What Are the BRICS Building in Africa?

This week, South Africa has hosted the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China for the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban. The meeting takes place amid growing African and global interest in the BRICS, and excitement about plans to launch a BRICS Development Bank.

But what is the role of these five countries in African agriculture - a sector hoped by many to be the engine of growth on the continent? Depending on who you ask, the BRICS are either supportive allies and drivers of growth -- or land-grabbing new colonialists. African policy makers, though, are increasingly looking to the BRICS not only as a source of investment and technology, but also as a fount of examples to be emulated -- whether in large-scale commercial farming or in boosting small farmers' productivity.

For many years, diplomatic and business links have supported a flow of African agricultural development specialists to Brasília, Delhi or Beijing. However, this flow has sped up dramatically in recent years as the BRICS -- and their supporters within the global agriculture policy community -- strengthen their efforts to promote their 'models' of agricultural development as the key to unlocking Africa's agricultural potential.

But what are the realities that lie behind these 'models' within the BRICS countries themselves? What are the national politics that lie behind new international drives to export these models? What are the political drivers and motivators of this new engagement in Africa, which has arrived after long histories of colonial and post-colonial development? How should Africa approach these new engagements: with open arms, or with sceptical caution?

New research by the Africa-based Future Agricultures Consortium on China and Brazil in African agriculture suggests that each of the countries that make up the BRICS is acting in Africa in very different ways. The research was presented for the first time last week at an international conference on the Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa in Pretoria.

Much recent work on 'the BRICS in Africa' has emphasised the geopolitical scale, as these new players engage in areas dominated in the past by western donors and companies. This often gives a very general picture of 'Rising Powers' or 'China' and 'Africa', for example. Yet behind these labels, China, Brazil and India -- for example -- have very different interests and priorities, and within these countries there are battles between different approaches, reflecting domestic political debates.

Of course, the 55 countries which make up Africa are also hugely diverse, and any new encounter arrives on the back of a very particular history, shaped by development interventions since colonial times. Each country has its own agrarian history and political economy. So depending on the context, similar interventions -- a commercial agricultural scheme, for example, or technical training -- will have very different consequences. From the initial negotiation to the daily running of projects that are set up, the results vary widely.

From the colonial era and through post-colonial development, African policymakers and technical experts have learned to negotiate around technology transfer, economic reform or loan agreements. 'Africa' has not just been a passive recipient in many of these cases.

The same applies to these new encounters. But with new players, carrying with them different discourses and practices rooted in their own recent development experiences, the room for manoeuvre by African states may be increased. Different players can be traded off against each other: western donors for welfare and social protection, China for large-scale infrastructural development, Brazil for agricultural technology transfer, for example. But the range of choice presents dilemmas. Should Mozambique, say, go down the route of smallholder agricultural production, and low input agriculture, promoted by many western donors and NGOs? Or should it aim for large-scale commercial, mechanised agriculture, modelled on the Brazilian cerrado experience, or the large farms of northern China?

In many respects the arrival of new players on the scene in Africa has opened up the development game. The old, narrow conditions no longer apply, and African governments do not need to be constrained by the rules of Western development aid. Yet engagement never comes with no strings attached, despite the warm-sounding rhetoric of 'South-South cooperation', 'mutual benefit' and 'political solidarity'. China and Brazil need Africa, just as Africa needs them. Africa's resources, including its land, are critical both for longer-term global food security, particularly in the populous parts of Asia, and such low-cost resources, labour and market connections are vital for agribusiness and trade plans.

To understand the new encounters in development cooperation brought by the BRICS and others, we have to get to grips with the details, and the cultural, social and political relations at play, as well as the wider political economy that structures such engagements.

Whose interests are being served? Who wins and who loses? These questions will be keenly watched as Africa's farmers, food producers and politicians look to partners in the South for a new future.