Reply to Thoughtful Review of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal

Jane Harrigan has given a thoughtful critique of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, Issue 1, 2014. She outlines the historical part with the critical supply situation during World War II, the food weapon, the modernization of agriculture in the postwar years and the political economy of food in the Gulf countries. While she deems these parts and the depiction of the failed Sudan breadbasket strategy “fascinating”, she objects to my  “sanguine” account of current Gulf agro-investments.

As I describe the Sudan breadbasket episode of the 1970s as an unmitigated disaster and use it as a cautionary tale for current Gulf endeavors this is not immediately obvious.

Harrigan acknowledges that I acknowledge important concerns in the land grab debate like the threat of disenfranchisement of customary land rights’ holders and limited employment benefits. However she would have liked to see a more extensive discussion of these aspects.

She objects in particular to my sub-chapter “A land grab that wasn’t“ in which I use field work in the Gulf countries and the Sudan to point out that there is a huge disconnect between media reports about land grabs and actual implementation on the ground. I further argue that such misconceptions have sometimes been amplified by well meaning reports of advocacy groups, among them the first version of the Land Matrix by the International Land Coalition (ILC) and a number of think tanks that has used such media reports as data source (p. 144f).

Harrigan does not discuss this criticism of mine or marshals evidence to the contrary. But she argues unperturbed that “ample evidence is now available, especially from the International Land Coalition’s work,” about the threat of foreign agro-investments.

I do not dispute this threat in qualitative terms and discuss it as far as it has materialized, like in Sudan in the 1970s, on some of the Sudanese projects today (e.g. the Merowe Dam) or on the Saudi Star project of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi in Ethiopia.

Yet in quantitative terms the threat has been exaggerated as I outline in said sub-chapter, certainly for the Gulf countries, but also for China as the works of Deborah Brautigam and Rural Modernity have shown.

So in a way Harrigan is blaming me for not parroting media reports. It would be better to either hold those accountable who have used them uncritically or show empirical evidence of Gulf agro-investments with said effects that I have failed to mention.

In fact, the ILC and its partners have revised the Land Matrix considerably in the meantime, have gotten rid of many paper projects and paint a more accurate picture now.

The problem of exaggerated quantitative claims and the need for more qualitative studies has recently also been highlighted  by Marc Edelman in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies about methodological issues of land grab research.

In a way Harrigan seems to be uneasy about the “ample evidence” herself. At the end of her review she suggests that the implementation gap may well exist, but claims that negative effects would still occur in the form of preemptive displacements to empty land for investors.

In Ethiopia and on the earlier rainfed projects in Sudan this seems to have happened indeed as I write in Oil for Food; for the irrigation projects in the north of Sudan the situation is somewhat different. The land along the Nile is in private smallholder ownership and not targeted, while the land on the plateau above the river is formally state owned, barren and only usable for extensive pastoralism as long as no investments in irrigation infrastructure are undertaken.

To suggest a mere announcement or even a formal deal without actual investment would lead to an immediate displacement is rather unrealistic in such cases and tends to overrate coercive capacities and economic incentives on part of local governments. In fact in quite a few cases officials were unable to locate announced project sites and locals were not aware of them. In the cases where nothing is there, what am I supposed to write about?

Harrigan says that the US used the food weapon in retaliation to the formation of OPEC, which is not something that Oil for Food claims, as the height of the food weapon was in the 1970s not in 1960 and it was used or contemplated in retaliation to the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, to rein in Nasser, to entice moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict and push an already established OPEC to cooperate on global food issues during the World Food Conference 1974. But this is a minor thing.

To sum up, I fail to see how I portray an “unjustifiably rosy” picture of Gulf agro-investors as I discuss on multiple occasions their misguided belief in large scale project designs and their real estate centered mentality, which leads to an obsessive focus on formal land ownership and disinterest in joint equity projects with local stakeholders.

All I try to do is to give a differentiated picture and point out an implementation gap that has even grown since Oil for Food was written. Being “sanguine” is different. Land grabs in Africa seem to be bad business as the plummeting share price of Indian agro-investor Karuturi, the travails of Amoudi in Ethiopia or the Sudanese failures show.

Instead of claiming the counterfactual opposite, Oil for Food tries to find an explanation why so many projects have failed or have not been implemented in the first place. It also tries to consider the importance of local factors, domestic agro-investors and national development plans that outweigh the importance of foreign agro-investors and act in lockstep with them.

Coming back to Ethiopia, its government is equally frustrated, as it has hoped that foreign agro-investments would help kick off an agriculture led modernization. It now considers withdrawing concessions.

If any land investment were bad and threatened food security, these developments would mean an improvement. In the specific cases this might even be true, but overall there cannot be any doubt that more investments are needed given Africa’s declining food production per capita over the last decades.

Hence maybe the solution is somewhere in the middle. This might neither be in line with overtly romantic views of subsistence agriculture nor with hyperbolic profit expectations of 30 percent and more that are peddled by some investors, but a more realistic and sober approach in the land grab debate is needed.