Researcher, China and Brazil in African Agriculture, Institute of Development Studies
Lidia Cabral elaborates on idiosyncracies and the not-so-new-ways of Brazil’s cooperation with Africa in the agriculture sector. Based on her research she draws careful assumptions on what the likely impact of this kind of development assistance on regional food security could be -- while comparing the different models of the BRICS countries' interaction with those of traditional donors’ approaches to development assistance. She sees a central role for science and research in Brazil-Africa cooperation.
The way BRICS support African agriculture
Researcher, China and Brazil in African Agriculture, Institute of Development Studies, elaborates on idiosyncracies and the not-so-new-ways of Brazil's cooperation with Africa in the agriculture sector. Based on her research she draws careful assumptions on what the likely impact of this kind of development assistance on regional food security could be -- while comparing the different models of the BRICS countries' interaction with those of traditional donors' approaches to development assistance. She sees a central role for science and research in Brazil-Africa cooperation.
Online, 11 Oct 2013. A shift from north-south assistance to south-south cooperation induces a lot of enthusiasm in the world of international development. At the same time, Brazilian investments in Africa seem to provoke disagreement and controversy, reminding, to some extent, colonial practices. Answering the question how BRICS, emerged as a major player, may change African agricultural development requires looking in more details at their actual deliverables in the field. Researcher, China and Brazil in African Agriculture, Institute of Development Studies, Lidia Cabral talks about benefits of Brazilian agrarian experience and its model of cooperation for African agriculture and designates negative sides of BRICS increasing influence.
// BRICS__ Changing the rules of the game?
Secretariat: Lidia, your research team has been looking at the new kids on the block of international aid: Brazil and China. Public opinion has it that they are critically changing African agricultural development, as they provide a combination of private investment, lending, trade and cooperation arrangements with a lot of impact. Some view this as a challenge to the old rules of the game of the global aid architecture. Did your research substantiate this view?
Lidia: There is a lot of talk about Brazil, which is the country I know best, another emerging development actor increasingly changing the rules of the game in international development. In a way we are seeing some of that already happening. The Busan global partnership for effective development cooperation is an expression of the growing influence of these actors in development discourse. For example, the notion of development finance which has recently become so popular is a reflection of the reality of cooperation programmes practiced by these emerging actors, including the very explicit links between cooperation and business agendas.
Secretariat: Do you think that some of the perceptions on the way that they do business in China and in Brazil, is that just a classical cliché or cultural ignorance what might superimpose or what might very well be a normal shift in the geopolitical power set-up as history unfolds?
Lidia: Let us focus on Brazil and on how Brazil practices agriculture. There is a lot of talk about Brazilian agricultural model being one closely associated with large-scale, very sophisticated agro-business development. That is no doubt one of the models that Brazilian agriculture has developed over the years, but that is not the entire story. Brazil is the home of a variety of agricultural development experiences which are very different from one another. What is interesting about Brazilian cooperation in African agriculture, is that Brazil is offering a range of different experiences, not necessarily fully coherent to one another, from which African countries, if they are able to manage the collaboration with Brazil well, will be able to pick the experiences and policies that suit best their agricultural sectors.
// Learning from Brazil’s experiences
Secretariat: Within your research on the BRICS’ involvement with agricultural development, you had a particular look at Brazil, as you just mentioned, which has become a leading trader for a range of agricultural commodities. It is often portrayed as a model. Would you agree to that on the basis of your findings? Is it a model?
Lidia: I would not talk of one Brazilian model. I think there are a variety of experiences. You have Brazil associated mainly, internationally, with its, claimed to be successful, agribusiness sector. But there is also a very long tradition of family farming, of working with indigenous communities to support the preservation of indigenous seeds and practices. There are a variety of experiences, a variety of so called models that Brazil could potentially offer the World.
