A follow up post to the one below, also from the Food First blog.  A little long, but well worth it.

Africans Face Competing Visions of Agricultural Development at Critical Juncture
Posted May 20th, 2010 by rjonasse
By Richard Jonasse, Food First

Aid Collage

A contest of competing visions over the future of Agriculture is playing out across Sub-Saharan Africa. Farmers’ organizations are lining up against an aid regime that threatens to swamp smallholders with purported “solutions” to which these farmers have not assented and do not desire.

The current economic crisis is bringing this situation to a critical point, as transnational corporations seek to capitalize on the current economic downturn, and the ongoing weakness of States whose economies and democratic institutions have withered since the 1980s; under the ministrations of the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO. These institutions have long colluded around a ‘repeat ad infinitum’ approach to ‘development’ that includes: privatization, deregulation, eradicating social programs, and lowering barriers to trade and foreign capital. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), for example-which uses private capital as a development tool-recently announced that in the current financial crisis “emerging markets provide a more attractive destination for private equity,” particularly Africa, “where IFC’s equity investments have averaged annual returns of around 20 percent.”

The multilateral aid regime has stepped into the socioeconomic weakness created by these International Financial Institutions (IFI’s)–but the tool kit consists of the same failed policies. Economic assistance would be welcome but for the fact that USAID, the World Bank, and the Gates Foundation have essentially contracted the task out to profit-seeking corporations.

While Africa’s farmers’ organizations do not always espouse a unified vision, they do have an urgent collective interest based upon survival in the face of these powerful multilateral institutions, and corporations. African farmers’ organizations such as PELUM and ROPPA are promoting alternatives to global markets and private speculation. If the Aid Regime truly wanted to end hunger and poverty, it would do well to listen to farmers voices and work through grass roots groups. Only African farmers, understand their local contexts and local needs-and only they can guide truly sustainable development.

I. The Aid-Trade Regime

International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and government aid organizations have provided convenient excuses for their lack of success over the past thirty years in Africa-including corruption, dependency, and war. But while these critiques have some legitimacy, corruption has been used as a convenient excuse to sidestep national sovereignty when governments resist the IFIs’ neoliberal ambitions. The more salient point is that they have perpetuated structural conditions that tilt the playing field against poor countries while ironically conflating “markets” with “freedom” and “democracy.” The imposition of “free markets” in Africa–a euphemism for freeing investment capital from all forms of regulations that might protect society from harm–has only succeeded in intensifying the gap between rich and poor.

The IFIs’ fixation on macroeconomic indicators leads to the misguided belief that bumping up countries’ GDPs will help poor Africans by way of some mythological trickle-down effect that has yet to materialize. This metric has led, among other things, to an inexorable push in Africa for large scale industrial agriculture for export markets, while leaving the peasant farmers who produce most of the food consumed by Africans out of the equation. The aid regime has thus done more to open Africa’s agricultural resources for exploitation than to mitigate the roots of poverty and hunger in Africa.

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project grew out of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) charted in 2000. The UN’s World Food Program and Colombia University’s Earth Institute-headed by Jeffry Sachs–are working together to create “undernourishment-free zones” via 80 Millennium Villages in poor countries. The MDGs provide the following targets to be reached by 2015:

  • 1) Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
  • 2) Achieve Universal Primary Education
  • 3) Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  • 4) Reduce Child Mortality
  • 5) Improve Maternal Health
  • 6) Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
  • 7) Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  • 8) Develop a Global Partnership for Development

While it is not surprising that the IFIs mediate the global economy, often brutally, in favor of the OECD countries-the flip side would be to engage in development activities as if these global imbalances did not exist. This seems to be the Earth Institute’s perspective. Their website describes their program as bringing the benefits of scientific expertise of “850 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, staff and students working in and across more than 30 Columbia University research centers” to solve “real world problems.” The Earth Institute believes “finding solutions to one problem, such as extreme poverty, must involve tackling other related challenges, such as environmental degradation and lack of access to health care and education.”

Perhaps the fact that the Institute gathers much of its data from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, from whence they pursue “the study of Earth and its systems” might account for the fact that their actions seem so disconnected from the realities of poverty on Earth. Their plan to end poverty (throw buckets of money at the problem) displays a lack of understanding about what causes poverty in the first place–which in all fairness is hardly unique to the Earth Institute.

