What impact does neoliberalism have on the livelihood of minorities in Africa?

This paper explores how neoliberal policies play a negative role in food and water allocation among minorities in Africa.

A week ago, I had a conversation with a well informed Political Science student and he happened to tell me something from his political science lecture. He said that African economies were built to serve Western economies. The only reason African economies got independence was because they were fully developed to feed the Western economies. This is a marxist challenge to the neoliberal approach to international politics and economics. Neoliberalism would say that countries need to cooperate on a principle of comparative advantage but this has a possibility to be turned into exploitation (Agabu 2017). The quote below supports this statement too;

“No other region of the world was subject to so many and so aggressive a series of neoliberal re- form experiments — both economic and political — as was Africa (Harrison 2010a). They generally can be traced to the early 1980s with the first wave of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) of the international monetary fund (IMF) and World Bank, the ultimate neoliberal tool for economic reform (see World Bank 1981 and 1984)’’ (Little 2013)

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 300,000,000 people and yet they rank as the poorest people globally. For this reason, it creates a developmental challenge to foreigners. It also poses a great deal of opportunities for foreign investors to grow, while involving this part of the continent into the global economy (Broadman 2007).

For this to happen, they use neoliberalism to aid themselves and find opportunities in this rich continent. For example, privatization ( land and water privatization) and intensive involvement of themselves in the agricultural sector.

Land grabbing goes hand in hand with capitalism. Land is a very important resource; without land there is no access minerals, and the ability to practice agriculture. Prices dictate allocation; he who can afford will get the resources, which means privatization of resources. Ghana and Gambia were amongst the first African countries to adopt these neoliberal reforms like reducing Government’s power and allowing private sectors into the economy — (see mannon 2005; minot and ngigi 2004; World Bank 1989; Humphrey 2004) (Little 2013)

While countries like Ghana easily adopted these reforms, others like Kenya and Ethiopia were forced to do so. In 1980s and 1990s, Kenya was pressurized by the World Bank and IMF to take on liberal market policies like free trade, or else lose funds (Little 2013). This meant privatization of resources. However, not all politicians completely agreed to this. Miles Zenawi, a former prime minister of Ethiopia had his way around of dealing with these pressures. He allowed liberalization of the country but kept ultimate control of land which helped to protect the rights of farmers and avoid their land from being grabbed (Little 2013) Why would a farmer not want their land grabbed? Without ownership of their land, farmers have a disincentive to grow food. Therefore, they fail to sustain themselves.

Image 1: An artwork by Filipino painter Boy Dominguez, used by the Journal of Peasant Studies for a special issue on green grabbing.

This is the case in Nigeria on Obudu Plateau where a Scottish investor bought and took land to set up a resort by destroying a forest that inhabitants used to grow crops and graze cattle on. This forced them to walk long distances to look for water . Their animals had barely any grass to graze on (Gender, Water and Sanitation 2005).
 With this investor’s possession of land comes possession of water. Productivity will go down because people waste time looking for water, and end up drinking poor quality water degrading the inhabitants’ health. Sick people can’t participate in productive activity like growing food. Neoliberals argue that this is absolutely okay because jobs will be provided by the resort to the people who have lost their land . However, another thought to ponder is how much of this income will they spend on healthcare, food and now water that they have to pay for? Due to lack of water and grass, they won’t be able to raise more cattle.Therefore, their food and economic livelihood is being compromised. In addition, it is not expected that cattle grazers will be hired at the resort. The firm will look for highly qualified people to work for them because such jobs are highly competitive. Most of these inhabitants are uneducated. There is a high possibility that they will bring in other Nigerians from other parts of the country or even Scottish foreigners to work.

SAPs had an effect on the livelihood of both rural and urban Africans by encouraging privatization of utility. They allowed the private sector to accumulate wealth for themselves. Neoliberal reforms benefit only a few of those connected to the state by giving them market based opportunities to allow them to accumulate wealth for themselves ( Little 2013). As a result, minorities are forced to live undesirable lives due to low living standards, high unemployment rate, and illiteracy and health, which are on the rise. In Baringo, Kenya privatization of a Government businesses led to a stop of funding for agriculture and social services ( Little 2013). What is the implication of this? Poor local farmers are not supported to produce crops. The Government does not really care about these people since it is the Government that negotiates with the investors. The people affected by this struggle to fight for their livelihoods. In Guinea and Mozambique, water was privatized resulting in a increase in water prices which affected livelihood of the poor hence they started using contaminated water (Gender, Water and Sanitation 2005) . Many of these people are not ready financially to pay for services as a result they are forced to use unsafe water sources.

