Max Ajl in conversation with Habib Ayeb on Food Sovereignty and the Environment

Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.  These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

Read More »

What Happens to ‘Gender’ in Food and Agricultural Research? Mapping Four Broad Trends

By Merisa S. Thompson and Fiorella Picchioni

The Women and Development Study Group of the Development Studies Association (DSA) recently revisited Sally Brown and Anne Marie Goetz’s 1997 Feminist Review article ‘Who Needs (Sex) When You Can Have Gender? Conflicting Discourses on Gender at Beijing?’. The article examines challenges to the concept of ‘gender’ at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, including debates on its institutionalization and depoliticization, the tendency for it to be used as a synonym for ‘women’, and the conservative backlash against the very use of the concept itself. The retrospective value of doing this showed just how relevant these questions continue to be for Gender and Development policy, practice, research and teaching today.

For example, when teaching sex and gender, critical feminist theorising can sometimes lead students to feel that Gender and Development (GAD) approaches are too instrumentalized, too much like an industry and disconnected from reality. Moreover, the positionality of working as ‘the gender person’ in larger projects, where the gender component is often seen to stand alone with little connection to other intersectional dynamics, remains an ongoing challenge. The increasing and worrying trend of an anti-woke ‘backlash’ against feminist analysis and gender equality across the globe was also a recurring theme.

We also considered how ‘gender’ as a concept is mobilised and used in food and agricultural studies specifically. In this blog, therefore, we examine what happens to the concept in food research, policy and practice, mapping out four broad trends. Firstly, the centring of the connection between gender, nutrition and mothering remains pervasive. Secondly, ‘gender equality’ is often instrumentalized as a tool to increase marketized forms of agricultural productivity. Thirdly, while a focus on gender is obviously welcome, it can in fact obscure other important axes of oppression, such as race, class, sexuality, disability and nationality. Finally, it is consequently crucial to ground research, policy and practice in historical specificity and context in order to take into account multiple underlying oppressions and structural inequalities that influence the ability of a range of different actors in the food system to participate both socially and economically.

Read More »

Food and the struggle for Africa’s sovereignty

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the stark reality of Africa’s extreme dependence on imports to feed our populations. In West Africa, 40% of the rice consumed is imported; African countries do not produce enough processed agricultural products to sustain their populations, with the three highest agricultural imports being wheat, rice, and vegetable oil; and local agriculture across the continent is dependent on imported inputs for production and therefore dependent on foreign exchange.

For Africans to chart a course away from extreme dependence on food imports prevalent now, the policies and thinking of early post-independence Africa—countries like Ghana and Tanzania —and international peasant movements, like La Via Campesina—offer a wealth of lessons.

As key countries adopted restrictive measures in their attempts to manage the spread of COVID-19—including the closure of air, land, and sea borders, and agricultural export restrictions—Africa is seeing a significant disruption of the supply chain due to the resulting decrease in the volume of imports. If exporters of cereals and staple foods, also affected by the pandemic, were to suddenly cease production, the many African countries dependent on these imports would be unable to feed their populations.

Read More »

Rethinking the Social Sciences with Sam Moyo

By Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros and Walter Chambati

This book is a tribute to Sam Moyo. Apart from the great mind and big heart that he was, Moyo was also one of a few in our age to distinguish himself in setting new standards for knowledge production in the social sciences. Some might expect such a feat to require the approval of established centers of learning in the North. But his litmus test was relevance to the tectonic shifts underway in Africa and the South since decolonization. Moyo became a leading light in the quest for epistemic sovereignty at a crucial juncture, when Africa and the South as a whole were succumbing to neoliberal adjustment, and when his own country, Zimbabwe, was gaining independence.

Who was Sam Moyo?

Moyo belonged to the generation of Pan-Africanist intellectuals responsible for defending the gains of liberation and devising strategies of epistemic survival in the midst of structural adjustment. Their epicenter was the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), of which Sam eventually became president. He distinguished himself by his relentless drive to build and defend research capacities in Africa, refusing the lure of professional stability and fame abroad. Those who had the good fortune to meet him would affirm that he pursued this mission with flair, generosity, and a ‘charming inflexibility’ on matters of ideology. In 2002, he founded the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS), in Harare, Zimbabwe, against all odds, in the midst of radical land reform and Western sanctions.

Moyo also forged ahead with the building of new solidarities across the South to recuperate a common front. This he did via CODESRIA, as well the Third World Forum (TWF) and World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) led by Samir Amin, in which he participated over many years. In the 2000s, he also spearheaded the Agrarian South Network (ASN), a new tri-continental initiative with its own research agenda, regular activities, and publishing outlet, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy. Those of us who were closest to him knew that the whole of this work of art was much larger than the sum of its parts: new epistemic standards were being set for generations to come.

We locate Moyo’s trajectory in the Pan-Africanist tradition of political economy, where we made significant contributions to the evolving land, agrarian and national questions at continental level and in his home country. In the introductory chapter of the book, we trace his overall contribution to tri-continental solidarity in the social sciences and the development of a global research agenda. We bring to light Moyo’s leading role in the frontlines of the struggle for epistemic sovereignty in Africa and the South at a time when neoliberal restructuring set its sights on autonomous knowledge production and when epistemological questions succumbed to a potent ‘cultural turn’. Moyo fought with great perseverance for autonomous institutions in Africa and the South and for the integrity of the intellectual traditions produced in the struggles for liberation. He defended an approach to political economy which was homegrown in Africa and fundamentally anti-imperialist, against Western intellectual trends, whether materialist or culturalist. This was the vision and mission that defined his Pan-Africanism, tri-continental solidarity, and cosmopolitanism.

Read More »

A regional response to help avoid rice shortages in West Africa

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 10.39.07As COVID-19 threatens rice imports from Asia, West Africa has an opportunity to reignite its ambitions of a regional value chain. But this would require coherence in policies and collective action.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches African shores, countries are grappling with questions of food security. This seems to confirm a longstanding concern among many countries to reduce their reliance on food imports. Take the example of rice in West Africa. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) up to half of the regional rice consumption needs is met through imports. This external reliance is what led ECOWAS countries to agree to a ‘Rice Offensive’ in 2014, to boost production in the region. It is also behind the Nigerian border closures seen last year.

Regional value chains have often failed to take off because national interests trump regional agendas. But at extraordinary times like these, there is a case to give precedence to regional strategies rather than narrowly focusing on national responses.Read More »