It is not difficult to succeed when one has a lot of money and one defines success as eradicating poverty in individual villages. Over five years $2.75 million has been spent in the single millennium village in Sauri, Kenya. The money was used give each participant $110 a year to purchase fertilizer and high-yield seeds (far too expensive for typical African farmers), clean water, basic health care, primary education, mosquito nets, and a communication link to the outside world. The villagers in Sauri are understandably happy with the results, but off the record they have criticized the non-inclusiveness of the top-down approach.[i] UN officials and scientists have also been reluctant to speak against Sachs on the record for fear of retribution.

While environmental degradation, poor health and a lack of education are indeed caused by poverty, simply erasing them without addressing the root causes of poverty is not a long-term solution. In Kenya alone, foreign aid would need to increase ten-fold, to $1 billion, to reproduce Sauri’s conditions across the country.

The Millennium Villages project is a dream that runs on money, and therefore lacks serious long-term prospects. Indeed, creating eighty shining beacons in poor countries seems tailor made to attract donations from well-meaning people-but by ignoring the power imbalances that affect African farmers the Millennium Villages will not achieve or sustain the MGDs over the long term.

The Millennium Villages siphon off money better spent elsewhere, and draw attention away from creative, grassroots approaches to local problems. Long-term solutions require sustainable low-tech methods that farmers can control, such as permaculture, seed banks, and green manure; as well as redistributive land reform and marketing boards to provide some security. Unless the Earth Institute begins working with broader-based farmers’ movements Millennium Villages will not have a lasting impact on poverty after the money dries up-and the tour busses, the experts, and the celebrities have gone home.

PELUM and ROPPA: Development from the Ground Up

With philanthro-capitalists, agri-businesses, aid agencies, and investors swarming Africa with ‘solutions,’ it is difficult for farmer groups to get their voices heard and their priorities taken into account. Farmer’s organizations work to elevate individual farmer’s voices vis a vis powerful institutions. ROPPA (Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs Agricoles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest ), is an umbrella organization for West African farmers that extends through the fifteen West African Countries known as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was founded in 1975 to promote internal integration in all areas of economic activity, including food production.

ROPPA is currently pushing for ECOWAS governments to create an integrated common regional market for agriculture, and they have a clear idea of what they want it to look like. In a 2007 statement at the International Forum on Food Sovereignty they laid out a path to self-determination promoting:

-The use of traditional seeds and animal breeds for food sovereignty.

-Agro-biodiversity, agro-ecological principles, and local markets.

-Stopping biopiracy and the privatization of seeds.

-Banning GMOs in Africa.

-Facilitation of farmers’ exchanges in the region through funding and support for regional networks such as ROPPA, COPAGEN, and CNOP.

-Village level, farmer led research, and participatory plant and livestock breeding.

An internal ECOWAS trade agreement that followed these parameters would help create a vibrant regional market for African farmers, and shield them from global economic forces that impoverish small farmers. But a common market also makes it easier for foreign interests to work their language into charters en masse. In 2005, at a U.S. conference sponsored by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), ECOWAS agreed to promote and adopt biotechnology through partnerships with U.S. and Western research institutions and a new West African Centre on Biotechnology. It is also currently negotiating an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) for a free trade area between Europe and West Africa. The privatization of seeds, centralized research, and intellectual property rights favor corporate interests. Seed companies erode food sovereignty by taking seed production out of the hands of farmers and selling it back to them at a profit.

U.S. foreign aid has also been working at cross-purposes to ROPPA’s vision via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (no direct relation to the Millennium Villages project). Created in 2004, the MCC is a U.S. Government aid organization that has spent $5.5 billion since 2004 awarding contracts to private businesses in target countries. The MCC’s focus on raising the overall GDP is being pursued with the same failed policies as the IFIs: aggressive privatization, foreign direct investment (predatory capital), and global integration.

One of the more contentious aspects for small farmers are land grabs by foreign investors, facilitated via MCC contracts for “Systematic Land Regularization and Improvement of Rural Land Allocation.” A recent report by GRAIN reveals that the MCC has been using “Land Regularization” to change land ownership rules and gain access to tens of thousands of acres of land in three of the ECOWAS countries: Benin, Ghana, and Mali. As has happened in other countries, the MCC will lease the land to foreign investors. This practice, along with the MCC’s financing of export infrastructure, directly affects ROPPA’s small farmers.

