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March 19, 2012

New criticisms of AGRA and of Bill Gates' support for GM crops in Africa

by Chido Makunike

The deep pockets of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have in a few years made the organization a powerful, impossible-to-ignore voice in thinking about agricultural development in Africa.

Knowing the strong feelings against GM crops in many parts of Africa and the suspicions that the organization was in collusion with GM seed companies like Monsanto to dominate Africa's seed supply, the Gates Foundation has been careful to downplay its support for the technology. They have instead so far focused and mainly publicized less controversial aspects of their agricultural interventions in various African countries.

However, the Gates Foundation's support for various GM research programs quietly continues, and it would not be surprising if its tactical de-emphasis of GM crops in its advocacy changes. Despite continuing opposition in many countries, it is also a fact that GM technology is gaining increasing acceptability by many African governments who were implacably opposed before.

Writing an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, the hometown paper of the Gates Foundation, Glenn Ashton faults Bill Gates' support of GM crops for Africa on two grounds. The first is the commonly made argument by GM opponents that focus on various "agro-ecological" methods is better-suited to Africa than the 'silver bullet' of biotechnology.

Ashton says GM crops have not delivered their promoters' promise of higher and yet more cost-effective yields for poor countries. Citing the Gates Foundation-supported work on drought-tolerant GM maize, he says there are local non-GM maize varieties that deliver similar or better results at less cost for poor farmers.

Ashton's second argument for opposing the Gates Foundation's support of GM crops is that, "Gates sponsors compliant African organizations whose work with multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto undermines existing grass-roots efforts to improve local production methods."

The point about efforts like the Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) being 'sponsored compliant African organizations' is an interesting one. It is a charge that carries a heavy punch in an Africa that sometimes uncomfortably balances welcoming foreign assistance in various sectors, but is also historically deeply wary of control and manipulation by outsiders posing as benefactors.

Sensitive to this dichotomy and to charges of being African tools of foreign forces with intentions that may not be as noble as they claim, AGRA is careful to brand itself as 'African-led.' But its being fronted by Ghanaian former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and having many distinguished Africans on its staff cannot take away the reality that its existence depends on the largesse of foreigners with a particular ideological view of the world in general, and of how agriculture and 'development' should be structured in particular.

In such a scenario, an uncomfortable but inevitable question is who has the upper hand if and when there is a clash of views or visions between AGRA's 'African leaders' and its American financiers? It is partly a rhetorical question, but that it constantly lurks in the background illustrates how regardless of whatever successes it will claim, AGRA can never quite successfully claim to be an African initiative. That may not matter for the purposes of achieving an improvement in the agriculture of the countries in which AGRA operates, but it is centrally relevant to the issue of by who and where decisions such as whether to focus on GM seeds or not are made: in Africa by AGRA's African 'leaders;' or in Seattle, Washington, USA, by its American bank rollers?

Its opponents sometimes use its dependence on foreign funding unfairly; as a club with which to browbeat AGRA. Yet ironically, many of the African organizations that stand in bitter opposition to AGRA and the Gates Foundations' whole pro-technology agricultural thrust are themselves dependent on foreign donors. It could just as legitimately be asked how independent they are of their benefactors in what they support or oppose, and whether that foreign dependency does not also undermine grass roots, locally-driven 'development.'

AGRA's donor dependency may be a relevant issue, but it is far from unique to it. It is a wider problem that plagues activist/advocacy African organizations across the full ideological spectrum.

However, there is also no doubting the reality that through AGRA, powerful and wealthy foreigners have placed themselves at the center of a debate about agricultural development which should be led and dominated by Africans, regardless of how well-meaning the foreigners regard themselves to be. This would be less of an issue if it was clear that the foreign supporters were merely providing financial, technical backup for an agricultural agenda that the Africans were largely agreed on, in full charge of and spearheading.

In this case, there is suspicion, which AGRA has not been able to fully counter, that the Africans are not just being so 'assisted' by the Gates Foundation, but are being fundamentally directed by it as well in terms of the basic thrust. For AGRA, this is one unavoidable downside of the upside of having a generous foreign donor with deep pockets.

Unless AGRA is able to overcome its critics by showing incontrovertible evidence of the success of its various interventions, this is a suspicion that will continue to plague how it is perceived. Even then, there is unlikely to be easy agreement on how to define 'success.'

