Paper review: N. McKeon,“The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition: a coup for corporate capital?”

Paper review: McKeon, Nora (2014) ‘The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutriction: A Coup for Corporate Capital’. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute (TNI).

The objective of Nora McKeon’s article is to analyse the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’s (‘G8NA’) relationship with corporate actors and interests. More specifically, the author intends to analyse the rhetoric of the project.

McKeon chose to study the G8NA because it poses serious questions about the extent of corporate power in the so-called public-private partnerships (PPPs) present in the field of international development, particularly in food-related programs. Although being branded as an agricultural development partnership, the G8NA reveals itself to be a free trade agreement and investment agreement in disguise. McKeon’s study focuses on the rhetoric that was used in order to achieve such a result, and how it happened to come into light.

The problem the author is primarily concerned with is related to the fact that corporate actors are more and more involved in decision making processes all over the world, and especially so in development projects. This stems from the aura of effectiveness and managing skills that corporate actors benefit from. The rhetoric of effectiveness does not, however, address the problem of these actor’s interests. The issue in question is of major concern, since corporate actors, by nature, act only in their own interest – which can easily come to be antithetical to projects aimed at reducing hunger through the inclusion of small farmers in developmental schemes.

In her analysis of the G8NA, McKeon begins by reminding the reader where does the G8NA stem from and how it relates to global events and actors. She addresses the glitch that exists between the claimed objectives and effects of the industrialization of the agricultural sector and the 2007/2008 crisis.

The author explains how private actors took over the food aid sector from the early 2000s to 2014. She describes the links between philantrocapitalist foundations and food or development institutions and meetings. She then retraces the historical evolution of projects and conferences that led to the creation of the G8NA, explaining each time what are the actors and how do they relate to the G8NA.

In the third section of her article, McKeon tackles the narrative of the G8NA by explaining the main concepts it is based upon, which are (i) modernization and productivism, (ii) value chains, (iii) agricultural growth corridors, (iv) public-private partnerships and (v) patient capital.

(i) The idea of modernization has lead development programs for decades. It entails goals of productivism, increasing yields and more generally it shows little interest to ‘traditional’ ways of farming. The term “development” itself implies these notions.

Although a big part of the official G8NA’s lip-service is dedicated to small farmers – suggesting that their specific interests are taken into account – the author asserts that the G8NA’s real goal is to transform small farmers into agribusiness consumers, making them “big” farmers. McKeon supports this thesis with information and graphs coming from the corporate actors’ agenda.

(ii) Value chains is another big concept McKeon focuses on. It is linked with heightened used of agricultural inputs. The author compares the food production chain to a pipeline going from the producer to the consumer. A determining factor is the term “value” itself, which entails a valuation of something, by someone – money, by “catalyst firms”. By reducing agricultural production to monetary “value”, it disconnects it from its other stakes – such as family income, self-sustainability, environment, etc.

Moreover, by being constructed around commodified goods, value chains are destined to export, i.e. leaving the so-claimed targeted small farmers. Precisely, if the good leaves the economy where it is produced, there are very few chances that its value (that targeted by the chain) will stay in that community and thus be re-injected in it. McKeon proves this point with a set of clear numbers and references.

(iii) Agricultural growth corridors are ‘a means “to develop underutilized land areas in Africa that have great potential to enhance food production and economic growth”’. Again, McKeon contrasts the claims of the corporate actors with the real effects that such projects could have. The most problematic aspects of these are the determination of unused land areas and, again, the allocation of the revenue and “benefits” created by the corridors. Again, she uses references to existing cases, NGO statements, etc.

(iv) McKeon explains how public-private partnerships allowed corporate actors to freely dictate their wishes to the States. Selling the idea as a ‘collaborative mechanism’ and a win-win affair, they actually constitute the perfect deal for the private actors: they can modify the law, elude risks and dictate their terms to their actual ‘partners’, the small-farmers – who face a ‘Goliath-type’ co-contractor.

(v) Finally, the notion of patient capital undermines the claims of PPPs. Under this notion lies the idea that states have to provide up-front funding to cover costs of infrastructure in order to attract companies on their land. Indeed, corporate actors are more attracted to short-term returns on investment while states are aiming at long-term effects. However, by explicitly acknowledging that corporations do not have the same expectations on their returns on investments than the public actors, they recognize the fact that they are in the game for short term profit and unbalanced deals.

It should be pointed out that the concepts of value chains, agricultural growth corridors, PPPs and patient capitals pre-existed the G8NA. The author proceeds thus with the analysis of the added value of the G8NA as such. According to her, it lies in the ‘unprecedented access to African decision-makers in a structured platform in which donors have put their weight behind obtaining desired policy changes’. The rest of this analytical part is descriptive and deals more with facts than with concepts. I will not delve into it, but they are important as they serve as proof for the previous argument. Generally, private actors are given almost total freedom to implement whatever they might like by being required very little details about their commitments, while they demand detailed commitments to countries.

The author explains that the G8NA created notable opposition and discontent, but the main problem that opponents faced was the fact that the G8NA claimed to be the result of the participation of African actors and that African agency had been respected. McKeon proceeds with a two-page long list of factual evidence that this is not true.

McKeon also provides a table of alternative models of production that she deems worthy of investigation.

The conclusion of this paper does not remind the reader the different points of the article, but rather goes further in the solutions that McKeon stands for. She speaks of international initiatives such as the CFS document or the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition, explaining that they constitute more sustainable alternatives. She also refers to Olivier De Schutter’s work and emphasises the importance of the right to food and a smallholder-led approach. Finally, she quotes an African peasant representative who says that they “don’t want responsible investors” but “…a legislative framework that protects … effectively and investors who are obliged to respect the law”. She concludes by stating that “a combination of normative pressure from above – as in the reformed CFS – and political pressure from below – from organized and articulate citizens – may well be the best way to get there”.

The paper is very useful as it provides very concrete example to understand how corporations utilize conceptual tools and specific rhetorical means to push their interests. Such a concrete exemplification of the way in which agribusinesses dictate their will on public authorities is much needed in order to go beyond critical academic discussions.

In conclusion, Nora McKeon analyses the specific example of the G8’s New alliance in order to unveil some rhetorical mechanisms that are used by corporate actors – and the corporate food regime more generally – in order to push their own interests. As stated above, the G8NA is a good example of how corporate actors disguise an investment agreement into a development project, and it is thus very useful in order to understand how corporate interests are naturalized and sold as inherent to food security.

McKeon hence focuses on the narrative and rhetoric of the NA, rather than analysing the functioning of the project itself. She does so by using the food regime analysis method, which means that she produces a historical analysis of the food project, by putting it in context and trying to understand where the idea of the G8NA came from, and why does it take the specific form that it holds today.

The aim of the paper is to try and disclose tools for readers to understand how to avoid the same mistakes in subsequent development programs, while also pinpointing what is wrong G8NA itself and should be changed.

 

Lidia Mahillon

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