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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
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View the documentSmallholder development projects
View the documentThe basic needs strategy
View the documentAgrarian reform
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View the documentWater supply
View the documentThe basic needs strategy in the current capitalist crisis


The policy of developing smallholdings as well as the basic needs strategy of which it formed an essential feature were widely publicized by the World Bank, with all its vast financial power, which made itself their leading promoter. They raised hopes that were sometimes sincere, as well as many illusions. They left nobody indifferent, whether researchers or decision-makers. Given that Africa is in this regard the region in the world most implicated because it has the largest percentage of poor and rural-dwellers, we feel it necessary to look more closely at this policy as well as the strategy underlying it.

Smallholder development projects

According to its promoters, this policy consisted in giving financial support to projects aimed at developing production from smallholdings so that they could double their output by 1985.

While investment had hitherto been directed at big projects for developing tropical products intended for export, this was to be modified by paying greater attention to and giving an impetus to projects involving smallholdings, usually those producing food crops. Capital had therefore to be injected into traditional, mainly subsistence, agriculture with the aim of modernizing it and consequently of integrating it more into the world capitalist system. It is thus of considerable interest to examine some concrete cases of implementation of smallholder development projects, and their consequences on the social structures and conditions of existence of the peasant masses.

But before doing so, we need to clarify the notion of smallholdings by explaining their general features and the socio-economic conditions in which they develop.

General features of smallholdings

Given the great diversity of agrarian structures in Africa varying from one sub-region and country to another, the features which we are about to describe cannot be generalized for the whole continent. They do however apply to most cases in Africa south of the Sahara. We refer more particularly to the Sudan-Sahel zone for which we have more data and information.

Smallholdings play a very important role in African agriculture, both in terms of their number and in terms of the numbers of people they involve. Thus, in Mali, 75% of farms are under 5 ha.; in Kenya, in 1970, 770,000 smallholdings, ranging in size from about 0.5 to 10 ha. were recorded, while the number of large holdings was only 3,175. In Kenya again, in 1971, out of a total population of 11.7 million, 90% lived in the rural areas, 70% of them on smallholdings.

Smallholders are mainly involved in producing food crops, although in East Africa there is a relatively high number of smallholdings given over to producing tea or tobacco. But all that is a function of the needs of the family since smallholdings rely essentially on labour provided by the family to meet the family's needs.

Subsistence is thus the first aim and usually only surpluses are exchanged, or the product of plots devoted to commercial crops. Money and marketing thus play a minor role. For example, at Siou, in Senegal, where a rice development project was launched to assist smallholdings, out of a rice production of 30,655 tons in 1976, only 5,000 tons, or one-sixth of the total, were commercialized. Actually, this example is a rather poor illustration of the limited role of commercialization since it relates to smallholdings that have already entered the process of modernization.

The labour is family labour and wage-earning is almost non-existent. But there are usually what may be called exchanges of labour that occur in the framework of mutual help groups. In turn, each member of the group invites all the others to get the work done faster. The one who does the inviting simply provides food and a few extras like cigarettes or soft drinks.

Techniques of production as well as farming methods are extremely simple and usually involve the use of agricultural implements and the application of the system of crop rotation with fallow, and sometimes use of animal manure.

The socio-economic contexts in which smallholdings develop relate to the main approaches to precolonial African societies which we outlined above. The social and ideological relationships inherited from those societies are not simply survivals. Some traits still remain almost intact in African villages. In general, land is still not the object of private appropriation, nor is it bought and sold. Access to land is assured in the framework of the village community. In a number of countries, however, a policy of privatizing land has been embarked on, which affects even traditional smallholdings (Kenya, for example).

