The creation and selling of ideas of global environmental crisis has been a core characteristic of the post-Rio decade. Global science and global policymaking processes are central to these crises. However, framings of global environmental problems – the knowledge claims and interests that underpin them, and the plans that flow from them – are often accepted without critical examination.
The idea of an African soil fertility crisis is one such case. To illustrate this, the paper traces the history of the Soil Fertility Initiative (SFI) for Africa, a major multilateral programme. We look at the role of science in creating both a problem and potential solutions to that problem. Following the SFI to the present the paper documents that not as much has flowed from the Initiative as initially envisaged. While bureaucracies may easily coalesce around a problem and make a big noise, translating rhetoric into concrete action is much harder.
The unravelling of the SFI, the paper suggests, can be explained as a consequence of bureaucratic politics between and within the key players, and also as a result of inadequate links between global and local scales. The implications for international activity – conventions, strategies, action plans and so on – are serious. Too often what claims to be global is really not global at all – but has barely concealed links to localities in the North. Accordingly, the challenge is to design more effective global processes allowing more meaningful inclusion of diverse local problem framings.