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Opinion and comment from Future Agricultures researchers on agricultural politics, science and society in Africa.

What would it take to make Brazil-Africa cooperation work?

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Brazil is on the rise as a new global player in international development assistance – but most Brazilians would prefer not to think of their homeland as a “donor country”.  For non-Brazilians, though, it is attractive to project it as a donor, especially now that it is officially the sixth largest world economy ahead of the UK. One reason that Brazilians are uncomfortable with labeling Brazil as a donor is because it threatens to undermine the uniqueness of Brazilian cooperation, which is motivated and driven by an intertwined set of principles of horizontality.

A recent high-level conference held in Brasília on 17 and 18 May 2012 reflected on the prospects and challenges of Brazil-Africa cooperation in the field of agriculture. The discussions were wide-ranging, but they revolved around the relevance of Brazil-Africa cooperation, the uniqueness of the principles of Brazilian cooperation and the apparent challenges associated with cooperation between Brazil and Africa.

The rich exchanges over the two day period prompted some critical reflections on my part. While there is huge potential in the novelty of Brazil-Africa cooperation in the field of agriculture, it would be at least advisable to treat the dynamics that currently underpin it as a work in progress.

There is no doubt that Africa’s agriculture requires immediate transformation, and on the basis of tested and proven technologies, expertise and experiences; but I doubt very much whether, in the light of some of the concerns raised at the conference, Brazil-Africa cooperation will really address the challenges of African agriculture.

There are several concerns. The main impression from the deliberations of the conference is that the full extent of the Brazilian success story is yet to be told to the Africans who are keen to replicate it as soon as they can in their own countries. However, although the question of context with reference to politics, culture and society has not been fully addressed yet, it is a critical component of the Brazilian success story.

Several issues come to mind especially when the debates about flagship Brazilian success stories such as the school feeding programme and family farming are taken into account. These programmes were designed and implemented as catalysts for rural transformation, not as ends in themselves. They involved complex and meticulous design, implementation and management. They were managed by a skilled and technically competent bureaucracy alongside a vocal, disciplined and mature civil society.

This would be a tough call for most African countries. Many countries in the region hardly have functioning bureaucracies, programmes are primarily designed, implemented and managed as vehicles of patronage, and they mostly have reactive rather than proactive civil society.

What then would make Brazil-Africa cooperation work? The track record for the majority of African countries in technical cooperation is hardly inspiring. A recent testimony is the apparent sluggish performance of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) states in embracing the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), yet it is widely touted as a home-grown programme for the continent.

What would therefore be an ideal Brazil-Africa cooperation? This is a critical question that has to be clearly addressed going forward. Brazil-Africa cooperation would have to be characterized at least by the following attributes:

  • Motivated and driven by the principles of mutual understanding and partnership guided by a clearly delineated institutional framework.
  • Mutual commitment to raising difficult issues that have to be dealt with to guarantee success.
  • Reciprocal investments in understanding each others’ experiences as a firm basis for informed dialogue and exchange on fundamental questions.
  • A holistic approach that goes beyond government to government framework of cooperation to include civil society and social movements as the basis for further understanding the dynamics of state-society relationships that are proving to be important in determining the success of failure of development initiatives.

This would, however, require properly focused research which would, inter alia, enable both Brazil and Africa to ask difficult questions about various aspects of their cooperation. This would make the Brazil-Africa relationship different from the conventional arrangements that have failed to deliver strategic impact on African agriculture for more than half a century.

This research would primarily focus on:

  1. political economy analyses of Brazil and African agricultural policies;
  2. comparative analyses between Brazil’s bilateral and trilateral cooperation arrangements;
  3. comparative perspective on Brazil versus other forms of development cooperation, old and new;
  4. the role of the state and bureaucracy in agricultural development;
  5. documentation of Brazil-Africa cooperation arrangements;
  6. mechanisms for effective delivery of Brazilian cooperation; and
  7. perceptions about Brazil cooperation from the perspective of Africans.

Filling these important gaps in knowledge would, amongst other things, help the Brazilian success story to be fully told so as to bring about a necessary measure of realism among African countries, who tend to see Brazilian cooperation as quick fix to the standing problems in the agricultural sector. In addition, Africa would be better equipped to define a clear vision of what it wants to achieve out of the cooperation with Brazil in the field of agriculture. This would strengthen Africa’s engagement with Brazil and render greater credibility to the horizontality of south-south cooperation.



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