GLOBAL KNOWLEDGE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE

A new development paradigm? China and Brazil in African agriculture

16 May 2012

The growing visibility of the BRICS countries in international development cooperation has led to claims that they represent a challenge to the development paradigm, emphasising distinctive characteristics of horizontality, solidarity, mutual learning and partnership. Yet, beyond the political rhetoric, it is far from clear whether such a new approach is indeed emerging, and if so what it comprises.

At a recent IDS seminar, Professor Li Xiaoyun and Professor Qi Gubo of the Chinese Agricultural University in Beijing offered their perspectives based on the findings of their recently-published book, Agricultural Development in China: A Comparative Analysis. Focusing on China's experience of supporting agricultural development in Africa, they argued that China has made massive strides in achieving food security and poverty reduction, feeding 20 per cent of the world's population with only 8 per cent of the world's arable land. Lessons from this experience are potentially important for Africa, they said. China has experience of labour intensive agriculture supported by locally developed appropriate technologies. China's 'green revolution', they pointed out, was home-grown and based on long-term public investment in research, agricultural education and infrastructure, and was not reliant on market led development.

Both China and Brazil are becoming increasingly important players in agricultural development in Africa, whether through technical assistance or trade and commercial investments in land and agriculture. In the longer term, these new players may reshape the way agricultural development is thought about, financed and implemented across Africa. The implications of these new patterns of South-South cooperation are being discussed at a meeting in Brasilia this week, organised by the Future Agricultures Consortium in collaboration with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Rising Powers in African Agriculture

This meeting launches a new Future Agricultures Consortium research theme, allied to the IDS BRICS Initiative. An Economic and Social Research Council funded study on the 'Rising Powers in African Agriculture' will get underway later in the year. This will explore the links and disconnects between discourses, policies and practices in the agricultural development cooperation activities of Brazil and China as they take shape on the ground in Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Given the centrality of culture, history and experience to development cooperation interactions, these are conceptualised as 'knowledge encounters', shaped by cultural imaginaries, as well as technical understandings and political and economic interests. As new aid relationships are forged, understanding how these encounters create a new social and political dynamic on the ground will help us see whether the political rhetoric of a 'new paradigm' for aid is being created.

Clearly a diversification of support for African agriculture is a good thing. African countries have for too long been reliant on a narrow set of expertise channeled through aid and technical cooperation programmes from Europe and the US, or via the 'international' assistance of the global agricultural research centres (CGIAR) or the Gates Foundation, which replicate such perspectives. But with new players on the scene, does this now mean that African perspectives, local knowledge and located experimentation will have more chance of breaking through?

This remains an open question. As IDS Fellow Ian Scoones argues in a recent blog, there is a big danger that the top-down, expert-led stances of past development interventions – from colonialism to the western aid era – will be replicated. 'Aid is about power, and sadly in Africa this remains skewed to the outsider, wherever they come from', he comments.