If X group of farmers in country Y increase their yields by Z percent because of an AGRA program, that is one definition of a successful outcome. But to others, if that definition of success also means those farmers must now always be sure to buy a pack of a certain hybrid or GM seed, pesticides or fertilizers, that could be regarded as at best a very flawed success, given how many previous trials in many countries have shown how difficult it is for poor farmers to sustain this kind of heavily inputs-dependent cultivation consistently, year after year.

In a letter to the Seattle Times, Stephen Bartlett criticizes "not just the methodology of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, but the top-down mode of operation at play."

Bartlett writes that that, "The social, economic and political factors surrounding rural communities are as important to address as the specific technical issues, if not more. What Gates' AGRA, with its emphasis on so-called 'improved' seeds and access to chemical fertilizer, fails to address is the context that holds farmers back and constrains their productivity."

He continues, "Worse, the reliance on top-down 'experts' and supplies of inputs, reinforces in the minds of African farmers that what they lack is more important than what they have. It dis-empowers them and makes them dependent on suppliers. GM seeds and AGRA's close economic linking with Monsanto just reinforce to objective observers how much of this 'development' agenda is corporate driven, a closed loop between the boardrooms and the billionaire philanthropists."

These are thoughtful points. An irony that becomes apparent is that this is a debate about agricultural development in Africa, being conducted far from the African field of action in an American newspaper, and by people who are not typically thought of as Africans! It seems to emphasize the point about AGRA being very far from being 'African-led' at conceptual, ideological and policy level; even if it is largely African-staffed.

One rarely or almost never sees or hears a similar robust public debate taking place in the African countries in which AGRA has a presence, with the predominant pro and anti-voices being African, as should be the case. This may partly reflect both the inadequacy of African efforts at self-help, and partly perhaps also an unwillingness of Africa's Western 'development partners'/donors to really pay attention when the Africans do speak.

It may also be a reflection of the silencing power of a very wealthy and suddenly very influential donor, The Gates Foundation . Even where there are misgivings about AGRA, how many African governments/countries are going to risk upsetting a philanthropic organization that is prepared and willing to inject millions of dollars into their economies?

Therefore, the 'debate' between pro-AGRA/Gates Foundation thinking and their opponents is at a fundamental level very far from being that between equals. Long before they come to the debating room, one side has already significantly influenced the whole debating environment in its favor, by the sheer power of the effect of its money. This is even considering the many internal weaknesses (other than lack of money) of the groups that claim that 'agro-ecological' methods are 'the answer' for what ails African agriculture, and that Africa should be the sole continent that rejects most biotechnology solutions for its agriculture.

It is interesting and revealing that even the people giving anti-AGRA arguments are mostly non-Africans speaking on behalf of Africans, rather than Africans speaking for themselves! In this regard the pro and anti-reactions to the Gates Foundation/AGRA relationship resemble all the other innumerable Western donor/African recipient 'development partnership' relationships that have existed for decades, but with very little to show for themselves in terms of positive results for the Africans. One almost gets the impression that the Africans are considered by their foreign 'partners' as merely props in the drama of their own 'development.'

Even if there were Africans within AGRA structures who were troubled by this, does the inherent inequality of the donor/recipient relationship realistically allow them to have any voice? Could an African scientist employed by 'African-led' AGRA feel free to express an anti-GM opinion and keep his/her job, knowing the financier's support of GM technology? Or is the choice merely between zipping one's mouth or hitting the road in search of another job?

There are signs that the Gates Foundation is less cocky and more inclusive than before in its ideas about what will work best to spur agricultural development in Africa. They seem a little bit less the know-it-all they once seemed to think themselves to be on this complex, vexing subject. That attitude may have been part of the reason many groups in Africa working on agricultural and general development issues reacted so negatively to AGRA from the start.

On the other side, the opponents of the Gates Foundation and AGRA seem so implacably, emotionally opposed to them that they are unwilling to give them credit for even non-GM projects where it would seem the methods and possible benefits are non-controversial. That is part of the price AGRA has to pay for inviting itself to the African agricultural development party, in the process displacing previously entrenched and largely un-challenged activists and 'experts.'

In theory the shaking up of the debate by the rich new player should be beneficial to African agriculture, at the very least by spurring new questions and thinking. In practice, the Gates Foundation has made itself so powerful and influential in the debate about African agricultural development that alternative voices and ideas now increasingly struggle to make themselves heard.

Almost regardless of what happens on the farming fields that can be attributed to their contribution, the relatively large footprint that the Gates Foundation and its AGRA have bought themselves in Africa with their ready access to money will inevitably remain controversial and continue to spur many questions and raise many passions.

African Agriculture

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