|CERES No. 105/109 - October 1985 (FAO Ceres, 1985, 50 p.)|
"An effective system of food security for Africa requires a more just international economic order."
What kinds of external help do African nations most need today to overcome hunger and to develop an effective system of food security?
Drought is not new in Africa, although the current one has been more widespread, and has lasted for more years, than any other in recorded history. But there were refugees from crop failure,- and even deaths from hunger, in traditional Africa; in my own extended family there are elderly women who were married into the tribe as children because their own parents from a different areas could no longer feed them. I mention these facts as there is a prevailing wisdom that the current famines arise only because of the failures of independent African governments, and we cannot deal with the current problems unless we attack the underlying causes. But in doing so I am not denying that the inevitable and necessary process of development and modernization has in some ways been disruptive of the traditional food supply and distribution chain, nor that the rapid population increase and the urbanization puts new strains on the traditional food production capacity, nor that the larger and more destructive nature of modern warfare does much longer-lasting damage to the lives of Africa's people and the production levels- of African societies.
The first and most basic constraint on food production in Africa is the backwardness of its agricultural methods. It is not enough to recognize that the widespread traditional system of shifting agriculture was well adapted to the environmental hazards of tropical conditions; it was an adaptation at a low and insecure level. Output will remain at a very low level while the majority of the peasants cultivate with a hand-hoe, or even a digging stick, and rely upon natural rejuvenation of soil left fallow or upon the ashes from ´'slash and burn" methods of land clearance. Working with such primitive tools, and without any scientific knowledge, a fit and hard-working peasant family can cultivate no more than a few acres a year, and the productivity of their land will be low. As population pressure increases, and his children go to school during a period when they would otherwise be working with him, the net output will decrease still further.
These facts have implications for the kind of external help which African nations need. For as they increasingly recognize the need to give top priority to agricultural development, and in particular to raising the productive capacity of the peasants, they will quickly come up against the need for foreign exchange in order to provide better tools, transport, and other inputs.
This is not because they need massive quantities of tractors and other large and modern mechanized implements. Such things are needed by large commercial farms, or eventually by peasants producing cooperatively, but the real production breakthrough in the near future will come through the greatly extended use of simple animal, water, or hand-powered mechanical tools like ploughs, planters, carts, thereshers, and so on.
Yet the technical backwardness of most African states- and particularly those classified as "Least Developed" means that even these things cannot be produced, distributed, or used, without imported inputs. They have steel and rubber in them; the factories producing them are equipped with imported machines and need imported spare parts. The distribution of these implements, etc., needs lorries and fuel.
So African nations need to reassess their approach to agriculture, giving new priority to the development of the needs and productive capacity of the peasants who form the bulk of the producers (and who cannot be forced out or on to large commercial farms without a social and economic disaster). African governments need to work out a coherent and total economic strategy which directs the whole economy toward the service of the agricultural sector- and then to implement that strategy. They will need external assistance. Some may need help in working out the policy re-adjustment; if so, it will need to be help which recognizes that increased agricultural output does indeed involve the development, reorganization, or rehabilitation of some industrial capacity and a considerable extension of the transportation systems as well as direct investment on the land and improved seed production. But for the majority of countries, the real need for help will be in providing the resources (both material and managerial) with which to implement their plans. We in Tanzania, for example, have three factories which produce agricultural tools like hoes, axes, ploughs, harrows, carts, etc., as well as some rural workshops. All are working very much below capacity through lack of imported inputs, although the demand for the more advanced tools is steadily increasing.
Let me add that in the longer term, an effective system of food security for Africa also requires a more just international economic order. African states are sometimes criticized for producing and exporting agricultural commodities even at times of famine; yet they have no choice. They have to earn some foreign exchange in order to move agricultural inputs to the areas where they are needed, and to move food internally from surplus to deficit areas. Agricultural commodities are almost the only things they can export at their present level of development. Yet while the terms of trade move so consistently against primary commodities they have to produce and sell more and more of these exports even to maintain-much less develop-the most basic services for the peasants and other agricultural producers.
Very few African nations enjoyed sovereign status when FAO was founded 40 years ago. Today the continent accounts for about one third of the Organization's total membership. How would you characterize the role of FAO in Africa's agricultural and rural development?
