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May 31, 2012

Is the G8's 'worthy proposal to lift millions out of poverty' really about African agricultural development, or is it about other agendas?

by Chido Makunike

The 'G8' nations recently met in Chicago, USA with much fanfare. One of the outcomes of their meeting, announced by U.S. president Barack Obama, was what the Washington Post, in an approving, even gushing commentary by that influential newspaper's editorial board, called 'a worthy G-8 proposal (that) aims to lift millions out of poverty.'

The Post does a good job of summarizing the main highlights of the proposal:

'By 2050, the region’s (sub-Saharan Africa) total population will double. Without increased agricultural productivity, the region’s poverty and malnutrition will not only persist but worsen. President Obama...announced...joint effort to lift 50 million people in the region out of extreme poverty within 10 years.'

Who could possibly be against or suspicious of such a noble, obviously well-intentioned proposal? It is  by the world's richest, most powerful nations, and announced by the first ever African American president, adored and idolized across Africa on tee shirts and posters like a pop or soccer star?

Yet the very fact that it is a plan conceived and championed by a foreign president, rather than being 'home-grown' in Africa, may be one of the first hints of where this ambitious plan may run into trouble. Can real , sustainable 'development' be imported, or is it necessarily a hard, messy process that those who wish to undergo it must define and spearhead themselves?

It is one thing for one person/party to help another in his or her path to 'development,' however defined. But it is quite another to seek to design and direct that development for that other. The latter is exactly how the 'the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition' appears in its conception and in the way it has been presented.

The four African presidents (Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania) almost seemed to be bystanders at the announcement by Obama of a plan designed to address deep developmental issues that are primarily their responsibility, and that are arguably only solvable at a local level anyway. The presidents were said to have been 'invited' to the G8 meeting for the announcement of the plan, but they might as well have been misbehaving school boys who were summoned by their headmaster! They were pitifully made to look like mere passengers in the formulation of ideas about some of their countries' greatest challenges. It is not an auspicious start.

'Oh you're just being negative and cynical. If the plan works to lift 50 million people out of poverty in 10 years, what does it matter how incidental and irrelevant the African presidents have been made to look. After all, they have failed in 50 years to do the job that Obama promises to do in a decade. The Africans should just get out of his way, gratefully stand aside while Obama and the G8 'develop' 50 million of them out of poverty.'

It may be crudely expressed here, but this seems very much to be the attitude informing the whole initiative, with some African leaders so in the thrall of Obama's star power (sweetened by the G8's promise to feed Africa's deep, debilitating malady of donor dependency with money and 'project's to be thrown its way') that they reverentially, unquestiningly are going along with it.

However, over the average 50 years of Africa's independence, there is now a strong body of evidence that no matter how 'innocent' and well-meaning initiatives that are conceived, set up and implemented as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition seems to be, for one or more reasons they are not and cannot be the 'short cut' to African 'development' that some might wish for.

But wait, this initiative will be different from all previous, mostly failed 'donor' interventions of the past decades. It's got to and is bound to work. How is it different, other than being champoined by an American president who a disturbing number of Africans regard with almost naive, almost childish infatuation? Let us let the enthusiastic Washington Post tell us:

'The innovative strategy behind the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is to foster political reform as a means of encouraging increased private investment in agriculture.'

Uh oh! If that is the new 'innovation,' the plan may be even more ill-conceived than it first appeared. How on earth are foreign powers, no matter how rich and no matter how charming are considered some of their leaders, going to significantly, externally 'foster political reform' in close to 50 sovereign, disparate nations enough to lift 50 million people out of poverty in a decade? Can such 'political reform' be easily forced from outside, across dozens of countries at widely varying levels of political and economic development?

Asking these rude questions is not to wish failure upon the plan. It is merely to suggest that at least as so far announced, it sounds depressingly, familiarly like a well-intentioned foreign fantasy.

The part about 'encouraging private investment in agriculture' is a little easier to understand. That loose phrase is obviously subject to widely different interpretations, and leaves room for all kinds of things, fair or foul.

A hopeful intepretation of that phrase would be that the African countries who are roped into this scheme would really be assisted to increase their agricultural production and value-addition capabilities. A more cynical intepretation is that it is much more likely that the 'donor'/investing countries speaheading the plan are far more likely to principally be concerned about 'private investment in agriculture' that mainly aims to create or increase markets for their own industries, with any benefits to the African beneficiaries being relatively minor and incidental.

There are 50 years of evidence in Africa that this is how 'aid,' no matter how labelled, is fundamentally structured and delivered. There are some kinds of 'aid'/investment that may actually so be 'expensive' and weakening (loss of initiative and confidence; loss of independence of thought and action; frustration of local enterprise; foreign flooding of markets, ) etc) that it may be better to forgo it. Perhaps this new scheme is different, but it is disturbing that there has been no appearance of any significant African input into its formulation, and little African critique of it.

'Encouraging private investment by fostering political reform' hardly sounds like something that would come out of the thinking of most African governments. Most of them may not be particularly keen on reforming (or being reformed) but will willingly go along with such an idea proposed by the American 'rock star' many of them hold in awe, especially if the insistence on 'reform' is accompanied by the inducement of a hit of the drug of  'aid' of one kind or another.

Editorializes the Washington Post, ''According to Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), political barriers have doomed past agricultural development strategies in sub-Saharan Africa, the only region in the world to see no substantial agricultural growth in the past 40 years. Excessive government involvement and corruption have dissuaded investors and discouraged local farmers. Government restrictions on seed variety have inhibited local entrepreneurship and lowered sales. A lack of collateral has prevented farmers from obtaining loans or insurance.''

