Land investments in Africa: It’s all about responsible governance

In the midst of all the controversy, there is likely to be agreement that LSLBI have come to occupy center stage of the land debate in many parts of Africa – rightly or wrongly. I say rightly or wrongly because there will be many who are of the view that African States have many other, more significant challenges to deal with – democracies that are at risk, persisting poverty, recurring conflicts challenges, the worst levels of maternal and child deaths in the world – just to name a few. Consequently, to some actors the ongoing storm over LSLBI is valuable resources and attention on these other urgent and priorities. All this may be true, but perhaps a closer look at this perspective is warranted.

What does the issue of LSLBI and the majority of Africa’s ills have in common? Quality of governance. A review of the concerns most frequently raised in relation to LSLBI points back to the quality and robustness of governance institutions at all levels as well as the inadequacy of legal and regulatory frameworks for the governance of land and related resources. Indeed the 2009 Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa adopted by African Heads of State was premised on a recognition of the need for strong systems of land governance in order for land to contribute to sustainable socio-economic growth, development and the security and livelihoods of Africans.

Since the adoption of the Declaration on Land, African Union has sought to progress the land governance agenda through the Land Policy Initiative (LPI).  The LPI was established by the African Union, African Development Bank and the UNECA in 2006. Improving land governance is about giving due recognition and protection to the land rights of local communities in land laws and facilitating security of all bundles of land rights, interests and claims, especially for women and other marginalized groups. Improving land governance is also about strengthening land institutions and processes involved in the implementation and oversight of land policy and administration. In response to these imperatives, and to the centrality of LSLBI to land governance and agricultural development in the region, the LPI has been leading a process to develop Guiding Principles on LSLBI in Africa.  

The proposed African-owned Guiding Principles build on the global momentum to improve the governance of LSLBI. This includes processes such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security and the ongoing process towards Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investments in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition.  The LPI Guiding Principles are also the culmination of a series of processes and evidence from across the continent focused on addressing the challenges faced by Member States in their efforts to ensure that LSLBI promote equitable economic growth, peace and prosperity for their people.

Importantly, the LPI Guiding Principles serve to facilitate the implementation of the AU Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa and the Comprehensive Africa Development Program (CAADP) by providing policy direction and guidance to inform LSLBI in African agriculture. As such, the Guiding Principles are a basis for commitment by cooperation and mutual responsibility amongst AU Member States, other stakeholders and investors to improve the governance of LSLBI in Africa.

Coming back to the controversy surrounding LSLBI, one can project that the controversy will continue along with the demand for Africa’s agricultural land in the face of ever increasing global population, dwindling agricultural land resources most developed economies and rising global food prices. The urgency is self-evident for African States to establish a framework for LSLBI which provides profitable opportunities for investors while supporting national development objectives and respecting the rights of local communities in African countries. This is why the efforts of the LPI to improve land governance are so critical.  

And yet, improving governance is also about bringing the citizens and their concerns to the center of the debate in line with the guiding African aspiration ‘that it is the inalienable right of all people to control their own destiny’. After all, the rationale for African State engaging in LSLBI is to promote development and end poverty for Africa and her people. Hence, for the Guiding Principles to be truly African owned and promote African priorities, they must reflect the voice of the diverse African citizenry. To this end, during the month of March 2014, the LPI will invite stakeholders from government, private sector, academia and civil society, including farming constituencies, to deliberate on and provide their view on how the Guiding Principles should be finalized.  

For more information on the Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa and the stakeholder consultation process, please contact  

Sue Mbaya is a consultant for the Land Policy Initiative. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the view of the Land Policy Initiative.