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AGRA—The Return of the Green Revolution Gates has called for "creative capitalism" - that is a philanthropy spurred on by profit. But Galés Gabirondo unmasks creative capitalism to reveal it as philanthro-capitalism. She uses the Bill Gates/Rockeffeler initiative, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, to show just how devastating it can be when good-will meets a corporate driven and market hungry capitalism

In September 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation teamed up to launch “AGRA” a $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Echoing the claim that Africa’s last Green Revolution (originally promoted by Rockefeller) had “bypassed” the continent, Gates and Rockefeller promised that AGRA will improve the lives of the continent’s impoverished farmers by investing in appropriate technology, efficient farm practices, and a network of small shopkeepers to sell mini-packets of improved seeds and fertilizers.

Elegantly simple in its proposal and presentation, AGRA is the global face of a renewed international effort to revive Africa’s sagging agricultural research institutions and introduce new Green Revolution products across the sub-Sahara. The complex array of institutional and financial interests lining up behind Gates and Rockefeller include multilateral and bilateral aid organizations, national and international research institutes, and the handful of powerful multinational seed, chemical, and fertilizer monopolies upon which the entire financial future of the new Green Revolution ultimately rests. Gates and Rockefeller foundations are betting that AGRA can entice industry, governments and other philanthropies to invest in African agriculture. AGRA is the Green Revolution’s new philanthropic flagship leading a global campaign to attract talent, investment and resources for another go at Africa’s beleaguered food systems.

The new Green Revolution differs fundamentally from the first one introduced in the 1970-90s in that this time the private sector, rather than government, is taking the lead. This Green Revolution is concentrating on Africa’s food crops like tubers and plantains, rather than global commodities like corn, rice and wheat. This time around, the conventional crop breeding programs being built in Africa will lay the genetic and industrial groundwork for the expansion of genetically modified crops. And more importantly, the seed and chemical companies that stand to gain from the Green Revolution are fewer, and because of biotechnology, much bigger and vertically integrated, selling both seed and inputs. In fact, only two companies—Monsanto and Syngenta—control 30% of the global market in seeds.

These monopolies and others are entering Africa markets with the help of CGIAR—the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, USAID, and Britain’s DFID, even Jeffery Sacks’ Millennium Villages. But these same institutions—along with a host of national-level agricultural institutes—failed for three decades to establish the first Green Revolution in Africa. Indeed, with AGRA, Gates is picking up where lesser philanthropists (Rockefeller, Sarakawa 2000) and politicians (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) ran out of steam.

The explanations given by northern institutions for the failure of the first Green Revolution have been many: Africa’s soils are too poor, its terrain is too broken, the infrastructure is lacking, its research institutions are weak, its farmers are too traditional… Nowhere, of course do any of the Green Revolution champions question the assumptions, premises or technologies of the Green Revolution itself. Nor do they admit to any social, economic or environmental failures in Asia, Latin America, and—yes, parts of Africa—where the Green Revolution was “successfully” implemented. There is extensive documentation demonstrating that the first Green Revolution deepened the divide between rich and poor farmers and degraded tropical agro-ecosystems, exposing already vulnerable farmers to increased environmental risk. It led to loss of seed/plant varieties and agro-biodiversity, the basis for smallholder livelihood security and regional environmental sustainability.

But putting these considerations aside for the moment, how does AGRA propose succeeding where others have failed?


At his special appearance at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Bill Gates gave us his answer: creative capitalism. This, he explained to the world’s financial masters, was “[An] approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.”

Gates acknowledged that capitalism does not work well for the poor. His explanation is that this is because there are no international market incentives to fight poverty or hunger. (This reasoning, of course, ignores the ways that international markets have actually produced hunger and poverty, but we will set this consideration aside for the moment also…) Gates takes a fairly standard neoliberal approach to solving the market incentive problem by insisting that the market is still the primary engine for social transformation. The difficulty is in persuading those who do have market power that eradicating hunger is in their own best interest. To address this challenge, Gates invites his fellow capitalists to consider the benefits of social recognition—as well as eventual profits—as the missing market-based incentive in order to make capitalism work well for everybody.

“Recognition,” said Bill Gates, “enhances a company’s reputation and appeals to customers; above all, it attracts good people to the organization. As such, recognition triggers a market-based reward for good behavior. In markets where profits are not possible, recognition is a proxy; where profits are possible, recognition is an added incentive.” Recognition of the good deeds done by capitalists will build the markets necessary to bring the poor the benefits of capitalism, thus ushering in a new system Gates calls “creative capitalism.”

That same week in Davos, the soon-to-retire president of Microsoft put his money where his mouth was by giving another $306 million to AGRA. That’s a lot of recognition, by anyone’s standards. Clearly, the “halo effect” created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ altruism will benefit everyone associated with AGRA—from the CGIAR to Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. This “added incentive” is calculated to make the sub-Sahara an attractive market to high power global corporations accustomed to 25% and 40% profit increases per year. The poor may not have much to spend (according to Rockefeller Foundation, half the sub-Saharan population earns less than $0.65 a day), but the purchases of small amounts of seed and inputs by180 million poor farmers add up. The new Green Revolution is banking on a small but steady increase in their enormous collective purchasing power.