Who is going to decide what is 'excessive government involvement' and what isn't? The 'aid' recipient or the donor government? In a case of disagreement between the two, who is going to hold the balance of power to get their way? All these situations have been experienced before all over Africa, now with known, predictable results.

There may be cases where  government involvement may indeed have been 'excessive' and a disincentive to agricultural investment, local or foreign. But no blanket statement can be made about this. There are just as many or even more cases where the overall level of agricultural or 'general' development (roads, dams,etc) is so low that the main problem is not 'excessive government involvement,' but actually too little.

Aside from clear-cut issues like the need for infrastructure provision by government, in countries with poorly developed markets, giving 'investors' free rein can also be a recipe for disaster because it is so easy for them to distort the fair functioning of those markets. More developed economies may have many built-in protections against potential abuses that may not require direct government intervention, but many poor countries do not. Government intervention,with all its problems, may in those situations be necessary to prevent farmers from being exploited. Where 'investors' are regarded as gods, such nuances are lost, at the expense of the very same farmers whose welfare everyone swears is their passionate, innocent, selfless concern.

Once a poor little country gets mixed up in some grand agricultural initiative cooked up in far-off Washington DC, will it still have the freedom and wherewithal to make the best determination for itself, or will it be steam-rollered into going along with the grand foreign plan against its own best judgement in exchange for whatever alms it wil be receiving? There are many precendents for this.

When ill-conceived, badly designed and poorly implemented foreign 'donor' projects have failed, the standard (though often unspoken) response has been to say, ''You know how difficult it is to help those cantenkerous Africans; nothing works there no matter how well we design 'development projects' for and throw money at them.'

An encouraging recent trend is more African countries spurning the long-held 'wisdom' that 'domors' are also automatically the repositories of what is best; what will work and what won't.

Just one example is the bumper maize harvests that the late, now much reviled Malawian president helped his previously famine-prone country achieve by rejecting the standard 'expert' wisdom that farm subsidies may be alright in Europe or the U,S., but of you are a small African nation, 'thou shall not institute subsidies.'

From one point of view, that was a case of 'excessive government intervention.' But at least as a short term measure, it achieved amazing results that stumped all the failed advice of the presumed donor holders of all wisdom, who on seeing its results joined in supporting the program after all, happy to then usurp it is their own!

That was an example of a small, poor African country innovating with the few resources it had, to achieve results appropriate for its situation.

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition smacks of a reversal of this welcome recent trend of African countries beginning to have the confidence to find locally, situationally appropriate agricultural interventions. All the evidence of decades of foreign-designed interventions that have resulted in the sprouting of a thriving donor-receiving NGO 'industry' all over Africa, but precious little actual 'development,' makes one wonder if this new G8 'innovation' is a step forward or a step backwards.

If anything ought to have been learned these past 50 years, it is that 'development' cannot necessarily be addressed by throwing 'aid' (or in this case, suspiciously ill-defined 'investment') and that hard, messy and frustrating as it is, it most certainly cannot be outsourced to outsiders, no matter how well-meaning they claim or appear to be.

Oh sure, get ready to see a lot more USAID-funded projects in the countries anointed to participate in the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Speaking of alliances, the new plan should dovetail very nicely with the softening-up work that the Bill Gates Foundation-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has been doing for some years in several countries.

And how to intepret Shah of USAID's statement about how 'government restrictions on seed variety have inhibited local entrepreneurship and lowered sales?'

The only widespread 'government restriction on seed variety' in Africa is the widespread opposition to GM seeds. This thinking may change in different countries in response to different inputs, at different paces, which is at it should be. Given how aggressively the U.S. government pushes for the global uptake of a technology that American companies like the infamous Monsanto dominate, it seems safe to predict that the African countries that are going to be roped into the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition will rapidly fall to subtle and not so subtle GM pressures from their 'friend,' like dominoes!   

Take your pick: do you want our aid, 'investment' and support, or do you not? If yes, here are the terms, and GM seeds will be good for you, and for us! If no, are you with us or against us? You poor, ungrateful little trouble-making country!

None of this high-stakes, arm-twisting  'GM diplomacy' is really as far-fetched as it may sound, if the revelations of Wikileaks are any indication. Proferred 'assistance' by rich nations to poor ones is often a poisoned chalice. One is often forced to question how alert to this most African 'leaders' are.

One wants to support any initiative that ostensibly has the noble goals outlined by Obama for the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. But there have been so many high-sounding agricultural/poverty-alleviation initiatives over many decades that didn't go anywhere. At best, the G8 initiative for now only deserves wary inpsection, rather than the gushing praise of theWashington Post or the unquestioning, unalytical regurgitation of the propaganda accompanying the announcement that most of the African media have been content with.

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition may turn out to have elements that may complement various ongoing African efforts to kickstart agriculture. But if Africa's rulers snooze, fail to analyze the sweet talk or simply sell out their countries to sharks posing as investors, it also is a scheme that has potential to 'lift 50 million out of poverty' not by strengthening the continent's agricultural capacity, but mainly in ways that merely create a new class of consumers for foreign interests posing as philanthropists.

Africa, beware of the intentions of those bearing 'free' gifts. You will have to do the hard work of 'developing' yourself; there are no short cuts.

African Agriculture

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