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South-South Cooperation Across the Atlantic: Emerging Interfaces in International Development and Technology Transfer in Agriculture


This is a study about South-South cooperation, or the recent (re)intensification of cooperation initiatives between countries from the so-called global South. It contributes to the effort of documenting and understanding this emerging phenomenon by dwelling on the case of technical cooperation in tropical agriculture between Brazil and the African continent. Drawing on ethnographic and other kinds of data collected in Brazil, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, it looks at some of the modalities of cooperation - in particular, capacity-building trainings and technology adaptation and transfer - that have been offered by Brazil's national agricultural research institute, Embrapa, to its counterparts in Africa during the last half-decade. Fundamentally inspired by Marilyn Strathern's analytics of relationality, this dissertation looks at South-South cooperation between Brazil and Africa as the formation of new socio-technical assemblages across the Southern Atlantic, regarded as a process characterized by an intensive work of context-making. I describe this as an ethnographic experiment in looking at emerging interfaces that bring together various domains, most notably in development cooperation and technology transfer.

The first interface approached by this dissertation is the one that constitutes South-South cooperation as such, by means of its claims to difference vis-à-vis Northern development aid. These claims are assessed in Chapter 1 in terms of two domains historically privileged by the anthropological literature on international development: global politics, and organizations. Inspired by postcolonial perspectives that complicate simplistic renditions of the North-South divide, I chart a possible genealogy of South-South cooperation from the situated standpoint of Brazil, focusing on its discursive principles on the one hand, and on its hemispheric and domestic politics on the other; and describe Brazilian cooperation in terms of its emerging organizational architecture and dynamics. The chapter concludes by foregrounding South-South cooperation's ambivalent historical constitution within a global apparatus built under Northern hegemony, suggesting that the practical enactment of some of its principles stems less from a coherent, alternative policy apparatus than from its very organizational "fragility" relatively to Northern aid.

I then move on to Brazil-Africa relations, to look in Chapter 2 at Brazilian cooperation's official discourse on Africa, uniquely based on claims to similarity and sharedness that are particularly emphatic when it comes to the domain of culture. A look at history indicates that this discursive emphasis has, for at least fifty years, eclipsed other vital dimensions of Brazil-Africa relations. Based on my ethnographic experience, I argue that this discourse does not find an easy counterpart in the practice of contemporary cooperation initiatives either. The chapter traces the origins of this special interest in culture to Gilberto Freyre's racial harmony ideology (itself a postcolonial rendition of Franz Boas' culturalism), and proposes the notion of nation-building Orientalism to characterize a view on Africa that, even though not inaugurated by Freyre, was taken by him to new heights. Inspired by classic and contemporary postcolonial literature, I argue that this view is fundamentally characterized by an interplay between domestic concerns (in this case, with the place of African descendants in Brazilian nationhood) and Brazil's own historical sense of subalternity vis-à-vis European and U.S. hegemony.

As one zooms in further on the scale of technical cooperation in agriculture, this concern with culture recedes to the background, giving way to considerations centered on shared natural environments and (peripheral) agricultural development. Chapter 3 focuses on one of Embrapa's technical cooperation modalities, capacity-building, to suggest how Brazilian cooperantes' reach to their African counterparts can be best characterized as being based on demonstration rather than intervention. More than actually transferring technology or knowledge, I argue that this mode of engagement aims at making a context for relations between Brazil(ians) and Africa(ns) where these were largely unprecedented, and where organizational and financial resources are limited relatively to those available to Northern donors.

The two final chapters take a closer look at one of the emerging assemblages conjured up by the recent South-South cooperation wave: Embrapa's Cotton-4 Project with Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Chad. They tell story of the project's early beginnings in Brazil's cotton dispute with the U.S. at the World Trade Organization during the mid-2000's, map out the new organizational assemblage that formed around the project, and describe how the project framed, and proposed to address, the problem of low cotton productivities in West Africa by adapting and transferring a package of Embrapa technologies made up of three components: no-till, integrated pest management, and plant breeding. Here, I draw on STS works on technology transfer based on Bruno Latour's actor-network theory to provide an account of technology transfer as the co-production between technology and context. I elaborate however on avenues little explored by the literature: in particular, the actors' scaling operations and the socio-technical controls they exercise differentially across contexts that are perceived less in terms of difference than in terms of an asymmetry between capacities. Based on my observations of this project's ongoing technology adaptation and transfer efforts, I conclude with a situated discussion about Brazilian South-South cooperation's potential for robustness.

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