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The governance of large-scale farmland investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

PhD defence George Schoneveld
2 October 2013, 16.00 hrs, Academiegebouw Utrecht University
African states offer their populations insufficient protection from foreign land grabs

Growing global resource scarcities and increasingly unstable commodity markets have in recent years encouraged large numbers of investors to seek access to the cheap and fertile farmlands of sub-Saharan Africa. Though potentially providing its often neglected agricultural sector with much-needed investment capital, with many of these investments threatening to deprive the rural poor of vital livelihood resources and contribute to environment degradation, these investments have become a topic of heated debate in the public, political, and academic arenas.

Amidst a rapidly growing body of research on particularly trends and outcomes, The Governance of Large-Scale Farmland Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa examines a critically under researched aspect of this trend, namely, host country governance. With an absence of sufficiently comprehensive international regulatory frameworks, the investment governance burden often falls solely on host country governments, which in the African context are typically ill-equipped or disinclined to provide adequate oversight. This exacerbates the risk of adverse local social, economic, and environmental impacts and undermines the effective capture of investments’ potential developmental contributions.

The primary aim of this book is to deepen our understanding of the conditions under which large-scale farmland investments can contribute to sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa. It does this by identifying the different factors that shape local outcomes. In so doing, it examines and links a range of issues that have to date often been evaluated in isolation – ranging from the formal laws and policies in host countries to institutional dynamics and local community responses. The analysis is based on original field research conducted by the author in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia.

Findings show a remarkably uniform array of adverse effects across the case study countries. This poses an interesting conundrum: can these outcomes be attributed to systematic deficiencies in the content of the law aimed at regulating these impacts, or is the law rendered meaningless by poor implementation and enforcement, or do other structural social and economic factors outside formal governance structures explain outcomes? The Governance of Large-Scale Farmland Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa shows that an answer can be found in all three options, but highlights in particular the important mediating influence of institutional issues.

Through systematic, in-depth analysis of the conflicts and interactions between a diversity of stakeholders it highlights how investment capital tends to attach itself to and strengthen powerful local coalitions of modern and customary elites to the detriment of the rights of the rural poor. Such trends are reinforced by high-modernist ideologies, discriminatory perspectives on rural systems of production, co-optation, lack of inter-institutional coordination, collective action problems, and distortionary incentive structures. Although this calls for a reevaluation of the formal rules that govern and protect Africa’s land-based resources, this book shows that any legalistic reforms to that effect must be preceded by far-reaching institutional reforms that address institutional mandates, enforcement and implementation capacities, and incentive and accountability structures.

A Powerpoint of George’s presentation of his research findings is available via this link.