It must be noted that at the time of this writing, the world is facing a global pandemic, which is seeing older and more authoritarian notions of power being embraced or challenged for a variety of reasons; each dependent upon a variety of social and cultural factors, exacerbated by the digital age (Runciman 2020).
From the moment one is born, they begin to learn the sources of political and social power. Aristotle stated that the simplest form of civil society is the traditional family, or the modern nuclear family (Everson 1998). The family here is a power structure (institution) where the parents hold institutional, authoritative, financial, knowledge, and discursive (language and communication style) power. In this context, power then becomes a sort of master-framework lens through which one learns to navigate this ever-evolving concept, which has become far more complex and nuanced in the digital age.
Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham both held the idea that each person is granted power from institutions such as a king or government institutions/structures (Morgan 2011; plato.stanford.edu). Michael Foucault’s post-structuralist notions of the diffused nature of power—across all actors and social norms—could not have fathomed a world where social media can promulgate any thought which challenges power at the actual speed of light (Avelino & Rotmans 2009, 548). Foucault stated that people are the agents (actors) of change, not the institutions (Avelino & Rotmans 2009, 546). Moreover, in the modern world, where all ideas are connected and shared via the internet; power is more diffuse. Social media is embraced by young and old alike, with 3.2 billion active users (Vogels 2019; ec.europa.eu 2018). Some organisations are able to promote their ideas without requirements for transparency, and the individual user is not required to fact-check before sharing information
(Thompson 2018, 56; Anderson and Raine 2017). Faced with this much information, Foucault’s agents of change are naturally faced with cognitive overload, and the simple, populist answer reigns (Rosenberg 2019). These complexities made post-truth the 2016 word of the year and shows the reasons for questioning the power of the influencer (Lockie 2016, 1).
The complexities of how this power is exercised is on full display with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) programme. AGRA is a public-private partnership which currently operates out of 11 African nations with the stated aims of producing more food through enhanced crop seeds, technologically advanced farming practices, providing finance to farmers, increasing the income of farmers, empowering women, and “catalysing and sustaining” the agricultural sector to meet multiple United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (agra.org; sustainabledevelopment.un.org). While AGRA works with 11 African nations, its partners are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), The Rockefeller Foundation (RF), UKaid, and USAID (agra.org, PIATA).
It is at the intersection of the four AGRA partners and the name Bill Gates that the complexities of modern power dynamics can be seen. Gates has the most massive social media footprint of these organisations, with 50 million followers whom he can share his thoughts within an instant (Twitter.com). AGRA, BMGF, and the RF fall under the category of venture philanthropy (philanthrocapitalism), and they are allowed to operate across the globe without the requirements to operate with transparency that is imposed on nongovernmental organisations (NGO) (Thompson 2018, 56). AGRA’s power does not go unchallenged, as it faces what is potentially the most transformative form of power: discourse (Dehghan and Ahmed 2020).
Bill Gates is a household name in western society as an expert in technology. Thomas Jefferson stated, “knowledge is power and ignorance is weakness” (monicello.org). Gates
wields power through sheer name recognition and the assumption that he possesses considerable knowledge due to his role in transforming technology. Because of this few question, Gates’ intelligence, and the RF can show how they used knowledge to bring about one of the most significant advances in food technology in IR8-rice (Brooks 2013, 4). Through its partners, AGRA has considerable power through name recognition and the power of knowledge.
AGRA’s stated objective is the leveraging local governments through lobbying and financial backing (agra.org, PIATA). The reason for forming AGRA was that the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century when the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations created IR8, a hybrid breed capable of creating a substantially larger yield and enhancing food security for millions but failed to reach Africa (Toenniessen et al. 2008, 236). The success of the IR8 variety was a significant factor in the modern movement to genetically modified crops, including the failed vitamin A enriched Golden Rice experiment (Brooks 2013, 4). Golden Rice and IR8 set a precedent for developing genetically modified foods and improved pesticides, which come with intellectual property rights and increased profits for large agribusinesses (Chadwick 2017, 645).
Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are synonymous with philanthropy, working across the globe on projects from education to health care, to agriculture through venture philanthropy (gatesfoundation.org). Gates is a member of the “Giving Pledge” where a group of billionaires promised to give away half of their personal wealth before they die (Bishop 2013, 474). Publicly pledging to donate such a vast sum of money has painted the goals of these venture philanthropy organisations as benevolent; why else would someone give away so much. AGRA and the actors with which it partners present themselves as purely philanthropic, achieving the greatest good for the most people.
It is by painting themselves as philanthropists that lends them not only the power to leverage governments through the guise of benevolence; it allows them to shape public discourse and opinion through the same mechanisms (Nickel and Eikenberry 2009, 977). When one can shape global discourse regarding an organisation in a favourable light, it becomes nearly impossible to fight against them. Products are sold through certification schemes that allow a consumer to decide who benefits from their spending, or by purchasing a piece of clothing that shows your commitment to a cause. This global branding is a type of philanthropic power called “consumption philanthropy” in that it creates a recognisable brand that invokes a positive image and mobilises a wave of social capital from bottom-up and vice versa (Nickel and Eikenberry 2009, 980). This kind of power allows an actor to claim a level of political and social authority while selling a product; this is a substantial amount of power (Nightingale 2017, 11). AGRA is also responsible for its most favourable press releases. If one looks at their Wikipedia page, it is full of the language such as “we”, “our”, and “us” that allows one to see that they are creating their own discursive narrative (AGRA Wikipedia; Marcuse 2014, 153-156). If the “beneficiaries” of these programmes complain, they appear to be fighting against the “philanthropists” who are attempting to lift “them” from “their” position. The United Nations hosts AGRA press releases authored by the Rockefeller Foundation, which gives the weight of the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation to further their discursive power (Toenniessen et al. 2008).
AGRA and its venture philanthropy partners are neoliberal in nature. Former CEO of the BMGF, Jeffrey Raikes made it clear that the goal of the organisation was first, and foremost to provide a maximised return on investments, and that the organisation had no obligations to invest in an ethical manner (Thompson 2014, 394). AGRA’s mission statement claims that the problems with African agriculture are that the current, low tech farming practices are not capable of creating the agricultural infrastructure to lift the populations out
of poverty, but “the experts” have the technical expertise to accomplish this task (agra.org). All that is needed is to improve the lives, and food security of Africa is the injection of enough capital and technological advancements. These “beneficiaries” need to join the rest of the financially secure and marketised world where “they” can have the same affluent life of the global north, if “they” listen. What reason could a government have to ignore all of that power, telling them how to improve the lives of their citizens; ensuring that they are fed, and their pockets are adequately lined?
What is missed in the power dynamics that lead a government to ally the nation and people whom they govern—in alliance with these organisations—is caused by the lack of transparency that is required of venture philanthropy organisations. Gates refers to himself as an “impatient optimist” in that he does not believe that the political process moves fast enough to enact the necessary measures to tackle climate, food, and education issues facing modern society; leveraging governments through sheer financial power (Nally 2016, 569). It is through the opaque, neoliberal lens of power that AGRA achieves their desired goals so effectively in less developed nations. The standard idea is that the problems facing African society and agriculture can be solved through finance and the technological advancements it offers while maintaining that the traditional farming practices of less developed nations are not suitable to meet the needs of the future (Bereano 2018, 2; Nickel and Eikenberry 2009, 975).
The power of financial clout in governmental decisions saw its most prominent display at the 2008 G8 Global Food Summit, where Gates was the only private individual in a room discussing food security and, a topic which is not his expertise, but he gained admission due to the power of his personal wealth and perceived knowledge (Margulis and Duncan 2016, 10). AGRA and its partners can wield power from discourse, to national governments and up to international organisations such as the United Nations (UN.org). Without any
obligation to operate ethically, and being able to operate free from the complications of transparency, there will be a conflict of interests land the group of actors becomes more complex as opposition to AGRA grows.
