Cover Image
close this bookThe Crisis in African Agriculture - Studies in African Political Economy (United Nations University)
close this folder5: The second post-independence decade: The food crisis
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSmallholder development projects
View the documentThe basic needs strategy
View the documentAgrarian reform
View the documentMore credit facilities
View the documentWater supply
View the documentThe basic needs strategy in the current capitalist crisis

The basic needs strategy

The basic needs strategy is today well known. Studies made under the auspices of the World Bank, the ILO and many other agencies have widely publicized its content. We are not, therefore, going to fill a void at this level. In our section on the policy of developing agricultural smallholdings, we have attempted to raise a few practical problems that its implementation involves.

The strategy involves measures at the level of the rural areas and the urban areas, measures at the national and international level, economic and institutional measures.

We should like here simply to make a few comments on the problematic of the strategy as it relates to the rural areas, and its implications at the level of the whole capitalist system.

General observations

In the first place, the basis of the strategy is to seek to act on the situation of the poor with a view to improving it while at the same time preserving the underlying structures of society. But the poor do not live lives apart, but live within a society whose structures determine their conditions of existence. It is determinate relations of production that give rise to poverty and impoverishment and reproduce them at ever higher levels. Thus, without attacking these relations of production, one can only attack the effects and not the causes.

The strategy proceeds through the implementation of projects accompanied by a few proposals for reforms, which are usually quite vague. The projects are usually financed from abroad by big capital and are intended to relate to the sectors where the great disinherited masses live, that is, the vast traditional sector of the rural areas and the marginalized sectors of the urban areas. These sectors had previously been only indirectly or directly, but very loosely, integrated into the capitalist system. It is well known that wherever capital invests it tends to reproduce the relations of production that are typical of it and especially when the context is favourable, as it is in countries that are dominated and integrated into the system. It can thus be assumed that the implementation of these projects will lead to acceleration of the integration of these sectors into the economy governed by the rules of the system whose basic law is the quest for profit, and not help for the poor.

The financing of 'basic needs' projects does not undermine that of old type projects which incarnate the system of relations inherited from the colonial period. The extraverted general orientation of the economies thus remains intact, and it is to be feared that the food projects are simply means intended to sustain large-scale cash crop projects.

The capital invested is loans and as such these have to be repaid to those who set the original conditions. If the possibility of retrieving funds invested is not guaranteed, it is doubtful whether the investments would be made. But the sectors in which the impoverished masses live are sectors that are very little structured in terms either of institutions or infrastructure. This raises the likelihood of risks and leads the providers of funds to undertake detailed studies to select the lowest-risk situations. This inevitably leads to situations where cases of real impoverishment are left aside because they are not economically profitable.

If cases of failure multiply, it is to be feared that the strategy will be aborted. But the risks of failure are great given that the stress is put on the need for capital rather than on questioning the socio-economic structures of the countries concerned.

The reforms proposed to accompany the implementation of projects are very timid. But even with these minuscule reforms, how can there be any certainty that they will indeed be implemented and not taken over by the possessing classes. This leads one to wonder whether so-called projects for the poor would not profit the rich even more.

Development of the rural areas

It is in this regard that the literature on basic needs is most prolific, and it is indeed in this sector that the vast majority of the poorest people live, especially in Africa. We shall examine the overall goal proposed by the advocates of the strategy and then the means.

The goal: In his speech to the Board of Governors of the Bank, on 24 September 1973 in Nairobi, the President of the World Bank defined the goal thus: 'I suggest that the goal be to increase production on small farms so that by 1985 their output will be growing at the rate of 5% per year. If the goal is met, and smallholders maintain that momentum, they can double their annual output between 1985 and the end of the century.'

A preliminary remark, or rather a reminder, is that the estimates of the population affected by the basic needs strategy are inflated. In fact, these estimates relate to the population of the project area whereas a good proportion of this population does not participate in the project for various reasons (insufficient irrigated areas, credit inaccessible, etc.).

In so far as the farms affected by the project are concerned, is it logical to think that an annual 5% average growth rate can be attained between 1973 and 1985? There is no reason at all to think so. For many smallholders, their farms are generally not more than I ha. in size. Given the credit conditions - which we shall consider below - these farmers will find it difficult to have access to inputs. Not being in a position to use inputs making intensification possible, it will be impossible for them to sustain over a long period an annual growth rate of 5% of production on small farms whose fertility will rather be on a declining trend.

But even for the peasants who will effectively be able to reach 5% annual growth rate of production, how can one be sure that their standard of living will rise in consequence? In fact, it is known that most African states top up their budgets by creaming off the resources of the rural areas. The price systems, the tax systems, the credit system are all so many means that assure transfers of resources from the peasant producers to other social strata, not to mention the constant deterioration of the terms of trade between agricultural products and inputs. An annual production growth rate of 5% can perfectly well be accompanied by a deterioration of the conditions of existence of the peasants.

It is symptomatic to observe that the promoters of the strategy are only preoccupied with increasing production, without raising the problem of knowing who is to benefit from this increase.

The means: The means to be deployed are presented as follows:

Acceleration in the rate of land and tenancy reform.
Better access to credit.
Assured availability of water.
Expanded extension facilities backed by intensified agricultural research.
Greater access to public services.

And most critical of all: new forms of rural institutions and organizations that will give as much attention to promoting the inherent potential and productivity of the poor as is generally given to protecting the power of the privileged.1

But what does this catalogue of proposals, at first sight most appealing, cover? To find out, we shall look more closely at the details provided by other documents which analyse the proposals in depth.