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Food Democracy: An Alternative Development Strategy for Africa

By Desta, Asayehgn (Ph.D), May 27, 2012

The theoretical and practical links between democracy (freedom) and economic development  (food prosperity) has preoccupied academics and policymakers alike for several decades. Lipset (1959) argues economic growth first, democracy later. In line with the argument that economic development comes first and then democracy later, the Indonesian government has come to the conclusion that “... economic and political stability with little freedom is much better than starving and being frustrated with full freedom" (Yamin, Aug 3, 2001). Scholars who support democracy first, development later, indicate that democratic countries consistently outperform non-democracies on social socio-economic indicators. So they argue that promoting democracy should be prior to expanding economic development in developing countries (Weintraub, 2003;and  Siegle, Weinstein, and Halperin, 2004). Contrary to the democracy for development argument,  the former chancellor of Germany, Helmut Schmidt, persuasively argued that the developing countries of South East Asia  (such as China, Singapore,  Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan),  needed authoritarian governments for the economic development that they achieved over the last four decades (Weintraub, 2003).

Using food and freedom as important variables, Sen (1987) argues that food fosters freedom and freedom may have a causal influence on success in the pursuit of food for all. Assuming that there is mal-distribution of resources in a nation, free political agitation by the masses may result in the bonding of food and freedom. Then, once people have access to food, they can vigorously demand that their government distribute other basic necessities to vulnerable groups. For example, despite its achievement of economic wealth under Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorial leadership, the current democratic revolution in Libya blew Gadhafi’s authoritarian regime to pieces. Thus, the lesson that other African nations could learn for Botswana and Mauritius is that they need to be skillful in the “…grafting of prosperity and democracy if holistic advancement is to take place without recourse to dictatorships” (Akosah-Sarpong, October 2, 2011). In other words, the experience of Botswana and Mauritius clearly shows that if African governments are to develop without dictatorship, democracy and prosperity should be simultaneously connected in the proposition for Africa’s sustainable progress (Akosah-Sarpong, October 2, 2011).

Considering the two opposing directions, (i.e. from food to freedom, and from freedom to food,) in order to reduce anti-Americanism, the U.S. State Department’s web site subscribes to the idea that poor countries must develop economically before they democratize. Therefore, to renew Africa’s agricultural growth to bring about Africa Food Security Program, the United states ran the Africa Food Security Program moderated by Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, in May 19, 2012, at the annual summit of the group of Eight (G8 ) at camp David, in Maryland  (Weintraub, 2003;Siegle, Weinstein, and Halperin, 2004). The food security conference and the forthcoming aid might be regarded as worthwhile for Africa because Africa received new funds of $3 Billion. However, it also needs to be understood that the US aid might be considered a plague across the continent because it may take the pressure off African governments and cause them to delay rearranging development priorities that would make their governments more democratic, and instead favor producing agricultural goods for exports to fulfill the needs of global capitalism.

Thus, regarding the causalities between food and freedom or economic development and democracy, a brief review of the literature indicates the connections between the two variables are controversial and inconclusive. Also the argument that freedom is better than food mirrors the ideologies of the well-to-do. Actually, the provision of food for the wretched masses is not based on a utopian slogan but it reflects an entitlement that meets some of the basic human rights components. People can enjoy freedom provided they are entitled to basic necessities. In fact, as argued by Akosah-Sarpong, putting freedom or political democracy before economic development has not particularly made African countries to prosper; instead it has placed them in unimaginable turbulence. Therefore, when we think of promoting the connection between food and freedom, or the linkage between democracy and economic development, we need to refrain and review the literature before we assert any one of them.

If we are concerned about poor people, we need to assert for food democracy. Food democracy is a framework for making our food system more responsive to the needs of its citizens in a decentralizing system of control. Food democracy emphasizes social justice in the food system, and food is viewed as the center of the democratic process. That is, citizens need to have tenure to land and be engaged in their food production system (Fischer, 2010). In short, in a food democracy, eaters are not only owners but also producers of a healthy food system because we are what we eat. “Eventually, by creating food democracy by creating a bottom-up democracy through freedom farms, freedom villages, the consumers and co-producers can be made to actively participate in the political process” (Shiva, V. 2007).


Africa is an agrarian-dominated continent where more than 80 percent of the population depend on agricultural and rural off-farm activities.  However, it is in Africa where the level of malnourishment has significantly increased in recent years. Though many innovations in agriculture have been introduced, Africa has not benefited from the new agricultural technology. Thus, if agricultural growth is likely to reduce the cycle of poverty, hunger and famine, and eventually achieve food democracy, the policy makers need to concentrate on mobilizing the hidden creativity of Africa’s farm families to rediscover their agrarian heritage and achieve broad-based agricultural growth (Kofi and Desta, 2008).


Akosah-Sarpong, K. (October 2, 2011). “Democracy or Prosperity, Which Comes First .” http://www.ghanaweb.com/. Cited, May 24, 2012. 

Fischer. A. (April 7th , 2010). What is Food Democracy ?Food FirstInstitute.

Kofi .T and Desta, A. (2008).The Saga of African Underdevelopment…. Trenton, NJ:African world Press.

Lipset, S. (1959). “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic development and Political Legitimacy .”American Political Science Review.53(1) 69-105.

Sen, A. (October 29, 1987). “Food and Freedom”. Sir John Crawford Memorial Lecture, Washington, D.C

Siegle, J. Weinstein, M. Halperin, M. ( October, 2004).  “Why Democracies Excel”.Forein Affairs.57-71.

Shiva, Vandana, ed.  (2007) Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed.South End Press.

Yamin, K. (JAKARTA, Aug 3, 2001 ) “After Wahid, Many Want Food First, Democracy Later” Inter Press Service (IPS).  http://www.ipsnews.net/

Weintraub, S. (November 2003, #47) “Democracy and Development” ISSUES IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL ECONOMY.

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