The venue is a clue. Rather than being hosted at the Department for International Development, the Cabinet Office, or Number 10, today’s hunger summit is being held at the London offices of Unilever. The event, a follow-up to the gathering hosted by the PM during the Olympics, is supposed to be David Cameron’s opportunity to portray himself as a hero for the global poor, even as his government increases inequality and poverty in the UK.
Don’t mistake Unilever’s hospitality as corporate generosity at a time of austerity. A key topic on the hunger summit’s agenda is the progress of the G8’s ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’, a public-private partnership promising to “accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022”. This ‘New Alliance’ was launched during the US G8 presidency last year. There’s plenty in it to benefit Unilever and the other multinationals – including Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta – who have signed up, but it’s much less obvious how it will translate into poverty reduction.
The New Alliance provides opportunities for these companies to ‘invest’ in African economies, with support from the public purse of the G8 countries including £395 million from the UK aid budget, while being crowned with the golden halo of social responsibility.
Into the bargain, these companies also get something potentially even more valuable. So far the New Alliance involves Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania, with Benin, Malawi, Nigeria and Senegal set to join imminently. As part of the ‘cooperation agreements’ being set up between G8 governments, multinationals and African governments, the recipient countries of this ‘investment’ are being required to make policy commitments with far-reaching consequences for their farmers. From phasing out controls on exports to ending the free distribution of seeds, the whole initiative is set up to transfer power from domestic producers to big business.
The New Alliance will also push African countries to make it easier for private investors to take over agricultural land. Such land-grabbing has already affected an area larger than Western Europe since the start of the twenty-first century, and its dispossession and impoverishment of small-scale farmers in Africa is well-documented. David Cameron will propose a ‘land transparency initiative’ to G8 leaders in response to calls for action to halt land-grabbing, but the proposals undermine existing initiatives and are woefully inadequate – and will be even more so in the face of the increased land acquisition push hiding under the cloak of the New Alliance.
So it’s hardly surprising that almost 200 African farmers’ and campaigners’ groups have rejected the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, calling it a “new wave of colonialism” in a statement sent to G8 leaders earlier this week. Their analysis is clear: “Private ownership of knowledge and material resources (for example, seed and genetic materials) means the flow of royalties out of Africa into the hands of multinational corporations.”
This is also the reason that protests are planned to coincide with the Cameron’s hunger summit, with action in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Stroud. Community food activists, growers and campaigners will be creating pop-up community gardens in their cities to oppose this corporate-led approach and highlight the fact that small-scale producers feed half the world’s population, accounting for 80 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s food production.
The real causes of hunger are inequality of wealth and power, not a lack of big business. Small-scale food producers in poor countries need more power and control over the food system – not less. So the G8 leaders should abandon their efforts to promote the corporate takeover of African agriculture, and instead support the demands of the African farmers’ groups. Small farmers need policies which empower them, support for the existing UN food security process which is more democratic and genuinely consultative, and research into agroecological methods. The G8’s approach will only exacerbate hunger and inequality.
Christine Haigh is a food policy campaigner at the World Development Movement.