New Internationalist

British aid is helping agribusiness carve up Africa

grain.jpg [Related Image]
Shifting to production for export means relying on imported food, leaving people vulnerable to sudden price spikes. Food 'aid' is often the result. Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) under a Creative Commons Licence

Anxious to avoid the wrath of the anti-aid lobby, the British government has kept pretty quiet about finally meeting the target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid. Just as quietly, it is channelling millions of dollars of that aid money into a scheme to help the world’s most powerful agribusinesses carve up Africa.

A billion dollars in British aid money is going to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a G8 scheme that directs government aid, and corporate ‘investment’ from companies like Unilever and Monsanto, to the 10 African countries that have so far signed up. In return, the African governments have to make life easier – and more profitable – for the companies involved.

Take a look at the kinds of changes that the African governments are being told to make, and it becomes clear that the New Alliance scheme has little to do with food security or nutrition, and everything to do with increasing the hold of global agribusiness companies over African land, agriculture and food.

Under the scheme, for example, Tanzania has committed not to restrict exports of food, even when the food being exported is needed by its own population. It seems the food security of Tanzanians is secondary to the security of export businesses.

Agriculture for export, rather than to feed local people, is central to the scheme, as is the concept of ‘agricultural growth corridors’, initiated by the global agrochemical company Yara. Several of these corridors are already under development, with the intention of connecting agricultural land to coastal ports so that companies can easily transport produce to foreign marketplaces.

A spokesperson for the Beira corridor in Mozambique told the Guardian newspaper, ‘We will emphasize cash crops… we want a smallholder agriculture sector that is interested in making money. We are not interested in the social angle.’

Feeding people, presumably, is a ‘social angle’. Shifting to production for export means relying on imported food, leaving people vulnerable to sudden price spikes. During the 2008 food crisis, when global grain prices soared, millions of people were suddenly unable to buy enough food.

Agricultural growth corridors also illustrate another objective of the New Alliance: to help transnational companies get access to land. The corridors are supposed to make ‘under-utilized’ land more productive, but in practice, land designated as under-utilized is often very much in use, by people who stand to lose both land and livelihoods when the companies move in.

The G8 scheme requires the African countries that have joined to change their laws on land. Ethiopia, for example, will allow investors fast-track access to land. Ethiopia is a target for the land-grabbing that has already resulted in as much as 63 million hectares of land being sold or leased in Africa since 2008.

As well as increasing their control of what comes out of African agriculture in exports, agribusiness companies want more power over what goes in. Seed companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont want to sell more seeds to African farmers, most of whom currently save and use their own seeds for free. Pesticide and fertilizer companies also see an untapped market for their products, despite the dangers agrochemicals pose for small-scale farmers in terms of their health, local environment and risk of indebtedness. The African countries in the New Alliance are changing their laws to help companies sell their products to farmers – Mozambique, for instance, has promised to stop distributing local seed varieties.

The reforms the participating countries are being required to make read like a wish-list by transnational agribusiness, and in reality this is exactly what they are. The initiative’s backers claim it will tackle hunger, but there is nothing to show how this will happen. The assumption appears to be that growth in GDP though the activities of the corporations will do the job, but raising GDP on its own has little impact on poverty.

Instead, by taking power away from the small-scale food producers who feed most of Africa’s people, and concentrating it the hands of big business, this new scramble for Africa is likely to make poverty and inequality worse.

The World Development Movement’s new campaign calls on the British government to pull out of the New Alliance scheme, and instead use aid money to strengthen the hand of small-scale producers, helping them keep control of their land and resources, and to prioritize food for people rather than for profit.

Miriam Ross is a campaigner at the World Development Movement. www.wdm.org.uk

Read our issue on Land grabs including Hazel Healy's article: 'The smallholders' last stand'.

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