To understand AGRA—and Gates’ creative capitalism—it is helpful to distinguish AGRA’s mission from its job. AGRA’s mission is “To [work in partnership] across the African continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.” AGRA’s job—as so eloquently stated by Bill Gates in Davos—is to bring Africa’s poor into the international market. Here, they will consume both hybrid and genetically-modified seeds, fertilizers and agrochemicals. They will also consume the products of these seeds, making their diet dependent on the companies driving the Green Revolution. Whoever can establish these seed markets in Africa will control not only the markets, but the food, and ultimately the ground of the vast continent.

But while these corporations and institutions are the driving market forces behind AGRA, they are not in and of themselves the reason behind Bill Gates’ call for creative capitalism, or his decision to address hunger and poverty in Africa. Gates’ remarkable bequest still begs the question of his own making: as a creative capitalist, what—or for whom—is AGRA’s market-based reward? Recognition for Microsoft? Undeniable, but not significant or necessary for a company who already has all the recognition it wants. Gates’ financial interests in genetic engineering? These investments pale behind AGRA itself.

The answer is; there is no market-based reward. Rather, the prize is political. AGRA, backed by Gates’ enormous philanthropic power, bolstered by the best world-renown diplomats and CEOs money can buy, and driven by the sheer financial and institutional momentum of the industrial players within the Green Revolution, is a political machine of immense proportions. AGRA allows the Gates foundation unprecedented influence not only in setting the national food and agricultural policies of many African governments, but in the agenda-setting of continental agreements (like NEPAD), multilateral development institutions (e.g. FAO), the strategies of agricultural research centers (e.g. WARDA), and the political economic re-structuring of Africa’s food systems in general. The Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa is the Gates’ Foundations bold foray into big philanthropy’s latest incarnation: philanthro-capitalism.

Philanthro-capitalist Development In Michael Edwards new book “Just Another Emperor,” philanthro-capitalism is the term given to the movement taking hold that “promises to save the world by revolutionizing philanthropy, making non-profit organizations operate like business, and creating new markets for goods and services that benefit society.” This neo-liberal brand of philanthropy distinguishes itself from charity and progressive philanthropy by insisting not only on market-based results, but on business-based procedures for grant giving. Philanthro-capitalists seek business efficiencies and a financial “bottom line” from their “investments” and concentrate on making global markets work better. A logical extension of current of neo-liberal hegemony, philanthro-capitalism sees unregulated markets not only as engines for creating wealth, but as the ultimate drivers of social change. In this view, governments are too bureaucratic and corrupt, and social movements too unruly and inefficient. Only the market can save us from… well, the market.

However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is taking philanthro-capitalism into the realm of superpowers. Because the Foundation holds 10% of all U.S. philanthropy funds, AGRA is not just a philanthropy acting like businesses, but an Über-philanthropy so large and powerful it can influence governments and supra-national institutions.

This is not to say that Gates or AGRA acts independently of Warren Buffet, Jeffrey Sachs, the FAO, USAID, CGIAR, Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont or the fertilizer companies cheering it on. On the contrary, there is a general consensus in enthusiastically in favor of the AGRA campaign. The reasons are both global and regional. First, despite the hype regarding financial globalization, industrial capitalism has been suffering from falling rates of return and stagnant economic growth (1-2%) for almost three decades. This is due to cyclical crises of overproduction: i.e. to much money and goods with too few borrowers and buyers. It is essential for the large monopolies to create new markets (witness the global biofuels craze), or overrun existing markets in order to find buyers for their goods. Seed and chemical giants like Monsanto and Syngenta look to AGRA and Africa’s food systems to solve their problems. They must replace local seeds and agroecological practices with their own commercial seeds and agrochemicals. Second, while western capital is falling over itself to sell products to China, they are extremely nervous about China’s entry into global markets as a competitive seller—particularly in Africa. It is important for western seed and chemical corporations, and all of the research institutions that produce new materials for these companies, to “sew up” the African market. Even though the marginal returns to their investments are small, the Green Revolution does not want to lose 180 million consumers to the Chinese.


Whether or not AGRA can successfully bring the new Green Revolution to Africa, and whether or not the Green Revolution will benefit the poor as much as it benefits the capitalists being courted by the Gates Foundation are two different questions that should be open to public debate. Unfortunately, there was never a public debate on AGRA.

There are many productive agroecological farming systems in Africa that do not depend on GMOs or other Green Revolution technologies, but these alternatives were never considered. Whether or not AGRA can re-start the Green Revolution in Africa is yet to be seen. What is clear thus far is that it has been successful in eliminating competition for the control of African food systems.

AGRA’s philanthro-capitalism draws the world’s attention away from local alternatives and towards global market-based “solutions” that ultimately favor those with more international market power, i.e., the seed and chemical monopolies. Though it strengthens corporate opportunities and power, it does nothing to address the weakened ministerial and regulatory capacity of the state, ignores the need to protect local markets or ensure a greater market share of the value chain for farmers. It elides land issues and does not address the eroding economic and environmental resiliency of African food systems. Worse, it diverts attention away from the role that the global markets play in creating hunger and poverty in Africa in the first place. Can AGRA actually solve these problems? Not without addressing their causes.

*Gala Gabirondo is a development scholar and food sovereignty activist.

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