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The new scramble for Africa

A host of new initiatives promise food security through ‘investment’. Christine Haigh examines the reality

February 24, 2014
4 min read

Launched in 2012, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition ‘ushered in a new phase of international agricultural investment’, according to Feed the Future, the US government’s global hunger and food security initiative. But what exactly is this promised ‘investment’?

Investment is a much-used yet rarely-defined term. As an economic concept, it is about the creation or improvement of productive capacity – something that allows you to generate more of something, or to do so more efficiently. On a small scale this might be a farmer purchasing a greenhouse in order to grow crops for more of the year.

The problem is that the economic concept of investment is often confused with financial investment, which refers to the allocation of money or other capital with the intention of receiving a return. While this might involve a loan (later repaid with interest) to a farmer to purchase a greenhouse, it could also entail a range of speculative activities – for example, buying up property or commodities with a view to selling them for a higher price at a later date. In this case, there is no increase in useful output, just a shift in the control of resources or profiteering from their necessarily limited supply.

So which form does the much-trumpeted ‘new’ agricultural investment take? The New Alliance, a G8 initiative which received further support at the UK-hosted summit last summer, is just one of a swathe of initiatives promising investment in agriculture in the global South, with the majority focused on a small number of African countries. It was galvanised by the speculatively-fuelled spike in food prices in 2008, which pushed millions of already struggling people into greater hunger and poverty, and propelled food security up the political agenda.

Soon afterwards, the World Economic Forum conceived its New Vision for Agriculture initiative amidst much rhetoric about feeding the world. In future, it claims, this ‘will require producing more food with fewer resources while reinvigorating rural economies. It can be achieved through collaboration, investment and innovation among all stakeholders.’ The initiative consists of a series of public-private partnerships involving a cast of multinationals including Monsanto, Unilever and fertiliser giant Yara International.

The New Alliance involves a marginally different configuration of global elites and largely the same corporations. So it’s not surprising to discover that both schemes, as well as related projects such as the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, are very much about providing business opportunities for global agribusiness and very little about genuine investment in a more just and sustainable food system.

The New Alliance goes one step further, effectively making access to aid money dependent on implementing pro-corporate policy reforms such as modifying seed laws in the interests of multinational seed companies and making it easier for land to be transferred into foreign ownership. This, along with the absence of any measures of social indicators such as reduced levels of hunger and malnutrition or increased incomes, makes it clear that, despite the language of food security, the project is one of expanding multinationals’ access to markets and resources in emerging African economies.

Already since the 2008 food crisis, Africa has been at the sharp end of a global wave of landgrabbing that has robbed people of their livelihoods yet been presented as ‘investment’. Estimates suggest that as much as 63 million hectares of land has changed hands in Africa alone – more than twice the total land area of Ghana. Yet as the UN has recognised, small-scale farmers themselves are the greatest investors in agriculture, so depriving them of the very resources on which they base production is not just unjust but nonsensical.

The guise of food security that is being used as cover for this new scramble for Africa is flimsy. Of the 12 countries involved in the New Alliance or New Vision (five of the most attractive for business are involved in both), only one (Ethiopia) ranks amongst the ten African countries with the most serious levels of hunger. The majority are coastal countries with ports allowing for the easy export of agricultural products, while reforms to tax systems required under the New Alliance facilitate the equally easy export of profits.

Meanwhile, the small-scale food producers who feed the majority of the population can expect displacement, a squeeze on incomes and little choice but to become dependent on an increasingly small number of global agribusiness giants for seeds, inputs and even jobs in the push for a global industrial food system. For real investment in a food system fit for the future, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The World Development Movement will launch its campaign on agribusiness in March

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