Secretariat: So in a way the question is always: with “model” comes the next point, it is a “role model”. So it is not a role model, would you say that? Because Brazil positions itself sometimes as the sort of ‘alternative from the south’ especially with the Rome-based agencies. When I gather that rightly from what you just said, you would say that is not really true. Because you said “it’s a model but it is not a role model”? Is that true?
Lidia: It is very common to hear the claim that Brazil’s experiences are particularly well suited to the African agricultures because of agro-ecological affinities and because Brazil is still, in a way, a developing country. I would be very cautious with considering Brazil as a role model. There are many things about how Brazil has been developing its agricultural sector that could be of interest to Africa. But the idea that Brazilian agriculture is a success story is a bit of a myth. The research we have been doing within the Future Agricultural Consortium on Brazil in Africa is emphasising that aspect. The history of Brazilian agriculture is also one of controversies – the expansion of the Brazilian agriculture frontier, no matter the achievements in terms of productivity and in terms of market shares, has been achieved at the cost of sustainable national resource management, at the costs of equitable land distribution. Brazilians smallholder farmers and Brazilian social movements have been very actively contesting some of these experiences. So it is not all rosy. African countries need to be well aware of the full story of Brazil’s agricultural development.
Secretariat: So in a way you say there is a contraindication in a way that makes it a non-model even. Do I read you right?
Lidia: There are interesting things about Brazil’s agricultural development, including, for example, the way that the state has related to non-state actors, how farmers groups and social movements have been able to engage and put forward certain policies and have helped shaping policies in the sector. So there is a lot to learn from these experiences, but there is also a history of contestation, of controversies, of social and environmental costs associated with some of the policy options that the Brazilian government has chosen.
// BRICS influence on food security in Africa
Secretariat: I want to come a little bit to the food security and the contribution that the BRICS countries have in that regard. At the last BRICS Summit, the leaders of the BRICS countries reaffirmed their support for food and nutrition security in Africa. What do you make of that? Is it just a political statement that does not really have any correlation in your research findings?
Lidia: There has been a lot of attention on the BRICS and the BRICS Summit so it has become a very high profile event. Being in the spotlight in such a high profile event is a good thing. I think even a broadly stated political commitment is a good step. But of course it is not the end of the story. What matters is what comes next in terms of how this well-intended commitment is turned into concrete action. So far there is no evidence of any sort of concerted effort amongst the BRICS in terms of how to support agricultural development in Africa in particular. Of course there is also lots of talk about the BRICS development bank. Once established it could be a potentially important source of development finance for the agricultural sector if this commitment is maintained.
// BRICS way of cooperation__ How is it different?
Secretariat: In terms of the bank and the summit in your research what are the one, two main points that you would think: where China and Brazil are doing the things differently from the classical donors?
Lidia: One aspect is the link between the cooperation agenda and the business agenda. We have been talking to government officials in African countries and they have been saying that this is a good development, that at last there is a very hands on attitude towards development, and China and Brazil are important sources of private investment with this being connected also with cooperation initiatives. So there is quite a lot of optimism on a different way of doing the cooperation business in the agricultural sector, but we have to be very careful buying into this sort of optimism. We need to wait and see what sort of impact development cooperation program with their links with investment initiatives, what are they achieving in terms of social justice, in terms also of environmental sustainability. And of course how are they contributing to food security and nutrition security in Africa.
Secretariat: So would you say their involvement is indeed more ‘hands-on’, is it the opposite of sort of budget contributions? And is not that maybe where the criticism was lying in the first hand against traditional donors, that they were too ‘hands-on’, too intrusive?
