It goes without question that nobody dictates with whom African governments can do business. There is no doubt that direct investment is lacking in many areas, so land purchases and long-term lease contracts are effectively flooding the continent with money. Saudi Arabia wants to transfer $400 million to Ethiopia - that's a lot of money.
But the question remains: what are African countries giving up in exchange? And who is profiting from these blessings in dollars? On paper it all seems splendid: government agencies in Mali, Ghana and Mozambique advise investors and promote domestic investments. Laws in Mozambique even provide for the interests of established local farmers.
But the reality has little or nothing to do with the actual circumstances in the country. Mozambique could survive off of agriculture and even export grain and rice to its neighbors in southern Africa. It could do so, but it lacks a political structure in its rural areas.
Where no political structure represents the poor majority population of rural areas, outside investors are confronted with an easy game. With whom should they negotiate on environmental standards, when such standards do not even exist on a national level? Why should they include local farmers in industrial agriculture when those farmers' interests are generally already simply brushed aside on a national level?
All of the preconditions necessary to create a positive environment for all parties through investment in land and agriculture are missing. Missing are legal structures and environmental standards, ideas about sustainable agricultural development and - last but not least - the political willpower to see procured money find its way into rural development in a transparent fashion. As often happens, this money will remain in capitol cities instead of benefiting people in rural areas.
The green revolution with its genetically engineered high-performance crops and hosts of development aid workers has tried without any success to bring Africa's agriculture to new standards. Now investors from Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the Gulf states are supposedly going to provide this? It's true they might employ unskilled African workers at the usual low wages, but will the know-how necessary for the workers to develop from their dependence to a state of independence be transferred? I do not believe so. Nor would this be in the interest of investors.
Within a few years no African state would be so foolish as to relinquish its valuable agricultural resources to a third party for a one-time sum. Instead they would utilize those resources themselves. That would really advance agriculture in Africa!
Ute Schaeffer is head of Deutsche Welle's Africa and Middle East programs. She is an expert on Francophone countries in Africa, international politics and development, democratization, freedom of the press and failed states.
Author: Ute Schaeffer (gs)
Editor: Sean Sinico