Letter: Publicize Vanderbilt's Investment Research
To the editor:
We, the Oakland Institute's Board of Directors, write to praise the Vanderbilt students for their courageous action in challenging Vanderbilt University's endowment strategy.
The Oakland Institute (OI) has done extensive ground-breaking field research on the impact of foreign investments in Africa concerning land use, food security, the environment, employment opportunities, and the overall well being of those who live there. Our research has examined over 50 land deals in 7 African nations. The findings of the research appear on our website, www.oaklandinstitute.org, and have been widely reported in media in the US and globally. Because most of the investment and underlying agreements have intentionally been done behind closed doors and hidden from the public, both the research and the back-up documentation has been very difficult to access. One of the deals examined involves Emergent Asset Management, in which Vanderbilt Endowment is invested.
While we are obviously pleased that that Vanderbilt claims to have done its own research, we believe the students and the public deserve to see it. More particularly, the public should be able to compare OI's research with that done by Vanderbilt and to learn the criteria Vanderbilt used to determine that their investment has, in fact, benefited the people of Africa. Matthew Wright, Vice Chancellor for Investments, told our Executive Director, Anuradha Mittal on May 20, 2011 that while he was aware of Emergent's claims of socially responsible investment, the University had not conducted any due diligence to determine that. In Mr. Wright's words, "We don't have a socially responsible investment criteria. It is not primary concern. Our primary motivation behind investing in Emergent since 2009 was economic access to agricultural land that will have high return from the endowment."
It is not disputed that the people and resources of Africa have centuries of history of exploitation. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to be vigilant regarding claims that any particular foreign profit driven investment in Africa will benefit the African people. Emergent Asset Management, the recipient of Vanderbilt's investment, has made claims that investments will provide a 25% return and will even be profitable if the land lies fallow. Such statements, coupled with lack of transparency, should increase our scepticism of who really stands to benefit.
Some of what our research has uncovered includes the displacement of hundreds of thousands of small farmers, the diversion of water without environmental impact studies, the use of unsustainable farm practices, the failure to meet job creation and other promises, and special tax and other financial incentives so that the financial returns can be met. Our research revealed additional egregious negative impacts including conversion of land that is used for local food production into land to grow cash crops, including cut flowers and biofuels, for global export. In some cases, local farmers are driven off their land, fences are constructed around what was farmers' land, and the land just lays idle, waiting for speculation around land prices to provide profits for investors. Meanwhile, special tax holidays and other financial incentives ensure financial returns can be met for investors.
We look forward to receiving a response from the University's administration and having a public open discourse concerning these issues. We believe that institutions of higher education can be our allies in working toward a more just sustainable planet. For further information or to contact the OI board, please contact Jeff Furman at [email protected].
On behalf of the Board of Directors, The Oakland Institute