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September 22, 2008

Continent' s food problems need African solutions

by B. Y. Muhammad

In only a few decades, Africa has plunged from self sufficiency in food to experiencing widespread hunger. The energy that has been devoted to an examination of Africa and its crisis must now also be channelled into a self - critical study of the underlying assumptions of the development strategies that have been pursued in Africa. Otherwise, we will be once more failing to listen to the African present; this arrogance has cost many Africans their lives. Famine has revealed the poverty of theory.

Advising Africa has become a major industry, with western consultancy firms charging as much as $200,000 for a year of an expert's time. There are more expatriate experts in Africa now than during the colonial period. At any given moment, sub-Sahara Africa has at least 100,000 expatriates working for public agencies under official aid programs. Yet in the two and a half decades since the political liberation of African land, Africa has plunged from food self-sufficiency to widespread hunger.

This period has witnessed the transformation of hunger from a "marginal" problem to one that has brought the entire continent near to the brink of collapse. The African poverty trap treated competing doctrinaire ideologies with much the same contempt. The poverty of former socialist countries and so-called capitalist countries face approximately the same bleak and uncompromising future.

The orthodox theory is based on the conception of African farming as an underdeveloped and "primitive" version of the modern industrial agriculture of the advanced centres. It is therefore considered to be capable of being "upgraded" and "engineered" through projects and programs designed with little regard for the social and material realities of the continent.

The conception of African agriculture as only quantitatively rather than qualitatively different from the western pattern of agriculture is also found amongst the agri-business multinationals. They also view African agriculture as a mere extension of western agriculture.

These notions of development attempted to solve domestic supply problems through imports, the cost of which was borne by the peasants.

Essentially, rural development has been a matter of demanding sacrifices and adjustments from the rural poor. These policies have succeeded only in squeezing these peasants out of their nation's political and economic life.

At the same time, the notion of government as the principal engine of development has been carried particularly far in Africa, where it was universally accepted that the indigenous private sector was very weak. Consequently, virtually all the money entered the economy through state spending and was mostly channelled towards the modern city. Economic activity revolved around the city as a source of employment, income and investment.

This lop-sided development has resulted in whole countries becoming synonymous with only one city - the capital - or, if it was inland, the capital and its port. Internal communication and trade remain underdeveloped and the city becomes a negation of its roots and real identity.

The metaphysical counter-posing of the "dynamic" western agriculture to "static" African farming, the "active" city to "passive" countryside has reinforced the notion of rural development as a task of social engineering. The determining factor- was the quantitative imposition of western technology, which would (mechanically) "trigger" the whole process.

In this situation it is not surprising that development in Africa is conceived as "a world of numbers with little relation to reality." Nor is it a coincidence that Africa, with its substantial aid (10 times that given per person in Asia), has also the largest graveyard of public investments in rural development.

Experience shows that the solution lies in paying more attention to small producers in rural agriculture rather than focusing on the technical question of productivity (as expressed in output per unit of labour, or on a cost-benefit determination based on the market). The emphasis must be to identify that political space which is needed to enable the rural poor to gain economic and social ground.

The clouds of universal models, imposed from above, must give way to a careful analysis of the social contradictions determining the existence of the peasantry.

The most important rural development victories have been recorded where local peasants, with appropriate encouragement and support from other groups, have acted on their own to defend and promote their economic interests. In other words, the criteria of development must be internal, and not externally imposed.

But old habits die hard. The international debate about rural development is focusing too one-sidedly on the question of producer prices. There is widespread belief that if only countries get their agriculture-producer prices right, food shortages will disappear and national economies will grow.

This is nothing but a short-hand (external) answer to a problem that has many complex internal dimensions. Peasants, while not insensitive to price incentives, are also guided by many other considerations.

For instance, in making decisions about what and how much to produce, African peasants are influenced by such factors as availability of labour, quality of soil, access to technology and the nature of social institutions.

The external approach does not recognise the existence of these constraints and does not aim at identifying means that enable local people to overcome them on their own.

Africans have always had an intimate relationship with their land. Political struggles, especially those centering on the ownership of land, were crucial to many liberation struggles.

Since independence, however, the governments just like their capital cities have been alienated from their roots and real identity. Two major famines in little more than a decade are a dramatic expression of this rupture.

The time has come for African governments to stop searching for external models of development; external because these models have negated the crucial factor, which is the majority of the Africans, from its matrix. As a result, the politicians have neglected the traditions and customs on which Africa has forged its civilization.

As one elderly Senegalese farmer noted, "It is the town that is done for the peasants. Twenty years on we've come to realise what independence really meant. It was just for the towns: One of these days we'll be asking Dakar for a reckoning, you'll see."

The Tripoli Post

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