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Land grabbing? An opportunity to increase transparency and accountability?

June 20, 2011

Land grabs in Africa are much in the news. For example we read in a recent Oakland Institute report that up to 60 million hectares (an area the size of France) were bought or leased in Africa by outside investors in 2009 alone. It’s widely reported as an iniquitous state of affairs and so it is, when African governments take advantage of low levels of transparency and citizen accountability to sell or lease off large parcels of land at prices and terms and conditions which disadvantage their nation and their people, and especially people local to the land in question. In that sense it has much in common, as a phenomenon, with the way some mining and oil companies have long dealt with African governments, and vice versa.

This seems completely wrong. But, taking a closer and dispassionate look, are there at least two possible silver linings to this cloud?

First, this kind of behaviour by governments and international agribusiness creates just the kind of situation around which civil society activists in Africa can mobilise, and demand a higher level of transparency and accountability of their leaders. Because it touches on land – something dear to the heart of many people at a very cultural level – it is an issue around which it’s possible to mobilise a wide constituency of opinion, including influential civil society in capital cities, as well as in rural communities more closely affected. Governance improvements emerge, it seems to me, when citizens pull together in support of a real common interest, rather than when they get together to “improve governance” for its own sake in the abstract.

Second, and no doubt more controversially, perhaps this is just the kind of opportunity through which the rural sector of some poor African economies can begin to be modernised, making agriculture more efficient. This might in its turn mean that more people would move to the cities, which would certainly create new social and political challenges. But there are also far greater opportunities in cities than in the countryside for women and men, young and old, to engage in civil society in pursuit of their interests. In this way, a secondary impact of the change could be a reinforcement of the kind of citizen-state relationship which is needed for governance to improve, and which is often so lacking in rural parts of the continent.

It’s dangerous to generalise, and I don’t mean to claim that land grabs are an inherently good thing. But nor would I want to be the one trying to make the argument that peasant agriculture in marginal parts of Africa is a sustainable basis for a growing economy. Something has to give.

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