Geology for Global Development

Guest Blog: What IF We Aren’t Helping?

Tim (Oxford)Tim Middleton, GfGD’s Advocacy Development Officer, takes a critical look at this year’s IF campaign. This opinions expressed here are those of Tim, and not necessarily those of all involved with Geology for Global Development. As an organisation, however, we do believe that it is important to encourage debate on how best to undertake effective development.

You’d be forgiven for having missed the IF campaign. The last time the UK hosted the G8 meeting, a gathering of eight of the most powerful leaders on the planet, we had Make Poverty History. You might not have been wearing a white wristband yourself, but it was hard to avoid Bono and Geldof’s pleading faces. This year, the G8 met on the remote Northern Irish shores of Lough Erne. IF was its accompanying campaign, a call to end global hunger and malnutrition that was backed by over 200 charitable and religious organisations.

A recent email from UNICEF claimed that, “The IF campaign could be the turning point for the millions of children who suffer from hunger and malnutrition”.  In a similar vein, an Oxfam newsletter reported that, “loads of celebs and supporters [were] all demanding the G8 to take decisive action on hunger.” But now—two months on from the G8 meeting—what, in practical terms, has been achieved?

The reality of the G8’s work to tackle global hunger is something called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an initiative launched at last year’s meeting in the US. The New Alliance aims to, “accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022.” As such, the New Alliance has signed so-called cooperation frameworks with six African governments: Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania. Others—Benin, Malawi, Nigeria and Senegal—are in the pipeline.

So far, so positive. But the New Alliance has come in for some heavy criticism, particularly from George Monbiot and others at the Guardian. Notable corporate partners in the New Alliance include Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont, Syngenta, Nestlé and Unilever. These multinational companies are offering African governments significant agricultural investments in return for what they describe as ‘policy reform’.

It’s important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction against big business; private investment has its place. But at the same time, one has to wonder why the UK’s pre-G8 summit on Nutrition for Growth was hosted at the Unilever headquarters; the Department for International Development (DFID) might have been a more obvious location. The language, too, is telling: the New Alliance is lifting people out of poverty—there’s no hint that African farmers might be able to do some of it for themselves. As one blog damningly put it (, “the role of Africans is to look grateful”.

There’s also another danger here. Maybe we’re just getting caught up in leftwing cynicism and conspiracy-mongering? Perhaps we are, but the New Alliance’s activities to date would seem to suggest otherwise. In the Ivory Coast, the cooperation framework stipulated that the government must, “facilitate access to land for smallholder farmers and private enterprises,” a process that has seen more than 600,000 hectares being given to private companies and tens of thousands of peasant rice farmers being displaced. In a twist of irony it was precisely this sort of land-grabbing that the G8 claimed to be clamping down on. As Monbiot suggests, “Helping Africans looks suspiciously like grabbing their resources.” Meanwhile, in Mozambique the government committed to, “systematically ceasing to distribute free and unimproved [non-commercial] seeds to farmers except in emergencies”. Multinational businesses say that they are improving agricultural productivity by disseminating new technologies and information to small-scale farmers, but in actual fact it would seem that they are locking poor land-owners into buying increasingly expensive seeds and fertilisers from corporate monopolies. Not only are multinational corporations extending their control over the way food is produced and processed, but they are doing so with scant concern for any environmental damage they cause in the countries in which they are operating.

According to other critics, there’s a further problem: events like the Nutrition for Growth summit are, they suggest, institutionalising the ‘hunger problem’. By promoting hunger and malnutrition as technical difficulties, the way is paved for technical solutions. If only the Africans had more money, more enhanced seeds, more research and development, then everything would be running swimmingly. Wouldn’t it?

So what are we to do? How can we know who to support any more? Should we just give up on the IF campaign altogether?

Well, not just yet: a coalition of nearly 200 African farmers’ and campaigners’ groups has some alternative solutions. Firstly, they propose, the New Alliance should put individual households and smallholders at the forefront of their plans. The priority must be to get food on the table for individual families; trading surpluses for profit can come later. And secondly, all technologies should be shared on an open access principle: “private ownership of knowledge and material resources means the flow of royalties out of Africa into the hands of multinational corporations,”—not a desirable outcome of a process that claims to be helping. They sound like small steps, but they offer a potentially drastic improvement in the extent to which we’re actually helping.

So next time the G8 comes to the UK, how will we know whether or not the campaign will be worth supporting? Unfortunately, there isn’t really any shortcut: do some background reading and listen out for dissenting voices.

Rosalie was the Himalayas Programme Officer for Geology for Global Development and writer for the GfGD blog. She is a geochemist and a postdoc at the University of Oxford.