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A dangerous international game is being played in the name of assisting Africa to feed itself. What is portrayed as charitable largesse has more in common with re-invigorating neo-colonialism than feeding Africans.
This is, in fact, a misanthropic, multi-pronged raid by the G8 to control African commodities, land and seeds.
Africa presently occupies an interesting niche amongst the emerging, tripartite global realpolitik.
First are long-standing, yet waning, relationships between Africa and its European colonial powers – Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy and, most especially, France and Britain.
Second is the expanding post-World War II relationship between Africa and the global superpower, the US.
Thirdly, there is the increasingly important influence of the rapidly emerging Brics alliance, with SA posing as regional superpower, along with Brazil, India and China.
These three blocs often have conflicting, and conflicted, roles in the development and exploitation of Africa.
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the field of agriculture. African agriculture remains in the doldrums, beset by twin curses.
On the one hand lies its huge vulnerability to climatic variability, which will be exacerbated by climate change.
On the other are the market-disrupting impacts of food subsidies in the developed world. These combine to render the precarious business of farming in Africa even more treacherous than it needs to be.
The past decade has seen the rise of a third threat – land-grabs across the continent. Some emanate from corporate speculators and investors, others from nation states, particularly from the oil-rich but infertile Middle East, but also from the Far East, Europe and the US.
This trend has already created significant local hardships, documented by watchdog groups like Grain and Action Aid.
Africa has ceded an estimated 40-50 million hectares to foreign interests over the past decade or so.
Now a fourth, possibly more ominous, threat has arisen.
Some background: in July 2009 at the G8 meeting at L’Aquila, just north of Rome, US$22 billion (R185.40bn) was pledged to support and improve African agriculture over the following three years. Of course, this is a pittance compared with the estimated $250-350bn annually paid in market-distorting agricultural subsidies within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
However, $22bn could at least have gone some way towards addressing some of the profound systemic problems facing African agriculture.
The galling reality is that only around half the pledged amount was disbursed within the three-year time frame. Worse yet, only 12 percent of that amount was new money that would not have been donated anyway.
Accordingly, a Faustian bargain was made at the June 2012 G8 meeting by President Obama.
Instead of delivering on commitments, he changed tack and roped in a $3bn “pledge of corporate assistance” for African agriculture.
Introducing “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition”, Obama made a hugely condescending, yet sinister, promise that corporations would somehow magically assist Africa to overcome its systemic production challenges, when the G8, the green revolution and pretty much everything else has to date failed to do this.
To pile cynicism on to condescension, Obama then warned that African nations would have to make “tough reforms” and “refine policies in order to improve investment opportunities” so as to attract this investment.
From an African perspective, this appears indistinguishable from previous externally imposed structural adjustment policies. This looks just like neo-colonial “change, or else” paternalism writ large.
Well, who did Obama bring to the party to save Africa? For starters, we have Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and BASF, the world’s largest seed and agricultural chemical companies, all deeply involved in genetically modified crops, industrial agriculture and patenting of crops and foods, with nary a verifiably charitable bone in their collective corpus.
Surely it is cynical to reject such expertise, such seed wizardry, I hear the innocents cry?
Perhaps, but we must be absolutely clear about one central issue. Private corporations have one primary goal: profit. Everything else is secondary. Corporate largesse is predicated solely on self-interest.
This hints at why Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont subsidiary and the world’s second-biggest seed company after Monsanto, was recently given the green light to purchase Africa’s largest remaining independent seed company, Pannar.
This SA-based seed multinational, with a presence in at least 14 African nations, as well as South America and the US, was a rich jewel indeed.
This merger was initially rejected by the SA Competition authorities. Subsequently it was authorised by the Competition Appeal Court, after the deal was cynically sweetened to “benefit” SA.
The result is that SA’s seed industry is now effectively controlled by a duopoly of two US multinationals – Monsanto and Pioneer. Pioneer openly states its wish to expand into Africa; Pannar provides the ideal framework. Who controls the seed controls the food.
The SA Department of Agriculture bizarrely considers this merger as beneficial. Yet this is understandable when contemplating the department’s remarkable ineptitude in addressing national food security.
Instead of concentrating on change, they have unconditionally supported the corporate-controlled, industrialised agricultural value chain, while lamenting that SA agriculture remains untransformed.
Such naive posturing is not the case elsewhere in Africa.
Apparently anticipating Obama’s announcement of his “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition”, a letter from a representative African farmers’ union, endorsed by African entrepreneurs and development experts, presciently enquired: “I ask you to explain how you could possibly justify thinking that the food security and sovereignty of Africa could be secured through international co-operation outside of the policy frameworks formulated in an inclusive fashion with the peasants and the producers of the continent.”
In other words, how about not imposing unilateral, imperial decrees on Africa, yet again, President Obama?
The letter continued: “This is why we must build our food policy on our own resources, as is done in the other regions of the world. The G8 and the G20 can in no way be considered the appropriate fora for decisions of this nature.”
The reality is that, yet again, Africa is being coerced into opening up its doors to exploitation masquerading as assistance. If any good is to come of this latest neo-colonial onslaught, Africa must demonstrate authoritative leadership to direct how this assistance is provided.
Yet, given the inherently corrupt relationship between corporations and political power, this is a slim hope. Yet again, Africa stands at risk of being corrupted by a system corrupt to its very core.
l Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. This article originally appeared on The SA Civil Society Information Service website.