African Union High Level Policy Forum on Foreign Direct Investments

Land is the basic livelihood resource for a growing number of increasingly poor proportions of Africa’s population. The resource provides the livelihood base, identity and is a contentious socio-political asset. Lately the land resource in Africa has come under increasing pressure. This has been precipitated by the growing global population, declining confidence in financial markets, food insecurity and concerns around the environmental sustainability of the current production practices in the global North.

In order to cope with the increased competition and tensions around land, the developed world (and some of the developing nations) has increasingly turned to land and water resources in African as resources that could be further exploited in an effort towards alleviating some of the pressures identified. This has been accompanied by a rush to snap up land in Africa in a process that has been termed Land Rush/Land Grabbing and/or Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) by various analysts and commentators. The process has resulted in the alienation of vast tracts of land from Africa to mostly non-Africans in the form of leases, outright sales and other tenure arrangements.

On the surface this process would be a remedy to much of Africa’s structural poverty and underdevelopment which has been blamed largely on the continent’s lack of financial and technological capital to exploit the land. A closer analysis of the land investments, however, reveals a diversity of processes some of which may increase the poverty of Africa’s populations, undermine livelihoods and bring no substantive long-term benefits to the host communities, countries and the African population at large.

The lack of an African position on the phenomenon coupled with weak land management and governance institutions and regulations have increased the vulnerability of the host nations and communities. It was with this background that the Africa Union convened a High Panel on FDIs in Africa. According to the organisers from the Land Policy Initiative (LPI), the meeting was to bring together various stakeholders in Africa to ‘reflect on concrete actions to be undertaken in order to maximize the benefits of investments in the African agricultural sector, while minimizing the associated risks’. The meeting, which was held in Nairobi, ended with a Nairobi Action Plan.

The meeting, the first of its kind, managed to highlight the crisis in African agriculture, land tenure and global pressures on land. This was through the presentation of empirical research findings and sharing of examples and best practices by those present.

The African Development Bank shared the various initiatives available to support African governments to negotiate better and more sustainable land transactions. Although FDI has serious implications for Africa the delegation at the Forum struggled to reconcile the well appreciated need for investment African agriculture and natural resources that FDIs attract with the attendant risks, sometimes irreversible losses and the need for a strong regulatory regime of the phenomenon.

The small number of actual Ministers who attended the meeting undermined the voice of the Forum to the extent that the Action Plan was in the words of one participant ’very weak and failed to capture the urgency‘ that Africa needs to effectively regulate the pressures of FDIs. The Forum delegates struggled to articulate a position that balanced the needs of the foreign investors, national governments and local community land needs in the much touted win-win-win situation.

The Forum’s timing was important for Africans. The Nairobi Action Plan (NAP) is the first important step which provides a focused framework for governing FDIs in African land. The various stakeholders who clearly have an interest in sustainable land governance in Africa had diverse viewpoints and interventions aimed at securing the future and livelihoods of Africa’s smallholder farmers, hunter-gatherer populations and pastoralists. These included research, lobbying, education, legal capacity and the opportunity to dialogue to find ways of balancing diverse interests on African land. This is likely to result in more coherent policy development, improved governance of regional resources like water basins and more inclusive FDI governance.

The NAP has several follow-up activities that are lined up for the various regional and continental governments and the diverse stakeholders. The challenge is to get the NAP, an important framework for land governance in Africa endorsed, accepted, internalised and implemented by African national governments.

*The author is a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and Future Agricultures Consortium.