Development’s new kids on the block
Since Mozambique’s independence in 1975, the country has sought to build its economy by focusing on its agriculture sector, which contributes to 80% of its livelihoods sector and 23% of its GDP. Yet, a civil war, weak public institutions and vulnerability to extreme weather, has left vast yield gaps, and untapped potential. Unsurprisingly, it is one of Africa’s most aid-dependent countries.
Off late, Mozambique has become somewhat of a hot destination for Brazilian investment, owing in part to a shared cultural heritage, and a common language. ProSavana, one of Brazil’s most ambitious agricultural development assistance projects, seeks to use its own experiences of the Cerrado state to boost agricultural productivity in Mozambique through investments in research, training and market engagement. Brazil however, is not the only Middle Income country interested in expanding presence in the continent. China and India, who have a lot to offer in terms of lessons learned in their own agriculture and productive revolution experiences, have started to make significant investments in Africa.
China’s presence in the continent has been critiqued repeatedly in the international media. But it’s efforts are undeniable. From public infrastructure investments to agricultural inputs exports, China is a growing player in international assistance.
International assistance through the form of agricultural development assistance is a common theme in several countries’ development assistance agendas, in addition to public infrastructure commitments, education, and health services. DFID lists agriculture as one of its key priorities. USAID’s “Feed The Future” program is a massive undertaking to improve global food security. The Dutch government lists food security as a main pillar of its development agenda. Middle Income Countries (like India, Brazil, and China), who have recently committed themselves to the “official” international development game, are trying ways to reconcile their ambitious international foreign policy agendas, and their increasingly apparent international responsibilities to lower income countries, who are struggling in many ways like they very recently did themselves.
South-south cooperation in agricultural development assistance is by no means a new phenomenon or the “buzzword” of the year. Small, concerted efforts which had been in action for decades, are now seeing the backing of their respective countries to institute official policies. A similar trend to Brazil’s presence in Mozambique, exists between India and East Africa. A shared British colonial experience, and the migration of the Indian diaspora to countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya since generations has created a similar dynamic. Prime Minister Modi’s visit this year to key East African nations was a reflection of a commitment. However, the narrow choices of his development agenda (technical education, defense production and public infrastructure) do not reflect those nations’ immediate needs, or India’s strengths. There is immense potential here by tapping into the cultural capital of the Indian diaspora (many of whom are already engaged in this sector). It doesn’t just make economic sense – it’s an obvious choice.
A recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), makes a particularly compelling (and intuitive) point. The role of Middle Income countries (like Brazil, India, China) is crucial in ending world hunger, and malnutrition, especially through committed knowledge sharing. Countries with similar experiences of struggling with economic development, decolonization, or civil war, have a lot to gain from listening to each other.
But of course, there are challenges to any kind of external assistance in a country, and there is no guarantee that even the most well-intentioned programs will work. A Tanzanian accountant-turned-farmer in Arusha, Tanzania, told me a story of USAID’s model “Feed The Future” program. He said, “These USAID guys, with their hundreds of thousands dollars’ worth of drip irrigation systems, should learn to talk to us. They brought in a drip irrigation system for this town! Have you seen our rivers? Why should we spend money to irrigate our crops when we can do this for practically nothing?” While he represents the reality on the ground for one town in Tanzania, which is significantly more blessed than other parts, the program’s 19-country focused efforts have seen slow progress elsewhere. China’s investments have also been plagued with accusations of low quality materials, and the hiring of Chinese vendors.
This “historically-derived solidarity” that exists between the emerging Middle Income countries is an important alternative narrative to the existing North-South flows of development assistance. They are not interested in pursuing a policy for the sake of altruism alone, and mostly, make no qualms about it. There is a genuine opportunity here: foreign policy and generating goodwill, in addition to economic returns. There is some kind of an urge here – for India, China, and Brazil – to share the lessons they’ve learned, not without its flaws, to lift people out of poverty, and give them a food-secure future.