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The poverty of neoliberalized feminism: gender equality in a ‘best practice’ large-scale land investment in Ghana

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Pages 525-543 | Published online: 28 May 2019


Feminist ideas have entered the neoliberal agricultural development agenda, including increasingly ubiquitous public-private partnerships and businesses. Rhetorically committed to gender equality, these new development actors have reduced equality to a matter of numbers, seeking to include women in their projects while disregarding intersectionally gendered power relations that suffuse any development context. This article seeks to illustrate how such power relations inhabit business-led development projects. Based on ethnographic research of a ‘best practice’ large-scale land investment in Ghana's Volta Region, we argue that a narrow focus on including women and superficial Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) promises fail to address intersectional inequalities because they pay inadequate attention to local institutions for resource management and the power relations they embed. Focusing on gender equality without regard to local institutions at best serves to empower a few well-connected women and at worst acts as a cover-up of highly exploitative practices.


We would like to thank Holy Kofi Ahiabu for his invaluable research assistance. Our deep gratitude furthermore extends to all our respondents in the study villages for the time they spent answering our questions. We wish to acknowledge Eva Schober and Dominik Schuppli, whose MA also research contributed to this article. Finally, we thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Kristina Lanz works as a policy analyst and researcher at Alliance Sud, with a special focus on multilateral development banks, in particular the World Bank. She holds an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, London and a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Berne. In her research and advocacy work, she is concerned with questions of global social and environmental justice.

Elisabeth Prügl is Professor of International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva where she directs the Institute's Gender Centre. Her research focuses on gender in international governance, most recently on gender experts and gender expertise. She directs two international research consortia that work on gender and land grabs in Cambodia and Ghana, and on gender and conflict in Indonesia and Nigeria. She is a member of the academic network of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Jean-David Gerber is an associate professor at the Institute of Geography of the University of Bern. He holds a postgraduate degree in Urban Development, Resources Management and Governance (2004) from the University of Lausanne and a PhD in Public Administration (2005) from the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP). His current research focuses on land policy, housing policy and large-scale land acquisitions.


1 At the time of the field research in 2016, approximately 1000 ha were under cultivation. While the concession covered 2500 ha, according to the Environmental Impact Statement for the project there were plans to increase it to 5000 ha of contiguous land within three to four years.

2 Sources of funding include the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Agricultural Development Company (AgDevCo), Acumen Fund and more recently the World Bank-funded Ghana Commercial Agriculture Project (GCAP). Acumen Fund relies on funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and individual philantrophists, AgDevCo receives money among others from DfID, the British development cooperation agency, and AGRA is funded by the Gates Foundation.

3 RMG Ltd previously supplied GADCO with agro-chemical inputs; the name GADCO is still used in all transactions.

4 The Alliance brings together a wide variety of multinational corporations (including Yara, Monsanto, and Nestlé), development agencies from G8 countries, the World Bank, the Gates Foundation and ten African governments, including the government of Ghana.

5 This article furthermore relies on data collected by the MA students Eva Schober and Dominic Schuppli from February to May 2015 in the context of the SNIS Project on “The effects of large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) on households in rural communities of the Global South: gender relations, decision making and food security” (interview statements marked with *ES and *DS in the text).

6 These included an Environmental Impact Statement from GADCO and an Environmental Management Plan 2015–2018 by RMG Ltd, both conducted as part of the state required Environmental Impact Assessment, various letters written by GADCO to the District Assembly, as well as a letter of complaint written by community members.

7 LAP is a 15–25 year land reform project encouraged by the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and financed by USAID and the World Bank.

8 This process of blurring divisions between the government and the customary elite has also been described by others (i.e. Berry Citation2013; Amanor Citation2008; Boamah Citation2014; Ubink Citation2008).

9 Interestingly, the LAP requires that at least 30% of the members in the Land Management Committee of the CLS should be women. The Fievie CLS fulfils this requirement – there is even a female chair. However, an intersectional perspective shows that all women on the Committee belong to the customary elite, are highly educated and wealthy. In other words, they constitute the superficial feminist face of land privatization that has further empowered local elites.

10 The initial GADCO negotiations were also marred by conflicts and power struggles between different chiefs (representing different clans). The different positions and strategies adopted by chiefs, state actors and different groups of local people in this process have been described by Lanz et al (2018).

11 App. 530–930 USD (www.oanda.com, per 1.7.2014).

12 This has also been reported by Maertens and Swinnen (Citation2008) in their study of an outgrower scheme in Senegal, where contracts were predominantly signed by men, while many women provided the unpaid labour on the field, as well as by Carney and Watts (Citation1991) on their study of a rice scheme in the Gambia.

13 App. 30–120 USD (www.oanda.com, as per 1.7.2014).

Additional information


This work was supported by Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS); Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung [grant number Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Gender in Africa,R4D Food Security].

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