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By Kanayo Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)


The global food security crisis of 2008 led to a new and interesting development wherein land poor countries began to acquire large tracts of land in land-rich countries to invest in food production for their domestic markets. This phenomenon has often been labelled as “land grabs” and a number of commentators have pointed to the danger such investment may pose to poor farmers in developing countries.[1] As this phenomenon is likely to continue in the coming years – in part triggered by growing population pressures and climate change -- it is important that appropriate international guidelines or global standards are developed to govern such investments.


I believe that properly structured such land deals can lead to a potential win-win situation for all concerned. Properly handled such large foreign investments have the potential of supporting broader agricultural development in African countries by providing resources for investments in better roads, irrigation, technology and training. If done the right way, land deals can improve the lives of poor rural women and men. They can create jobs, infrastructure, and market access and help poor rural people lift themselves out of poverty.


Global standards to guide such investments should include the following elements:


o    The voices of poor rural people must be heard – including the most vulnerable, whose land tenure is often insecure.  The principle of free, prior and informed consent should be a cornerstone of government policy.


o    Governments in the land-rich countries need to provide a clear legal and regulatory framework in which foreign investors operate, and through which land deals can be monitored.


o    Innovative forms of collaboration between the large commercial farms and smallholder farmers should be encouraged. Foreign investors can provide investments for infrastructure, including roads and irrigation, the provision of fertilisers, seeds and other inputs, to enable the farmers to increase their production sharply.  In return, in a medium-term arrangement, the farmers would provide assured supplies on agreed market-related prices. 


IFAD is supporting a pilot initiative along these lines in Ghana.  Its lessons could serve as a model, which could be replicated and up-scaled in other countries


[1] IFAD and the FAO supported an important study on this phenomenon prepared by the International Institute for Environment and Development entitled "Land grab or development opportunity?
Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa" (
It has also supported the FAO-led Voluntary Guidelines for Responsible Governance of Land and Other Natural Resources.


Here, I want to very briefly draw out and expand on certain themes that may prove critical in pushing forward a more sustainable, egalitarian global economic framework. 

First, 'hard' rules will not necessarily lead to determined outcomes.  Unlike a force that may produce an effect in nature, rules do not by themselves lead somewhere, regardless of whether people follow them or not.  In other words, a rule has no prior determination or meaning outside of a regular practice of action, which itself is not governed by the rule but by unarticulated understandings and ritualized, often undetectable, practices.  'Hard' rules, like 'soft' rules, are prone to regulatory capture unless such rules can also take into account these informal mediations and implementations of the rules themselves.  In fact, beyond the fact that the interpretation of rules is always determined through practice and hence fluid, derogation from rules may be essential to the creativity and usefulness of any normative framework.  Thus, it is essential that the emphasis is not only placed on constructing 'better' rules, but more importantly, on addressing (and probably, adapting) the institutional settings, actors, and procedures that give life to these rules.

Second, the current strategies put forward by Western governments in the last year have largely operated on the assumption that the 'fundamentals' of the global order are sound, and that the economic challenges are the result of non-regulation and wishful, naive, or even willfully ignorant thinking.  Drawing upon our first theme, however, the issue should be recharacterized less about the need for regulation, and more about the type and character of regulation at play.  Moreover, by focusing on the lack of regulation/oversight, current reform efforts are unable to adequately contemplate the possibility that the economic deterioration was more systemic in character, and therefore, that any meaningful longer term alleviation of these challenges will require a thicker re-imagination of the nature and practices of business, the distinction between the public and private spheres, and so on.  Beneath the calls for 'sustainability', 'cosmopolitanism', and 'egalitarianism' resides the fact that the current lifestyles we enjoy and the global framework that supports them are simply irreconcilable with meaningful reforms.  This leaves us with much more difficult, but essential choices to make about who will be the winners and losers - in short, we should be as open as possible about the inevitable costs of any reform and come to terms with the limits of our intentions. 

Third, a body of experts might be crucial for developing an understanding of the systemic challenges at play in the current crisis, and provide an outside (though not disinterested, or necessarily objective) perspective and set of recommendations to more successfully take on the current challenges. 

John Haskell

PhD in Law Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

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