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Out of step, or leading the way?

Welcome address: Inaugural Conference, Young African Researchers in Agriculture Network, 6 February 2017, Ocean Breeze Hotel, Strand.
 
It is my pleasure to welcome all of you today to the inaugural conference of the Young African Researchers in Agriculture network. In particular, I would like to welcome all our guests and colleagues who have traveled great distances from all over the continent to be with us today.
 
Today these welcomes feel as if they are more than routine. As you are all aware, we find ourselves at a very particular junction in history. In the last few weeks, we have heard about thousands of people – some of them traveling to scientific conferences like this one – who have found themselves turned away at border posts, stopped at airports, and detained at passports control as a result of an executive order signed by a bigoted president.
 
And they are not alone. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves thrown into doubt and confusion about their residence status as a result of Brexit, their residence status suddenly up for grabs because of the opportunism of populist politicians. In Europe, the fortunes of the far right are on the rise. And this morning we have heard that our own Minister Malusi Gigaba has announced that his department intends to crack down on the employers who employ too many immigrants in their businesses. All over the world, millions of people are fleeing war, injustice, poverty and persecution, seeking a place of safety, only to find doors closing in their faces.
 
I’d also remind you that in recent months we have also been told that we are living in post-truth times. That the processes whereby facts are established in the public mind as facts are under siege. You can manufacture any news you want, and few will notice  — and fewer will care. In fact, science and research in the public interests are themselves under threat. In the UK, Michael Gove has famously asserted that the British people have had enough of experts.   In the US, the incoming administration has removed all mention of climate change from the White House website.
 
All over the world – from the industrial North to South Africa, from the USA to the Philippines, the forces of nativism, xenophobia, populism and chauvinism are on the rise. The star of evidence-based policymaking seems to be waning. Yet here we are, at a conference fostering transnational co-operation between scientists and researchers, creating networks meant to be nurturing policy oriented research.
 
So the question comes to mind: are we out of step? Or are we leading the way?
 
Cameroonian scholar, intellectual and writer Achille Mbembe seems to think that we are out of step. In December this year, he wrote an impassioned and despairing article in the South African Mail & Guardian, announcing that the age of humanism had ended. The great enlightenment project, in which economic development was held to be inseparable from the spread of democracy, human rights, rational bureaucratic management and scientific progress is over. The inner logic of finance capital, Mbembe asserted, is not compatible with liberal democracy. In the future, the scientific knowledge will belong to powerful corporations that own and manipulate desire itself for the benefit of their shareholders. The world will be run for a privileged few; and the rest of its people will be relegated to the fragmented margins.
 
I do not agree with Mbembe. I think that we in Africa may yet prove him wrong. To explain why, I will refer you to the arguments of another scholar of Africa, Keith Hart, whose long study of the nature and networks of the informal economies of this continent imbues him with a far more optimistic view. A century ago, he noted in a recent essay, Africa was the world’s least populous continent, with only about 7.5% of the world’s population, most of whom were living on the land. Today, our share of global population is double that, and they are rapidly urbanizing. By the year 2050, Africa will be home to one quarter of the world’s population, and great many of them live in cities. The growth markets of the 21st century will be here, on this continent.
 
The question is who will profit from these markets. As Hart reminds us, much depends on the nature of our agrarian transition. Will Africa’s growing cities provide opportunities for its farmers to sell their wares? Or will they be dumping grounds for subsidised agricultural products from Europe or the Americas? Will they provide employment for those leaving the land and seeking new opportunities? Or will our nascent industries be choked off by cheap  imports?  Will agricultural policy be made by supermarkets, food manufacturers and purveyors of biotech, or will they be determined by accountable officials, informed by sound analysis, aimed at the health and wellbeing of our populations?
 
The answer depends in part on the pattern of growth, the terms of trade, and the political economy of policy making. As Hart points out, this means among other things that we should abandon the false dichotomy between protectionism and free trade. We need both. We need to ensure that the economic exchanges between city and countryside – and between the countries of Africa – redound to our benefit.  We need to pay attention, not only to the productivity of agriculture, but also to the nature of the food system that agriculture is a part of and the social relations within which it is embedded. And critically, we need to ensure that we create transnational associations and networks for economic and intellectual exchange that transcend the rigid national frameworks we have inherited from colonial rule. In Africa, it may yet be possible to construct broad alliances around a programme of reform and change that can support and invigorate the livelihoods and strategies of the great mass of its people.
 
This is why I am happy to see you here and inspired by the task you have set yourself. Most of all, I am proud to be part of this process of creating a transnational network of young scholars dedicated to the production of knowledge for the benefit of all the people of this continent. You are our hope, and your work is the seeds of our future. I hope you make the most of this opportunity. I’d like to enjoin you to debate and to disagree passionately among yourselves, for new knowledge and new unifying visions can only arise out of disagreement. Welcome to your conference, and good luck!

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