AGRA faces public criticisms, as they have pushed neoliberal practices in agriculture attempting to create an infrastructure which resembles cereal grain dominated states such as Iowa (Thompson 2014, 299). AGRA has also been accused of merely walking into a field and taking a cutting of a crop for research and patenting. However, the underlying genetics of that crop comes from thousands of years of fine-tuned plant breeding by farmers (Thompson 2014, 304). To make things worse for farmers, formerly public seed banks have become privatised, selling the products of large northern agribusinesses (Thompson 2018, 55).
Through the ability of AGRA to leverage African governments, and by promulgating favourable press releases; AGRA can wield a significant amount of financial, transformative, knowledge, and discursive power in implementing its goals. On the other side of AGRA is a growing series of discourses, ranging from the local farmers feeling the impact of AGRA’s neoliberal practices hindering their ability to compete without assistance, to accusations that the practices of these institutions and the actors involved are enacting near totalitarian rule (Morvardi 2016, 152; Thompson 2018, 58). From one end AGRA has the financial power to leverage governments and to influence the public by dominating discourse and mobilising a range of power sources, while on the other the public sphere is developing a discourse to mobilise social capital to fight for what works best for “them”.
Some have written extensively on how programmes such as AGRA have caused widespread unrest and political discourse against the neoliberal farming practices promoted by these public-private partnerships which are viewed as subjecting society to the will of their new colonial structure (Brooks 2013, Holtz-Gimenez and Shattuck 2011, 118). The problem that is caused by some public-private partnerships is that capitalism can leverage
governments in a manner which subverts the democratic process (Almond 1991). Power relationships are shaped through a wide range of tactics such as finance, discourse, social capital, and many others. AGRA recently appointed Agnes Kalibata, the “former Rwandan minister for agriculture” as the organisation’s president, which received widespread accusations that her appointment was simply a power play to make it appear that they are looking out for the African farmer while appeasing big agribusiness (in a Guardian article sponsored by BMGF) (Dehghan & Ahmed 2020). Protests have been organised in front of BMGF and other AGRA partner offices, but public awareness is still growing (globaljustice.org.uk 2015). When power begins as a grassroots style movement, it gains power by shaping and informing public discourse to the issue at hand. This shows that any type of power is always subject to the discourse that dictates social norms and drives transformative power.
The lack of global awareness or the relative youth of the fight against AGRA is not a reason for despair. Social capital has always been a transformative force, an idea espoused by Machiavelli when he advised would-be rulers never to let their subjects come to hate them because they would mobilise and transform society (Morgan 2011). The Treatment Action Campaign of South Africa accomplished transformative action in 1998 with the constitutionalisation of the right to health for AIDS treatment in a predominantly black population only four years after the end of apartheid (Heywood 2009, 15-29). Despite that fact that they were among one of the most marginalised people in the 1990s, the people of South Africa made their voices heard and achieved transformative change. Teenage activist Greta Thunberg rapidly became a household name and has mobilised millions in a short period of time through social media as well (Elks 2019).
Power structures are so ingrained into the lives of every person that many have felt the need to try to discover the roots of power structures. The ability to disseminate any
thought that comes into the mind of any person through the medium of social media has made power far more nuanced. The age of the social media influencer has arrived where anyone who can gather enough followers just might get paid to promote a product or idea. The ability to alter or influence power dynamics has entered a new era with its implications just being uncovered. Entire nations have seen their elections and social structures altered by just a few actors as social media data was collected and analysed before being used to shape public perception with simple populist messages (Rosenberg 2019; Meyer 2018). How power will be derived and applied in the future will require constant analysis, as it remains in constant flux. With so many people turning to social media for information, who can tell who has the power to influence Foucault’s agents of change?
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