Politics of Poverty

What’s the return on investment on the New Alliance?

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Oxfam finds it’s an initiative in need of repair.

An initiative to increase private sector investment in agriculture, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was born at last year’s G8, hosted by the US. The New Alliance signals an emerging trend by donors to promote public-private partnerships to address key global challenges such as hunger.

Tomorrow the New Alliance will celebrate a one-year anniversary of sorts with a half day event in London that promises to take stock of progress and chart a path forward – including launching new country partnerships.

It seems an opportune moment to ask: How is the New Alliance performing?

The New Alliance is very much a work in progress that is still in the early stages of getting organized with few concrete outcomes to date. To get a better sense of what has been happening in the six countries that have joined the New Alliance, I have been reviewing the evidence, talking to colleagues and partners in these countries, and doing a bit of fact-finding myself.

When the New Alliance launched, Oxfam and other civil society organizations, cried foul, pointing to major gaps remaining in public finance for agriculture.* From Oxfam’s perspective, the New Alliance provided the wrong solution to addressing the needs of small food producers. With companies only offering up existing business plans, it was “neither new nor a true alliance.”

Violeta Sithole, works with her family to prepare a field to plant beans near her home in Nzeve, Mozambique. Photo: Chris Hufstader/ Oxfam America
Violeta Sithole, works with her family to prepare a field to plant beans near her home in Nzeve, Mozambique. Oxfam reports that civil society participation has been lacking in New Alliance planning in Mozambique, which means that risks to smallholder farmers like Sithole are not being adequately addressed. Photo: Chris Hufstader / Oxfam America

So what did stakeholders stand to gain from joining the New Alliance?

The answer seems to be in what countries have agreed to – major policy reforms in critical areas that impact private investment in agriculture. Many of the reforms on the table have the potential to tip the balance of national policies in favor of big business over small-scale family farmers. While some reforms such as incorporating nutrition more centrally into the agriculture investment agenda are positive, changes in land policy and seed sector liberalization are more controversial and threaten to put farmers’ rights and access to land, seed and water at risk.

I have found a lack of systematic, country-level, civil society participation in the negotiation of Cooperation Framework Agreements. This means that questions of risk to farmers are not being adequately addressed. In Mozambique for example, farmers’ organizations that are intensely involved in these issues and are part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign, only learned about major changes to seed, land and fertilizer regulations at the launch event for the New Alliance in Maputo. This signaled to us that these policy reforms were made in a parallel forum and had not yet been in the spotlight of public scrutiny, using existing, transparent platforms such as NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and following the good practice guidelines (including land tenure reform) developed by the FAO’s Committee on Food Security.

Even if these transparency shortcomings are addressed, will the New Alliance deliver real results for small producers?

Cries of neo-colonialism are being heard from civil society. (See here and here.) There are good reasons to be wary of how companies engage with small producers, and plenty of examples of how this can go wrong. Though most investments are still only on paper, I don’t think the proper groundwork has been laid to ensure this won’t be the case.

With these concerns in mind and so many unanswered questions being raised, not just by Oxfam but by civil society organizations across the Africa, US, and Europe, we are calling on the New Alliance to halt further expansion. It’s time to review existing country commitments and undertake reforms to address major shortcomings. (Read more about Oxfam’s appeals to the New Alliance here.)

Without these reforms, the New Alliance might lead to increased investment in agriculture.

But it will fail to meet its goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty.

* For the sake of full disclosure, Oxfam America’s Executive Director, Ray Offenheiser, is currently participating in the Leadership Council (LC) of the New Alliance, a body which is supposed to serve as a kind of global accountability mechanism. The LC continues to struggle to meet this responsibility.

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