Davos and the Debate on African Agriculture

Davos is a good idea: A tool to get all the heavyweights on the same page. And that, in all practicality is crucial in today’s world. But sometimes the chatter is so self absorbed, it is hard, even for a realist, not to despair. Take Jasmine Whitbread’s latest blog “Changing the Debate on Agriculture”. Now here is a good intentioned woman, CEO of a major charity, involved with development work around the world. One imagines from the title, a new agenda to reformulate the effort to realize the latent human and economic potential waiting to be unleashed.
What do we get?
We get a well presented argument that agricultural development should take more note of nutrition in rural populations and a reminder that women are at the heart of the systems of production and the key to change. But the shift to a greater focus on Nutrition has already happened and is now gospel, as is the importance of women has been for some time. Whether we want to tag the new perception “farming for health”, “cultivating better nutrition” or even “nutrition-sensitive agriculture” does not seem to be crucial to getting the job done in Africa, though I might see it important as a charity approaching its market.
In a roundabout way though, this does lead us to a substantive question. There seems to be an assumption that solving development problems is about how the development industry grip the appropriate concepts in their minds. If they change, solutions will follow. Perhaps such supply focused  premise could be accepted if some of the problems weren’t so obvious. The truth is the varying implication of the slogans “Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture” and “Cultivating Better Nutrition” matter very little when the mechanics of delivering development to the ground are so obviously dysfunctional.
Everyone from practitioner on the ground to Master of the Universe knows this. It is too well documented to lay out the argument here. Suffice to say there is no consensus on a solution. Responses vary from junk the whole development system to coming up with an integrated plan where better feedback allows projects to be managed based on the requirements of the situation, rather than the donors assumptions.

However well intended Ms Whitbread’s remarks, a discussion about the priorities of African rural nutrition within the present set of Big World assumptions only entangles the issues in greater confusion and misconception. But the huge social and humanitarian rewards are real and potentially available. And Davos is unequivocally the right place for this dialogue to be carried out. For development to succeed this discussion has to go down to the heart of the matter and render out a new equation between donor and recipient. This is a difficult but necessary step which would require, among other things, “Changing the Debate on Agriculture” just as Ms Whitbread proposes.


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