With other things being constant, when you privatize a utility, people’s income do not go up the same day, that is, people’s income are still the same. Now, they have to pay for water which is an extra cost. They are forced to go look for water which means their productivity will go down. Who gets rich? Those who take over the utility company, corporate officials and the Government. The poor are negatively affected by such policies. Other sectors of the population are treated differently. While the rich can afford these privatized water services and even get unlimited amounts of it, the poor can hardly get receive any water ( Narsiah 2013). Without water, food cannot be grown. And yet, we see these rights being violated due to neoliberal policies put in place. In South Africa, in a poor neighbourhood of Soweto, some residents took legal action to fight against the policies that were being put in place by the Johannesburg Water Utility ( a corporate and independent organization) to deny these people a right to access free water. Now, these poor people have to pay for the water. While in other parts of South Africa, people are affected by water shortages as a result they lack water for consumption ( like watering their gardens) hence not enough food grown (Von Schnitzler 2014).There is a market failure here because water is not being allocated properly. The poor cannot have access, they cannot go to work because they end up using contaminated water. Illness from contaminated water sets in. Because they are sick, they can’t make more money. Food is also implicated here. How? Without water, they cannot grow food meaning their livelihood is affected. They cannot save or invest. Private companies only give the resource to those who can afford it.

Asia’s demand for Africa’s products have been increasing . Asia currently purchases 27 percent of Africa’s exports compared to 14 percent in 2000 as Asians’ income grew. Among the things demanded are agricultural products like cotton,timber, and food products which are mostly labour intensive. 85 percent of Africa’s export to Asia come from semi-processed goods, natural resources and agricultural products ( Broadman 2007).Because there is cheaper labour in Africa compared to China and India, more and more Africans are exploited by their Governments and are paid low wages to produce these goods at their own expense. For example, in Uganda the Government gives farmers false incentives to produce beans for export in the hope of profit making yet the reality is that they receive a small portion of the profits. In Kenya, women farmers grow tobacco up to their door, yet they do not have enough money from its sales to buy food ( Angeles 2017). While Asians are enjoying prosperity, food diversity, cheap food and clothes made by cotton produced by poor farmers who are not rewarded much for their labour, these Asians are participating in suffering of poor farmers in these African countries.

The economics behind production of agricultural products clearly shows us the politics in neoliberalism and how it affects the poor negatively.

In addition, liberal policies, for example low tariffs that are adopted by individual Governments allow easy trade flow. Even if there is free trade, the goods that compete in the market should be of high quality ( Broadman 2017). Allowing a lot of International companies to do business in African countries outcompeting the local firms that finally run out of business. Asian firms have outcompeted local African firms in the textile industry and left these people unemployed. What becomes of someone who is unemployed? Parents are unable to provide for their family basic resources like food and water (which is mostly privatized).

In conclusion, neoliberalism has flaws especially in regards to Africa. Neoliberal economics if not done well can be very problematic. These problems have to be taken care of. Since most African countries are agricultural based, there has to be mechanisms in place where neoliberalism takes into account the agricultural nature of Africa’s economy to make sure it is benefiting the people at the bottom, like poor farmers. Corruption should be eliminated. There should be a mechanism where the farmer gets more money for the labour they put in than the Government . ‘’Ohhh Africa is getting connected to Europe?’’ Who is getting connected? It is only those in power! Not the minorities. This makes me wonder, why can’t we have systems in place that makes decisions based on the lowest man first? Why cant we have systems that aim to lift every segment of the population to the same level, that is the lower class, middle class and the upper class? Is it only human nature to be selfish where people think of themselves first before they can think of what benefits the majority? What can be done to change this mentality? These are questions I ask myself and maybe the answers to these questions are at the end of my quest for why systems seem to be this way.


Agabu, Joshua, personal communication, Sept 23, 2017.

Angeles, Leonora.“Food & social justice.” Buchanan Building, UBC. 23 Sept. 2017. Lecture.

Broadman, Harry G. Africa’s Silk Road. The World Bank, 2007,https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/7186/378950Africas0silk0road01PUBLIC1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Gender, Water and Sanitation. UN WATER, 2005, www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/un_water_policy_brief_2_gender.pdf.

Little, Peter D. Economic and Political Reform in Africa. Indiana University Press, 2013, https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1003310

Narsiah, Sagie. Neoliberalism as spatial fix: An example from South Africa. vol. 45, Elsevier, 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718512002229?_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_origin=gateway&_docanchor=&md5=b8429449ccfc9c30159a5f9aeaa92ffb

Von Schnitzler, Antina. Performing dignity: Human rights, citizenship, and the techno-Politics of law in South Africa. AnthroSource, vol. 41, no. 2, 25 Apr. 2014, pp. 336–350., onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/amet.12079/full.

Links to image and video used.

Image 1: https://medium.com/steps-impact-stories/from-land-grabs-to-the-anthropocene-exploring-the-politics-of-resources-d9799dad6b70

Video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8D2yZvomllE

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