Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Liberation to Speculation? Spelman College and African “Land Grabs”

Black Agenda Report 
Jemima Pierre 
June 28, 2011

“What does Spelman’s speculative interest in Africa suggest about Pan-African affiliation in the age of neoliberalism?”

When the Oakland institute published their report, “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa,” on land speculation by foreign investment funds on the continent, attention focused on the use of the endowment funds of wealthy US universities, including Harvard and Vanderbilt. Lost amidst this discussion, however, was the fact that Spelman College, the historically Black college in Atlanta, was also implicated. Spelman’s investment strategies, like Harvard’s and Vanderbilt’s, are part of the aggressive and entrepreneurial approach to education funding and fund-raising increasingly prevalent over the past decade. Yet is there a difference here? Given the historical role of HBCUs in African liberation, what does Spelman’s speculative interest in Africa suggest about Pan-African affiliation in the age of neoliberalism?

While the nature of hedge funds is secretive and abstract the implications of their operation for the everyday lives of African workers and peasants is anything but. The Oakland Institute reports that Western hedge funds and speculators are acquiring large tracts of land in various places in Africa, forcing local farmers off small food farms to “make room for export commodities, including biofuels and cut flowers.” As a result, the control over the global production, distribution, and price of basic foodstuffs by hedge funds is increasing.


“Western hedge funds and speculators are acquiring large tracts of land in various places in Africa, forcing local farmers off small food farms.”

One such fund highlighted in the report is Emergent Assets Management. Founded by two former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs investors, Emergent uses private equity to invest in industrial agriculture in Africa. The company’s African Agri-Land Fund, sees Africa as “one of the final frontiers” to “secure food production across a diverse range of soft commodities.” To that end, it has created EmVest, a fund management company based in South Africa to “establish farm hubs” throughout the continent and “to develop large scale agriculture on a commercial basis.”

Susan Payne, the CEO of Emergent Assets Management, explained the logic of her African Agri-Land Fund in the following way: “In South Africa and Sub Saharan Africa the cost of agriland…that we’re buying is 1/7th of the price of similar land in Argentina, Brazil and America… We could be moronic and not grow anything and we think it will make money over the next decade.”

It is this investment logic that has marked Spelman College’s own path to maintaining and growing its endowment. University endowments are cash and assets accumulated from private and corporate donations and are a school’s “investment engine.” In the past few decades, Spelman has managed to increase the worth of its endowment through a similar capitalist economic model as predominantly white and richer universities: aggressively diversifying its investment strategies and searching for less conservative deals and higher returns. (Many private equity funds promise high returns—sometimes between 20%-40% on investments from large university endowments). According to one report, Spelman’s endowment success demonstrates that “HBCUs are keeping pace with the higher education mainstream through an increasing financial sophistication.” As of June 2008, Spelman had the second largest endowment fund among HBCUs with a value of $351,706,000 and a portfolio spread over the U.S. stock market, foreign stock, real estate, and other investments.

“Spelman has managed to increase the worth of its endowment through a similar capitalist economic model as predominantly white and richer universities.”

In the economic and political climate since the official end of segregation in this country, it is clear that HBCUs have had to work hard to maintain relevance. HBCUs have lost some of their best students to richer white institutions, and have faced higher operating costs and declining federal support. In this context, its investment actions signal almost a strategy for survival. But at what cost? While it is not yet known how much of Spelman’s investments are connected to African land grabs, what is clear is that, in keeping pace with economic strategies of other similar institutions—even as a matter of survival—it is bound to be implicated in the exploitative actions of the West.

But it does matter that a U.S. Black university, founded in the context of racial terror and Black disenfranchisement, has a part in a scheme that potentially has grave consequences for Blacks in Africa. HBCUs have a unique history and a deep connection to Africa. In the early twentieth century, led by institutions such as Howard and Lincoln Universities, Black American institutions were an influential force in African and other diaspora decolonization movements. They were sites of a radical and international Black presence and exchange, not only training future leaders of African independence, but also creating the space for domestic student activism. How, then, do we reconcile this rich history with HBCU’s contemporary neoliberal economic practices? What hopes do we have for global Pan-African cooperation?

Perhaps there is no hope – and perhaps by attempting to resuscitate the claims and affiliations of a prior age of Pan-Africanism we remain lost, deluded, and out of step with the political contours of the moment. In this sense, then, Spellman’s role in Black liberation may be no greater or less than that of its rich white cousins.

Jemima Pierre can be reached at

Comment: It is a deplorable situation no doubt that raises an important question here in South Africa.  How many South African universities and private/public corporations are investing in the same kind speculative schemes? 

I have a hunch we will be shocked if we knew. 

See also "Who is making them cry?" by Gladson Dungdung which covers Indian nationalism and land alienation.

And we are not free.



Erica said...

Seems as if education has taken a backseat when money, prestige, and power comes into play.

Most HBCU's are indeed selling out in order to "run with the big dogs!"

This is both sad and discouraging.

Kweli said...

So the way for Spelman and other HBCUs to "diversify" their portfolios is to invest like mainstream colleges? What is so diverse about that? It doesn't even challenge the system.

This article reminds me of that Guardian article about white South African farmers being offered free land in places like Congo Republic in the hope that they will grow food to feed the local population. (Apparently, white farmers are leaving SA because of some land redistribution program). Anyway, it was clear that the goal of the white farmers was to grow more profitable cash crops for export. And who can blame them when the African food market gets flooded with subsidized imports? Strange, this food and land issue, especially now that East Africa is in the grips of a drought that is leading to famine.

Ridwan said...

*Hey Erica it is indeed sad. It is the liberal delusion. Black elites who can't identify with the downtrodden. It is the same here.

**Kweli you hit it on the head. This blog is no fan of Mugabe but it does not take much to see how white farmers there where/are growing export crops (like tobacco) for export.

All that about putting the land to waste may have a ring of truth but in real food terms it hardly is the fault of Mugabe only.

That was the game of colonialism. Find land to feed the colony and if it has resources (minerals) all the better.

The same is playing out in S. Africa. Look for the kind of S. African produce you find with export labels in the European market.

White farmers who make up the majority of farmers still produce with a keen eye on bigger revenues in export markets.

And when they can't compete they turn their apartheid derived farms into game lodges and white boys and their agents from everywhere in the white north come down here and 'hunt'.

It is the new neo-colonialism. Hardly touched on in mainstream academia and so it hardly surprises me that Spelman and other HBCU's are playing the game.

We not free brother. The struggle is just more complex and hidden.

And, until the land issue is substantively addressed we will remain stuck forever.

Peace Erica and Kweli.