No hierarchy, equal access

Food Security20 Mar 2013Sylvia Kay

New initiatives based on horizontally structured partnerships for rural development are more equal forms of rural development than traditional PPPs.

Horizontally structured initiatives, like farmer to farmer partnerships, are more equal forms of rural development than traditional PPPs. They provide equal access to technology and knowledge production, to land and markets.

PPPs: What’s the agenda?

Over the past few years, the public private partnership (shorthanded to PPP) has become the de facto way of ‘doing development’. Within Dutch policy circles, PPPs are advanced as a key approach in everything from peace-building exercises, to water service provision, to safe abortion practices.1

Despite the differences between these distinctive areas of policy making, the assumptions invariably remain the same: PPPs enjoin a set of actors in a synergetic relationship from which all stand to benefit from the unique assets, knowledge, and skills that each player brings to the table. This collaborative arrangement is believed to spark innovation, collective learning, and indeed ‘development’.

Yet PPPs cannot be seen simply as an operational approach to development, divorced from the broader political agenda to which they are allied. There is often a very explicit attempt to bring the private sector into areas that were once the provenance of the state. This is a worrying trend, for with the withdrawal of the state comes the real danger that obligations, such as the realisation of the Right to Food, are outsourced to private companies unbound by the human rights covenants signed by states.

PPPs and Food Security: AGRA and the G8 New Alliance

Within the realm of food security, PPPs are closely associated with a number of agribusiness for rural development initiatives. Two stand out in particular: the Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the G8’s New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, launched at the G8 summit in Camp David in 2012.

Both draw heavily on the modernisation paradigm to advance a model of privatized knowledge driven change that seeks the solution to hunger and rural poverty in the capitalisation of the African peasantry and the commodification of its resources.2 In this effort, PPPs are a key vehicle for the advancement of private sector interests and corporatized technology, even while evoking the language of smallholder agriculture. Key to AGRA’s vision, for instance, is the building of ‘partnerships’ across the ‘value chain’. What this means in practice is the conversion of African smallholder farming to a form of high external input agriculture, reliant on the patented seeds and technologies of Monsanto and other transnational corporations.3

In the G8 New Alliance meanwhile, the rhetoric of PPPs masks the dominant role that the 45 private sector members of the Alliance play in pushing forward such schemes as ‘agricultural growth corridors’ that open up land and other natural resources for corporate control and industrial export agriculture.4

Technology and knowledge are not neutral

This reveals a clear bias in the type of agricultural knowledge that is valued in these ‘partnerships’. Technology and knowledge production are, of course, never neutral despite the best efforts of AGRA and the New Alliance to present their production-driven techno-fixes as the only rational response to the food crisis.

In both of these initiatives, little attention is paid to unequal asset ownership, including land ownership, or unfair market and trade rules as drivers of food insecurity. This is not accidental but a very conspicuous attempt to remove these issues from political debate and democratic decision making. The latest proposal by the G8 for regulating large-scale land acquisitions – the Land Transparency Initiative – is indicative of this technical, proceduralist approach to dealing with the drivers of dispossession and food insecurity. ‘Land grabbing’ is presented here as a problem of secretive and corrupt land deals, overlooking the perfectly legal, transparent, and routine manner in which local people’s land rights and human rights are infringed upon.

A different kind of partnership

What is not talked about in the debate around ‘partnerships’ are the forms of horizontal cooperation between farmers themselves and between farmers and consumers which operate according to a very different logic. The farmer-to-farmer agroecology movement in Latin America, for instance, is based on a non-hierarchical process of knowledge diffusion and exchange. Here, farmers themselves are the main agents in the dissemination of agro-ecological techniques, researching and sharing results as peers. Other examples include the wide variety of community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes that link food producers and consumers, sharing the risks of agricultural production through standing orders and forward contracts, farm work, or the creation of local food credit unions.5

It is these kinds of true partnerships that we should look to and support in order to achieve food security. We should not be supporting the increasing encroachment of industrialised agriculture, concentrated in the hands of the top global food and seed corporations. This trend poses a serious threat to biodiversity, food and water security, food and land sovereignty.


  1. See for example: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands. ‘Public-Private Partnerships: Ten Ways to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals’ ,
  2. Not surprisingly, given their common goal to spread a capitalist revolution throughout the African continent, there is a substantial degree of interaction between these two initiatives, with jointly run programmes such as the ‘Scaling Seeds and Other Technologies Partnership’.
  3. For example, AGRA is one of the backers of the suite of ‘seed harmonisation’ regulations in Africa being pursued through such channels as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which would see strong intellectual property rights protection for commercial seed breeders while severely restricting the rights of farmers to freely use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. In a context where 80% of seeds are still produced and disseminated by small holder farmers, this marks a full-scale assault on the autonomy and independence of Africa’s rural peoples.
  4. For further details, see:
  5. For further examples of these kinds of positive alternative investments, see: