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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
View the documentLocal models work best
View the documentAncient tradition continues today

Liberalism runs out of steam

Le nouveau drdre nomique mondial: Aux racines des ecs de dloppement, by Georges Corm, Editions La Duverte, 9 bis, rue Abel-Hovelacque, 75013 Paris, France, 1993, ISBN 27071-2197-5 (Pbk), 168 pp., FF 98.

The Lebanese economist Georges Corm has provided a clear, incisive analysis of the serious economic and financial problems affecting the world today. He believes that neo-liberal doctrine is responsible for all the ills of the “millions of human beings whose fate rests almost entirely on the development aid dispensed by national bureaucracies of the major capitalist countries.”

Corm acknowledges the success of Southeast Asia shows that “the Westernization of the Third World” is not a total disaster. But, he says, liberalism has run out of steam. Drug trafficking, ever higher pollution levels and the brain drain to the North have arisen not only because of the state of dysfunction of the world economy but, more to the point, because the classic mechanisms of international commerce no longer work.

The author contends that development has failed because the discipline of political economics has failed. “In the course of this long century, it has only produced abstract, contradictory and conflicting theoretical models, characterized by a very high degree of abstraction of a philosophical mystical nature...often based on a Promethean vision of man.”

Economics has less and less to do with people and policies and more and more to do with specializations such as marketing, management, planning, Third World development, finance, currency, etc. It has become ever more mathematical and, in the absence of any political reference, has continued to evade reality. Poverty, however, is only too real.

What has happened to the questioning, critical spirit of the Enlightenment, the author asks. No doubt the gap has been filled by a “programmed mythology” of modernity and ultra-liberalism created by press and publishing moguls. And since the world seems to be back in the dark, it is almost impossible to see the connection between the way the “feudal giants” run the world economy and the rise in fundamentalism, nationalistic tendencies, wars and conflicts that are less ethnic and less religious than they appear to be.

Analysing fiscal and financial systems, Corm finds them too complex and inappropriate for the recent economic transformations, which are based on an egalitarian ideology. The negative effects of this ideology have given rise to a massive outflow of capital, public deficits and accumulations of hidden income.

Corm cites the illogical choices of Third World decision-makers, who have ordered “turnkey factories” and finished products. This way offers neither assimilation nor the real technology transfer needed to meet the challenge of a new world order. And this is what has maintained the illusion of industrialization and consumption to the detriment of agriculture and led to intellectual sluggishness, technological impotence, an accumulation of hidden fortunes, an extension of misery and colossal debts.

The response of the worried banking world was to advise developing countries to undertake structural adjustment. “But the bulimic habits of these states means that these mechanisms cannot be established without compromising the social equilibrium that has already been weakened by the crisis and the legitimacy of the powers themselves.”

Corm concludes with a plea for a return to real political economics founded on the laws of economics. “Entire sections of the economy slip through the net and are no longer bound by the principle of equal opportunity, the economy of unearned income undermines contemporary capitalism,” Corm says. “This has occurred as a result of certain kinds of state intervention in the economy, which has also led to a reduced sense of responsibility among executives of the big industrial and banking concerns. The feudalization of economic channels seriously affects the economy's efficiency.”

But, he says, clear, transparent economic rules applicable to everyone cannot be established without rethinking the state - and that is a political question.

- John MacWin.

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.

Ancient tradition continues today

Comprendre d'agriculture paysanne dans les Andes centrales, Pu-Bolivie, edited by Pierre Morlon, INRA Editions, Route de St. Cyr, 78026 Versailles Cedex, Paris, France, 1992, 522 pp., ISBN 2-7380 0412-1 (Pbk), FF 250.

The agriculture of the central Andes epitomizes sustainability. Centuries before the term came into use, Andean farmers had perfected a land-use system which, despite difficult climatic and geographic conditions, has provided food security in a region that has been continuously and densely populated for thousands of years.

This study attempts to understand and explain how today's peasant farmers carry on the traditions of their ancestors. And it does this not through preconceived ideas, which are often erroneous, but through detailed observation of the farmers' techniques and tools. It explores in depth their complex strategies for organizing and using their productive resources.

The book is the result of multidisciplinary and multinational collaboration, coordinated by the agronomist Pierre Morlon. This in itself should be a consolation to those who believe it is wrong to separate the various scientific disciplines from one another, particularly the social sciences and economics, and lament the lack of communication among national and international researchers.

Morlon takes a rigorous, scientific approach to his subject. He shuns easy generalizations, simplistic economic views and the paternalism that can slant scientists' views of indigenous culture and technology.

But he has not produced a book valid only for the academic world. The study can serve as a tool for strategists, decision-makers and experts in agricultural development policy because it contains an abundance of methods, parameters and points of view, which reveal the elements at play in the sustainable exploitation of natural resources, particularly in extremely difficult climatic conditions.

The book points out that although the age-old Andean farming system would be classified as precapitalistic, it continued to support vast numbers of people through political, economic and agrarian upheavals. It survived the drastic changes in land distribution and use that occurred during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, as it did again when Peru and Bolivia joined the international market in the 19th century. The historical context as well as the intrinsic characteristics of the Andes system provide a wealth of solutions - and a challenge for development strategists and intellectuals in those countries.

Presenting detailed information on the Andean infrastructure and production system, the study chooses variables that are more complex than the simple cost-benefit mechanism. These include the role of Andean agriculture in terms of demographics. The purpose is to encourage action to reinforce those elements that make the system sustainable and efficient and establish flexible strategies that are complementary to and compatible with development plans.

Another important feature of the study is that it is not based on a rigid ideological position. Because of this, it can confirm the strategic rationality and validity of practicing biodiversity, complementarily and heterogeneity in agriculture. It endorses variety within species and crop variety, variety in tilling techniques and different ways of extending the harvesting period over the productive cycle in order to reduce risk.

The study does not go so far as to present the Andes farming system as a universal paradigm of sustainability. But, by showing how and why the system works, it helps the reader to discern the universal elements of sustainability which other communities in different geographic regions of the world can practise despite growing processes of homogenization ant globalization.

- Patricia Baeza-L is a Guatemalan journalist based in Rome.