While the MCC claims that “partner country governments propose, in consultation with their citizens, their own priority uses for MCC funding”, they have failed to do so in the ECOWAS countries, where farmers’ organizations have been fighting the MCC’s machinations. In Mali, for example, GRAIN reported that a local organization, Sexagon, with over than 12,000 members, was never consulted and has been fighting to keep its herders on their land as 20,000 or so hectares are being taken “for what is essentially an extraterritorial zone” administered by the MCC:

“Sexagon, has many members in the area that [Millennium Challenge Account-Mali] has taken over. One of its leaders, Faliry Boly, says that the local people were not consulted and are in fact opposed to the project. ‘These people are pastoralists who have no desire to start farming”, says Boly. “They won’t pay a cent to the MCA for the land that the MCA is taking from them and they’ll most likely be forced to leave.'”

Farmers’ organizations and multilateral aid institutions seem to be talking past one another-and racing to establish their differing vision on the ground. Institutions like the MCC are able to access levels that are beyond to reach of peasant farmers, such as international laws and high tech mapping technologies. For this reason, farmers’ organizations have found that they need to form their own multilateral alliances. ROPPA has recently been joined by the Asian Farmers Association, COPROFAM (a group of South American farmers’ organizations), ActionAid International, and the International Land Coalition to create a solidarity movement against land grabs. A globally-linked peasant movement that is powerful enough to say no to land grabs and yes to Food Sovereignty is critical at this juncture, as the global economy is once again showing signs of heating up.

The East African consortium, PELUM (Participatory Ecological Land Use Management), represents grassroots aid organizations and farmers’ in ten countries. It promotes permacultural and organic farming practices, and helps farmers get a fair price for their produce in local and regional markets. PELUM’s goal is to inspire, teach, cajole, network, and support farmers-while influencing development actors, especially governments, to pay attention to small holder farmers and promote sustainable farming practices. They do this in part through their magazine and other documentation, part by amplifying the voices of farmers, and in part through direct teaching in permaculture workshops.

PELUM has also helped organize an environmental and political farmers’ advocacy movement: Eastern and Southern Africa Farmers Forum (ESAFF). The 600 member Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), became a local chapter of ESAFF in 2007. PELUM and ZIMSOFT, with the aid of the Belgian NGOs, TUDOR Trust and FOS Belgium, initiated a program called Green-Net, which began training smallholder farmers, providing infrastructural investments, initiating conferences and seed fairs; and building food processing, labeling and packaging centers. They also started a public information campaign about the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that Zimbabwe was negotiating at the time-explaining to Zimbabweans that the trade liberalization enshrined in EPAs is a tool used by foreigners to access African resources, including agriculture, and would not help rural smallholders. While an agreement was eventually signed in 2009, they were able to apply enough pressure to keep the negotiations stalled for years after the initial deadline.

PELUM is also collaborating with ZIMSOFF in taking the first steps towards gender equality-a tough issue in Zimbabwe. In 2007, ZIMSOFF elected Elizabeth Mpofu as the first Regional Chairperson of the forum, a first for a woman. PELUM has recently been targeting government policies that promote conventional agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, biotechnology) in education, rather than organic techniques and traditional medicinal plants and herbs. They see this as a short-sighted solution to hunger that will provide diminishing returns as soils are depleted and the land is poisoned. ZIMSOFF is organizing small farmers, and providing them with a voice at international forums in their campaign for sustainable agriculture, and against destructive EPAs.


When African farmers are asked what they want-the answers they give are miles away from those of the multilateral agencies that claim to be their saviors. Proponents of market-based reforms tout a dubious link between democracy and the market-but none of these institutions are willing to listen to the democratic voices of peasant farmers. This raises questions of who is indeed promoting democracy and self determination and who is forcing autocratic interventions.

Contrary to the pluralist rhetoric claiming that “we need all solutions,” these “competing visions” for rural development cannot coexist. Nor can African countries fairly compete in the global marketplace with the deck so clearly stacked against peasant families and communities. African farmers already had all of the solutions they needed decades ago-before the IFIs began to systematically dismantle the farmer support mechanisms that made them successful, and replaced them with market-based solutions that take away resources and profits, but leave behind only poverty and ecological degradation. A global grass-roots farmers’ collaboration is needed now more than ever, to raise their voices against land grabs and the multilateral organizations that are working undemocratically to take away their power of self-determination.

[i] Rich, S. 2007. Africa’s Village of Dreams. Wilson Quarterly. https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?aid=969