Development in and of Africa: promoting food security or engaging in land grabbing?

By Mona Niemeyer

In an interview, published in Politiken on 9 July 2013, the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation claims that Africa has to play a crucial role in preventing a global food crisis. In order to contribute to the world’s food security, though, a large amount of foreign investment is needed which Denmark is prepared to distribute under the condition that African traditions will be replaced by the principles of individual property rights and the logic of a market-economy.

Several African Civil Society Organizations have signed an open letter to the Danish representatives residing in their respective countries to show their dissent declaring that Africa will not be recolonized. While the African protest deserves every support, unfortunately it missed the opportunity to respond to Mr. Bach’s claims from an African human rights perspective.

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Bach’s statements point to the controversial issue of  land grabbing in Africa and the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly the right to food and a sustainable livelihood. In the interview he invokes three main arguments often employed by corporations and states that have been involved in well documented cases of land grabbing; namely that industrial scale farming enhances productivity, creates jobs and increases food security. He argues that customary collective land rights must be abolished in favor of individual and private land ownership in order to develop a more productive agriculture with the help of foreign investment.

As criticized in the open letter from African civil society organizations, the basic underlying assumption is that more productivity will lead to economic growth, which will inevitably lead to development. From this point of view productivity equals development and because indigenous ways of life are perceived to be unproductive they are identified as inferior. In this regard, it is difficult not to speak of recolonization – not to mention the idea that African land and agriculture should be owned by Northern countries. On the other hand, promoting a market-economy as a universally accepted answer to poverty and underdevelopment ignores recent popular protests all over the world that have highlighted the dysfunctions of this system.

The open letter asks Danish representatives:

Do you consider it acceptable that countries like yours should impose their failed development models on Africa as if they were models of success and the only guaranteed path towards development?

While Bach suggests that his development politics are based on human rights, conceived here as individual property rights and basic civil and political rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) cannot simply be ignored in the African human rights context.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights is the first regional human rights instrument to recognize collective rights (Article 18 – 24). Furthermore, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights confirmed with its ruling on the Endorois Case that collective land rights are both justiciable and implementable. Among the Articles invoked were the collective right to development (art. 22) and, interestingly, the right to culture (art. 17).

In general, Bach’s argumentation illustrates a wider phenomenon by which a narrow approach to the content of human rights, here the priority of property rights, is applied to legitimize particular political ideologies, here neoliberalism. The picture Bach paints of human rights mirrors, at the very least, a perceived inferiority of economic, social and cultural rights, a severe misunderstanding of the indivisibility of rights.

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