Lidia: Well, ‘hands-on’ in a different way. I think what is quite interesting about – and again I am talking about Brazil mainly – their approach towards development cooperation is that Brazilian civil servants, Brazilian scientists and practitioners are working in the field side by side with their African counterparts. So they are bringing their own personal experiences, those civil servants back in Brazil, into Africa. I think that is quite an interesting development and something that is very highly valued by their African counterparts. Of course, the negative side of that is that there is what seems to be a predisposition towards a very technocratic approach to cooperation in which there is an assumption, by Brazilian scientists and civil servants, that you can almost transfer directly those experiences into African countries, provided that you adapt to – in the case of agriculture – local soils, climate and market conditions. But what we are finding is that there is still relatively little understanding of African local cultures, local institutions, the local political economy despite claims of affinities, affinities that are based on common history and in some cases a common language. There is a lot of difference in terms of the way that politics operate in the way institutions operate. So all of this, I think, Brazil has to accumulate experience, learn how to work with the African counterparts better and then build this into the cooperation/exchange program.
// Positive and negative prospects
Secretariat: You mentioned already, due to my question, that the political commitment apparently has not really trickled down into concrete action on the ground in terms of food security. But you also mentioned that there is a lot of experience that can be transferred, even though you need to find a way or to figure out what can be transferred or what is useful to be transferred without having costs. Where would you say is the main prospect in the development? If you can give me a little bit of a judgement?
Lidia: Well, when I said that there is no evidence of what the contribution of the BRICS is going to be towards agricultural security, I meant in terms of a concerted effort, as a group. But then individually I think there is plenty of evidence that these countries are very actively involved in cooperation exchanges that focus on food security. Let me again focus on the Brazilian case. There are a few ongoing technical cooperation programs that focus specifically on food security and nutrition. In fact one of them involves a few members of the Global Donor Platform as well. Brazil is working alongside the World Food Programme, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the UK Department for International Development in five African countries, to promote links between smallholder farmers and school feeding programmes and food stocks for humanitarian assistance. It is called the Food Acquisition Program. It as a recent cooperation program which builds on a similar experience put into practice in Brazil. So there are some initiatives happening, of course we need to wait and see what sort of outcomes arise and how differently they are doing business and to what effect. But the other thing that I would add is that, besides country level programmes towards supporting food security objectives, it is quite important the role that some of these actors can play in global fora. I would like to highlight that the current Director General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, is a prominent Brazilian agronomist, who has played a major role in putting forward some initiatives focussed on food security in his home country in Brazil while he was a part of Lula da Silva’s government. Next year is going to be the ‘family farming year’, the UN declared 2014 as the family farming year, and I think José Graziano will call on Brazil’s experience with this particular farming system, drawing on the fact that family farming claims to be responsible for producing most of the food supplied in the domestic market in Brazil. So there are experiences to drawn on and there are different fora that could be useful in terms of putting forward policies and programmes focussing on food security.
Secretariat: Where do you see the one main positive prospect of the development with the BRICS countries or with China and Brazil involvement in Africa – in a nutshell?
Lidia: I think they add variety, they bring competition into the development cooperation system, so that is the very positive thing. They also bring some concrete experiences of agricultural development. It is important that such experiences are adapted to local context, and it is not only a matter of transferring them and adapting technologies. But I think there is a range of policies and programmes which have been applied in their countries that could work as a source of inspiration to African countries.
Secretariat: How could the Global Donor Platform members or donors in general, support cooperation between Africa and the BRICS adequately? Which practices are probably better to be discontinued?
Lidia: In terms of supporting the BRICS-Africa interaction, the so called south-south in some quarters, I think that a lot of work that needs to be done on what sort of achievements [are noticeable], what difference is being made. The Donor Platform, as a knowledge exchange organisation, would be very well positioned to stimulate that sort of analysis on such interaction. And, as I said, there is a lot of trilateral cooperation arrangements in place – individual members of the platform are in the middle of the engagements between the BRICS and African countries. So just learning more about those experiences – what is motivating such trilateral cooperation arrangements and where beneficiary countries stand, what is their position on these new forms of collaboration – would be quite an important contribution to our understanding about the BRICS in African agriculture.
Secretariat: Okay, thank you very much.
Lidia: Thank you. You are welcome.
// Do you want to respond to this interview?
The interview was conducted by Pascal Corbé of the Platform secretariat.