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close this bookCERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
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View the documentLiberalism runs out of steam
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Local models work best

Survival in the Sahel: An ecological and developmental challenge,

edited by Klaus M. Leisnger and Karin Schmitt, International Service for National Agricultural Research, P.O. Box 93375, 2509 AJ The Hague, the Netherlands, 1995, 211pp., ISBN-92-9118 -020-3 (Pbk), free to individuals and institutions in developing countries, US$10 in developed countries. A french translation will be available shortly.

If many little people, in many little places, can do many little deeds, they can change the face of the earth.

Survival in the Sahel gives weight to this age-old African saying. An expanded and updated version of a German-language study published in 1992, the book is an intelligent and comprehensive study of a region struggling to survive drought, famine, civil wars and poverty.

Since the late 1960s, droughts alone have claimed millions of lives in Burkina Faso, Chad, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger and Senegal. Despite efforts to improve food production and the standard of living and create jobs, the obstacles seem overwhelming. But, according to the findings of the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), this is not the whole picture.

ISNAR, established in 1979 in The Hague by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to help developing countries improve their national research systems and organizations, agrees that the countries of the Sahel must attack a multitude of problems, including the political inertia of their governments.

But it argues that the solutions are available, not in mounting grandiose projects but in taking small steps in the right direction - working at the local level and combining modern methods with traditional knowledge. Like many, another development organization, ISNAR, has come to realize that when efforts fail it is often because they focus on what donor organizations and countries can do rather than what recipients can absorb.

A major effort to fight the effects of drought in the region is a case in point. The Sahelian countries joined forces in 1973 to form the Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). In 1977, CILSS adopted a common development strategy giving priority to increasing the production of commercial crops such as cotton and groundnuts in humid areas.

By 1992, the Sahel had received more than US$2.6 billion in external aid. But the results were disappointing, largely because most donor countries only supported projects for developing irrigated farming, which accounts for only 5 per cent of all agriculture in the Sahel. “Promoting rain-fed agriculture, which is more typical of the region and produces 95 per cent of all its cereals, would have been more effective and efficient,” the book says. The mistake was trying to import a development model that worked in other countries.

By contrast, NGO development projects that were simple, inexpensive and carried out by local land users are not only successful but ecologically sustainable. From this, the study concludes that decentralization and broad participation of the local population are required in all efforts to make rural and agricultural development a reality. Moreover, women's role in these efforts must be expanded and conditions have to be created in which women can become an integral part of the development process.

ISNAR's findings indicate that African governments do not demonstrate much faith in research as an instrument of progress. In Africa, research still remains heavily dependent on donor support, which is limited by the West's short-term loans.

But local research can produce impressive results. The study offers the example of the Cinzana Agricultural Research Station in Mali, one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the Sahel. The station was established in 1979 as a joint project of the government of Mali, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics with support from the CIBA-GEIGY Foundation for Cooperation with Developing Countries.

Its prime target was to promote domestic food production by increasing pearl millet yields. “Research had to be aimed at enabling small farmers, who are the main pearl millet producers throughout the Sahel, to have access to improved seed varieties and better cultivation techniques without having to obtain any additional, expensive inputs,” the study says. “All evaluations of the station indicate that this aim has been achieved.” And the station is now an integral part of Mali's government-controlled national research program.

This shows how an initiative can slowly but surely yield results when it operates under the motto “small is beautiful” and motivates the target population with a feeling of responsibility for their project.