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It has now been nine months since I first asked staff at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) for data on its beneficiaries and impacts for my background paper for the July 10 report, “False Promises.” They refused then, and now three months after that report showed limited yield improvements, continued high poverty and rising food insecurity, AGRA is still refusing to provide any evidence to refute the report’s findings.

AGRA’s latest evidence-free response came September 15 in a reply by AGRA’s Andrew Cox to the public letter sent by three African organizations demanding substantive answers to our findings. Anne Maina of BIBA-Kenya, one of those three organizations, sent Cox a terse reply October 7: “We appreciate your thoughts on AGRA's goals, strategies, and progress, but you do not offer any real evidence of AGRA's impacts on yields, incomes, or food security for its beneficiaries.”

I consider the report’s most damning finding AGRA’s lack of accountability. AGRA has received about $1 billion in funding since 2006, two-thirds of it from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative has spearheaded a massive push for Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers in Africa, driving government policies and resources into supporting a narrow agenda for agricultural development. According to our research, that approach is failing. Yet neither AGRA nor its main benefactor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offer any evidence that AGRA is making progress on its top-line goals: doubling yields and incomes for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020 while halving food insecurity. Taxpayers, in Africa, the United States and other countries whose governments have contributed to AGRA, deserve accountability.

Here is a short update on the stonewalling by AGRA and the Gates Foundation. In the process, AGRA has taken a page straight out of Monsanto’s playbook, impugning our researchers’ integrity and contacting Tufts University to try to stifle such research, all while withholding internal evaluations on its impacts in the field.

Clear questions, evidence-free answers

The clearest direct demand for accountability came in a September 7 letter to AGRA’s Cox from BIBA-Kenya, PELUM-Zambia and HOMEF-Nigeria. BIBA and PELUM were co-authors of “False Promises.” Cox had refused my request one month earlier to respond to the “False Promises” findings, stating that I was clearly biased, and AGRA would respond only to constructive inquiries. The NGO letter to Cox was firm but constructive:

“We request that AGRA make available any assessments of its progress toward achieving the goals in its 2017-2021 strategic plan and any survey data from its own monitoring and evaluation at country level.” It went on to pose questions in six concrete areas related to the type and number of beneficiaries; the impacts on productivity, crop diversity, farmer incomes and food security; and whether AGRA remained committed to its goals.

In Cox’s response, he presented three pages of explanation of AGRA’s strategy and work. He reiterated that AGRA was committed to its goals of doubling yields and incomes and halving food insecurity. Yet, he offered no data or evidence of progress toward any of those goals. The closest he came were statements containing a few numbers but no evidence to back them up:

  • “AGRA through a network of partners and partnerships is already reaching 8.2 million farmers directly and about 12 million indirectly.” (No source provided.)
  • “We are tracking yield data through outcome panel surveys.” (No results are offered from the most recent survey they completed.)
  •  “There is no evidence that AGRA’s policies or practices lead to or encourage extensification — in fact, exactly the opposite.” (No explanation for our finding of a massive shift of land into maize, the main crop supported by AGRA.)
  • “AGRA is not involved in loan schemes.” (By implication, AGRA is not responsible for farmers going into debt to buy the seeds and fertilizers it promotes.)
  • “We will continue to gather food security and income data.” (None is offered.)
  • He took issue with our use of FAO’s “prevalence of undernourishment” data to measure food insecurity, stating, “The widely accepted and respected Global Hunger Index, which is based on a wide basket of data, shows ALL of AGRA’s countries showing significant improvements in the prevalence of hunger since 2006.” (He offers no direct evidence of improved food security among beneficiary households.)

Anne Maina’s response to Cox, which she shared publicly to promote a public dialog, was also cordial but more direct:

“In our letter, we posed a concrete set of questions about impacts and invited you to present evidence to counter our report's findings that yield growth is slow and uneven across staple crops, that farmer incomes are not rising much as a result, and that food security has not improved and may have gotten worse with the decline in crop and diet diversity. We would be interested in engaging in a public, evidence-based dialogue on these issues if AGRA is willing to present evidence. Perhaps a good place to start would be the ‘outcomes panel surveys’ you refer to and the mid-term evaluation of your 2017-2021 strategy.”

The latest letter, and the correspondence with Cox, are available here.

Time for some accountability

Maina’s request for AGRA’s “outcomes panel surveys” and its mid-term strategy evaluation would indeed be an excellent place to start. AGRA is clearly withholding those documents from the public, probably because they confirm many of our findings.

When I first contacted AGRA in January 2020, I was told such data would be provided for our research. After an email in February stated I would have it by the end of that week, I never heard from AGRA again. Andrew Cox supervised the person with whom I was in contact, who has since left AGRA.

Cox’s response to the “False Promises” report is right out of Monsanto’s playbook. The day after the report was published, AGRA issued a statement impugning my integrity and that of the other researchers, in a manner that indicated they had not read the report.  Cox then contacted the Office of Research Administration at Tufts University, where I am a research fellow, to complain that I had violated research ethics and standards. Tufts responded that the research met all academic standards. IATP published a statement defending the research and challenged AGRA to provide evidence and stop blaming the messenger.

I have been banging my head against AGRA’s stonewalling — and the Gates Foundation’s — since I started researching my book, “Eating Tomorrow”, in 2013. My repeated attempts to interview AGRA officials were channeled through their communications department and never answered. In my one on-the-record interview at the Gates Foundation, the policy person I interviewed asked that I not use his name and then refused to answer questions about AGRA, the second largest grantee of the foundation’s agriculture program. “You will have to ask AGRA,” he said of the initiative created in part by the Gates Foundation which has provided two-thirds of its billion dollars in funding since 2006.

Demands for accountability are building. A recent Nation article by Tim Schwab detailed the potential conflicts of interest in Bill Gates championing of COVID-19 vaccines produced by companies in which he or his foundation have a financial stake. Another documented some $250 million in Gates Foundation funding for media companies that are then beholden to Gates and wary of criticizing him. In Africa, a reporter for one media group told me in confidence that his editors would not criticize Gates or his initiatives because the foundation funds the paper. The foundation recently announced $10 million in funding for the controversial Cornell Alliance for Science, which has been accused of violating basic scientific standards while promoting the adoption of genetically modified crops. (US Right to Know published a useful summary here.) On September 10, faith leaders in Africa posted an open letter to the Gates Foundation asking it to reassess its grant-making strategies for Africa. 

African organizations are demanding evidence from AGRA, not just general or unsupported statements of intent. Donors should as well, insisting that their aid is effective. Most of all, African farmers should get answers from their own governments about the limited gains from such enormous budget outlays in support of a failing Green Revolution for Africa. As Anne Maina wrote, those internal evaluations AGRA is withholding from the public would be a good place to start.

For a summary of the “False Promises” report, see Wise’s IATP Policy Brief, “Africa’s Choice: Africa’s Green Revolution has failed, time to change course,” which is also available in French.

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