15 research centres), the World Trade Organisation, USAID (the American government’s aid agency, for which food has been a powerful tool of foreign policy since the end of the Second World War), the Groups of Eight and of Twenty (the G8 and G20, blocs of countries engaged in trade negotiations and, increasingly, sharing the burdens of economic slowdown while still being engaged in competition for resources, especially in what are still called ’emerging markets’), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD, 34 countries strong), and a host of research institutions.

Their collective view, if one can be extracted from the welter of material they individually have generated on Africa and its food need, may be summarised as follows. That increasing agricultural productivity in Africa is vital; that higher productivity especially in food staples increases food availability and lowers the price of staple foods thereby improving access; that agricultural productivity must grow faster than the rate at which food prices fall (they don’t, notwithstanding what the FAO Food Price Index has been telling us this year) so that production gains benefit both food producers and net food consumers; that these were the ingredients that led to the ‘success’ of the Asian green revolution and can – now boosted with genetically modified food staples and agri-biotechnology – be replicated in hungry Africa.

And that is why this report, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, is replete with paragraphs like the following, appropriating the language of fairness to conceal behind it the ambition of the globe’s industrial food networks, their technology partners, their allies the commodity exchanges, and the political brokers who stitch together, for huge commissions, the whole enterprise: “Breaking with the past, standing up to the vested interests of the privileged few and building institutions that rebalance power relations at all levels of society will require courageous citizens and dedicated leaders. Taking these steps is all the more pressing as new threats to the sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa’s food systems have emerged. Demographic change, environmental pressure, and global and local climate change are profoundly reconfiguring the region’s development options.”

Underlying the UNDP’s concern is an environmentalism that conforms to “weak sustainability” (as Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, has called it) and that is the marketing of “rights of access to the planet’s resources.” Great regiments of conventional economists have openly rallied to this position, proposing “the auctioning of world resources” (fisheries, pollution permits, forests, watersheds, and of course land). As Amin has said, this is a proposition which simply supports the oligopolies in their ambition to mortgage the future of the peoples of the South still further.

“With more than one in four of its 856 million people undernourished, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s most food-insecure region,” the UNDP report has said. “At the moment, more than 15 million people are at risk in the Sahel alone – across the semi-arid belt from Senegal to Chad; and an equal number in the Horn of Africa remain vulnerable after last year’s food crisis in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.” Is there a hint of opportunism in these words? Is it possible that the Rockefeller of this era – in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has influenced the UNDP’s authors?

It is more than likely. The announcement made by US president Barack Obama, on the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’ (this took place at the last G8 meeting), has promised a US$3.5 billion investment in Africa with the financial backing of some 45 corporations including Monsanto, Syngenta, and PepsiCo. The New Alliance is reported to already be working to build a network of private seed companies across Africa as part of the attempt at a second green revolution in Africa. However, the input-intensive chemical farming promoted by the New Alliance does not make sense for many smallholder farmers, as it requires them to use their scarce income on costly inputs like fertilisers and pesticides.

Fundamentally, the ‘New Alliance’ announced by Obama will only continue what was for decades the policies of national governments and international institutions that together contributed to the neglect of sub-Saharan Africa’s rural and agricultural development. These damaging legacies include post-colonial industrialisation plans that soaked up development resources, leaving agriculture a laggard priority with little localised crop science and technology appropriate for poor farmers (and which first ignored and then marginalised traditional cultivating knowledge altogether).

The destruction wrought by the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 1980s were publicly aimed at closing budget gaps but instead created large human development deficits, especially among the vulnerable poor; they skewed allocations of national revenue and foreign aid that neglected agriculture and nutrition. This is the legacy that Obama’s ‘New Alliance’ will inherit and build upon. It has set a research agenda that embraces entirely GM food and agri-biotech, through four organisations: the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA, which is to serve a research, information-sharing and networking role), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA, one of the CGIAR centres)) are to be involved in agricultural development projects with the AATF and ITTA are focused on biotechnology.

The response from Africa is best read in the form of a letter, from African civil society critical of foreign investment in African agriculture, addressed to the president of the African Union, and presented by Mamadou Cissokho, Honorary President of the Network of Farmers and Agricultural Producers Organizations (ROPPA), on behalf of farmers who are members of his and 14 other organisations. One of the more powerful passages in this letter is:

“I ask you to explain how you could possibly justify thinking that the food security and sovereignty of Africa could be secured through international cooperation outside of the policy frameworks formulated in an inclusive fashion with the peasants and the producers of the continent. A look at the history of agricultural development in the various regions of the world makes it clear that agriculture has never developed in this way. We know that the progress that has been accomplished in agriculture, the important successes of the agricultural policies obtained in Europe, in the United States and in emerging countries like Brazil and India, have always been the product of sovereign will and of a partnership between the states and the economic actors, that is the producers, the processors, the traders.”

This forthright and evocative letter ought as much to have been internalised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as it should have been broadcast through the media in less industrialised countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in South and South-East Asia. For decades, western donor agencies (international development departments of governments included) have enabled private sector investment in ‘southern’ agriculture, and yet the numbers of the hungry and the malnourished do not fall under a billion, a threshold commonly used by conventional estimates.

Women small-scale producers, youth, and pastoralists are left out of such ‘alliances’ for Africa just as much as the actors mentioned by Cissokho are, and the reason is that the leaders of the G8 have demanded that African governments fulfil the role of a rubber stamp. The conventional trope regarding Africa and its hungry are that the continent is riddled with misguided policies, weak institutions and failing markets which are the most important factors that contribute to food insecurity. This is commonly accompanied by mention of ‘unequal power relations’, ‘vulnerable populations’, ‘subsistence farmers’, ‘the landless poor’, ‘the vicious cycle of deprivation’ and ‘low human development’. Yet over the last decade, and especially since the 2007-08 global food price rise, there have been no dearth of initiatives, programmes, campaigns, alliances, frameworks and high level committees to address Africa’s food insecurity. Far more valuable would be the commitment to adhere to past agreements and to honour past promises – and most of all, that global agri-business and its research partners find no footing in a continent rich with knowledge of community sovereignty and old cultivating traditions.

Note – a small and representative set of reports on the biotech push into Africa:
Call to “farmers to embrace the application Genetically Modified Organisms to increase crop yields and help sustain socio-economic sustainability”
“The huge machinery that had been put in place to push for the legalisation of GMO technology must now work to deliver the many promises made along the way”
“Uganda expects to take its first genetically modified crop to the market in 2014 when a regulatory framework to guide production will have been enacted”
“In recent years, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested millions of dollars into researching, developing and promoting GM technology”
“Proponents of genetically modified crops argue that restrictions in Africa, ranging from outright bans to strict liability laws that deterred seed providers, deny other African countries”
“The donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa will provide an enabling environment in Africa”

Rahul Goswami

Rahul Goswami has worked on a food and agriculture programme (livelihoods and rural economies) of the Government of India since 2009, is a trainer in the Asia-Pacific region for UNESCO's 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, and lives in Goa, India.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Food, Media & Communications