It is important not to underestimate the contribution made by FAO in African countries, especially through the assistance its technical experts have made in helping African states to set up agricultural and forestry monitoring systems, research and training institutions, planning and production units. In all these and many other fields African states have had good help from experts provided by FAO; I think it is fair to say that some of the necessary institution building would not have been begun, and much would not have been sustainable, without FAO's prompting and assistance. Yet although it is not exciting to talk about institutions and systems- and FAO as well as African governments are criticized for creating bureaucracies when they are involved in their establishment-you have no basis for organized development or service to the peasants without them.
Having said that, and without in any way decreasing my admiration for the work of FAO, it is necessary to recognize that the FAO as well as African governments have been learning about the problems of developing African agriculture by trying to do it. It is appropriate that on its 40th anniversary, the FAO should ask itself-as we are asking ourselves-whether we have not made some serious mistakes which could be corrected in the next decades.
For example, FAO experts are always very highly qualified academically; not all of them have practical experience of farming or of being farmers-much less of being peasants. This colours their approach to the very real problems with which African states have to deal. What is more, their training has usually been in temperate agricultural zones, and they think in terms of Western-style development; even when they come from developing countries they have almost always been educated or trained in the Western tradition.
So FAO experts usually emphasize the development of high-yielding seeds, whereas the African peasant would probably put a higher priority on seed reliability in the face of uncertain climatic conditions and on reproducibility. Experts emphasize the use of chemical fertilizers and pay little or no attention to manuring systems. They tend to think in terms of big schemes rather than of small ones. They tend to think in terms of systems that depend upon reliable transport and the ready availability of inputs from outside the farm or village. In all these respects FAO experts encourage the predilection of most educated African agriculturalists instead of pushing their attention toward the peasants, who are the real producers. Yet it is increasingly obvious that what is needed is, firstly the maximum amount of attention to the needs of the peasant, and secondly of self-reliance within a village, then a district, and then a region.
I believe that some change in these matters has begun within FAO as well as within many African nations. We are all now more aware that the experiences of agricultural development, and the practices in developed countries of the temperate zone, are not necessarily transferable to African conditions. We must learn our lessons from our experience.
The Chinese experience in rural development has long been cited as an instructive model for centrally planned developing economies. Do you think that China's present shift toward a more market-oriented agricultural sector is likely to be copied by other socialist states?
Each country has to work out the organization best suited to its own conditions at a particular stage in its development. Poor socialist countries have a great deal to learn from Chinese experience of rural development. It could be argued that it is on the basis of their past success in upgrading the poorest areas and ending the worst excesses of peasant poverty, that China is now able to move to a new stage in which equality and communal work is given less emphasis than production figures. For increased production there is not now likely to lead to increased poverty for the majority, as it often does if the poorest peasants are left in their ignorance or denied access to land or credit.
I would say that all developing countries can learn a great deal from Chinese experience, and that the socialist ones will find a great deal in the past as well as in the present reorganization from which they can learn. But one country- and particularly when the culture and traditions are so different-can never successfully copy another. You can learn and adapt. And I still believe that Chinese post-revolutionary agricultural organization-past as well as present- is probably a better model from which African states can start adaptation than are the agricultural organizations of the developed states like USA, USSR, and Britain.
You have been in the front lines, so to speak, in the debate about conditionality as a factor in determining the level and nature of resource flows to developing countries. What is your present view regarding the appropriateness of Official Development Assistance grants and loans being linked to specific policy adjustments?
First let us be clear; ODA grants and loans have never been unconditional. Donor nations always consider projects and programmes put to them and make their own judgements about their viability, their appropriateness, as well as their own nation's ability to make a contribution in the particular area. We have never complained about that. Nor have we complained about the demand that accounts be kept properly and be open to inspection; on the contrary, many of us find this financial accountability very helpful to our own endeavours to run an honest administration.
Perhaps it is inevitable that donor countries will tend to direct most of their bilateral assistance toward countries in whose policies they find an echo of their own approach to ideological or economic questions. As long as assistance to the poor of the world remains on the basis of charitable decisions made by national governments, and not on that of an international taxing system, the concept of "the deserving poor" will have a strong influence over the distribution of bilateral aid. Only the definition of who is deserving will differ from donor to donor! But there is no excuse for multinational agencies of the United Nations family adopting similar practices; their allocations should be made strictly upon the basis of need and viability for the declared purposes.
Yet I believe it is fundamentally wrong even for bilateral ODA to be used as an instrument of political domination. And when one country says to another that it will take part in the attack on poverty only if policies of private enterprise dominate the economic strategy, or if an agreement is reached with the IMF, then that is what it is doing-trying to govern a country at second remove, and without responsibility for any social or economic results.
I may be shocked by the existence of hunger in the richest countries of the world; this does not give me the right to tell those governments to become socialist or to increase their welfare provision. They may think that my country should give priority to increasing its statistical GDP rather than to concerning itself with the ability of people to get access to food or education; that does not, as I see it, give them the right to contract out of the world attack on poverty-even the poverty in my own country which results from our technical backwardness and the workings of the existing international economic order.
The world is one, and there is one human race. Ordinary people recognize this, as is evident by their response to knowledge of the famines in Africa or disasters elsewhere. But the world will only move toward increased peace and harmony when we learn to respect our equality with each other, and -while we are still organized in nation states-the equal right of all nations to make their own sovereign decisions, at least within a generally accepted framework of human decency. We still have a long way to go in that respect.
Do you regard Africa's present population growth rates as a major impediment to achieving higher levels of regional food security?
They are quite obviously a major problem. While we are expanding our population at present rates, and when at the same time we aim at our children being better fed, better clothed, and better educated than previous generations in Africa, we are trying to swim against a swift current.
But I would add two points. First, we are in a stage of transition. In the past, a large family was a condition for human security-both economic and social; the high infant and child mortality rate meant that virility and fertility had a high social status. Over the centuries this experience has resulted in the building up of cultural attitudes and practices which cannot be quickly overcome-the more especially while child mortality rates remain as high as they are in African countries.
Yet families are now beginning-especially but not only in the urban areas - to realize that bringing up a large number of children is a big problem. So they are torn between their traditional culture, the economic problems of large families-and the lack of any social security for their old age except the children's traditional social responsibility for the aged and sick. In time, this social conflict will be resolved; it will happen the faster the lower is the child death rate and the quicker some alternative system of social security can be introduced.
In other words, development is itself a propagator of family planning! And this conforms to world experience; in Europe and America the population growth rates declined as they became more prosperous-not while they were still very poor. A high standard of living and a general decrease in the mortality rate always precedes any marked decrease in the birthrate.
Secondly, there is no quick and easy answer to the problem of population growth. The traditional African systems of family planning have been largely broken down by the impact of social and economic changes, but the widespread adoption of more scientific systems of contraception demands the dispersal of medical care and knowledge, and sometimes of pharmaceutical items. This is not easily attained at the required level. Social customs cannot be easily broken; a forcible attempt to do so can lead to social disaster.
Family size is one area where steady, consistent, and socially acceptable policies have to be applied over a long period; they have to he combined with- and seen to be combined with-other aspects of social and economic development.
Do you consider that environmental stress and degradation are an inevitable result of agricultural modernization under African conditions? Do you see any need-or prospect for the development of indigenous "soft" technologies for African agriculture?
It seems to me that environmental stress is inevitable, but degradation is not inevitable - although it is very likely in Africa unless we quickly recognize the dangers and do something about it. Until the last few years, Africa regarded environmental concern as an American and European matter; indeed there was a tendency to believe that talk of the environment was part of a conspiracy to prevent modern development in our continent! Now we have reached the stage of recognizing that environmental concern and development have to be linked together if the latter is to be real and permanent. The question is how to do this.
I do not claim to know all the answers, although I am confident that it can be done over time. The problem is that we need to act as fast on this aspect of development as we do on the introduction of new methods and tools of production. Indeed, we have some catching up to do.
Quite clearly reforestation, and great emphasis on the planting of trees, is part of dealing with the environmental question-and there is no reason why this cannot be pursued with success given time, public education and, therefore, resources. For again, reforestation must be based on the people's understanding and participation - it is not just a question of planting extensive areas with trees (although that may have its place too). And methods of appropriate improved agriculture which guard the long-term fertility of the soil must be developed and applied; in this we probably could learn something from a combination of (a) the peasants' experience of cultivating in a particular area for centuries and (b) careful research into the environmental impact of agricultural practices in tropical conditions.
We must, and we can, integrate care of the environment into our present planning to deal with the food problems of Africa If we do not, the problem will recur whatever else we do.