If, in general, African tenure systems are marked by the co-existence of Western law and customary law, it is the customary law inherited from the old communal structure that mostly governs smallholdings. These customs determine the relations between men in dealing with land. They have rarely questioned the absence of private appropriation of land. The conditions in which production takes place (shifting agriculture) make a right of ownership unnecessary: it would be pointless. The absence of a right of ownership, however, in no way means the absence of any rights over land. The chief of the community (village or tribal chief) ensures access to land for members of the community. By clearing a given piece of land, these acquire rights over that land for their exclusive use. When it is exhausted, they can clear a new piece provided that they do not infringe on plots already brought under cultivation by others. Furthermore, transmission through inheritance which used to exist, still exists and goes through the maternal line (some coastal regions of the Ivory Coast, Ghana, etc.).

The assaults to which these tenure systems based on custom are sometimes subjected come from external interventions. This occurs when states decide to systematize the privatization of land. The explanation then given is to encourage peasants to invest in their land which they now own. Once this happens, land acquires a commercial value. This may also occur when an agricultural development project is started in a zone or region of smallholders.

Investments in terms of capital are non-existent or insignificant. Farm implements are produced by the peasants themselves or by the village craftsmen. Their extreme simplicity means that there is no separation between the producers and their means of production, just as also there is no separation between the producers and their products.

As for the general framework of the life of smallholders, if the main activity is agriculture in the narrow sense of the word, that is, the practice of cultivating crops, there exist in the traditional rural milieu many petty activities that vary from one ecological zone to another and according to the prevailing climatic conditions. For the most part, these activities involve crafts, herding, fishing, gathering and petty trade. The division of labour not being very developed, these activities are quite often carried on by the peasants themselves, either in the off season (crafts), or all year round (gathering, petty trade). Herding and fishing sometimes constitute the main activities of some small ethnic groups.

The social infrastructure is limited to a few schools and dispensaries sited in the main villages. Distance and inadequate means of communication and transport mean that the vast majority of peasant families scattered in countless small villages do not have access to the services offered by this infrastructure.

These are the principal features of smallholdings and their socio-economic contexts in a large number of African countries, especially south of the Sahara. It was necessary to enumerate them in order to be able to gauge the impact of the projects that are part of the basic needs strategy with the declared aim of modernizing smallholdings, and hence of transforming them.

Aims and Means of the Projects

While the declared ultimate aim is to achieve the growth of production, depending on the project, stress is put on various sectoral means. The projects usually concern food crops. Particularly in the Sudan-Sahel zone, they are aimed at increasing cereal production, sometimes in association with cash crops.

In other regions where peasant agriculture is more integrated into the money economy, efforts are directed at improving the production of some non-food crops, such as tea in Kenya or tobacco in Tanzania.

The means are varied: provision of credit to facilitate access to inputs; building of small hydro-agricultural dams; introduction of new agricultural methods and new varieties of seeds; preparation of new land through the eradication of illnesses like sleeping sickness; establishment of storage areas, etc. These means are used selectively, as required by each project; rarely are all used at once.

Some so-called integrated projects have as part of their aims to intervene not only in aspects touching directly on the development of production but also to promote social infrastructure like health services and education.

We shall see below how far these sets of aims were or were not achieved from the examination of a few concrete cases. Naturally, the concrete cases which we shall be able to examine are very limited in number, and our conclusions will be made with every reservation.

The number of people affected by projects relating to smallholdings varies a great deal, ranging from at least 5,000 individuals to some 500,000. It rarely reaches one million. And even then it must be stressed that these figures given by financing agencies are inflated to the extent that they are estimates relating to the population living in the project zones, but of which sizeable fractions do not effectively benefit from the real or supposed advantages. Constraints such as the conditions for the granting of credit or the inadequacy of irrigated areas, for example, eliminate many peasants who yet live in zones where projects are being implemented.

Structures for executing projects

The implementation of projects proceeds through the establishment of administrative and technical supervisory structures usually placed under the control of state bodies. In order to better understand the functioning of these structures and hence be able to assess their impact on peasant life, we shall take detailed examples from Senegal and Mali.

The administrative departments look after management problems, lay down the conditions on which land is allocated, especially if there is irrigation, lay down the conditions on which credit is granted, and ensure the provision of inputs as well as the collection and marketing of products.

The technical departments disseminate the technical aspects, teach new agricultural methods, make sure they are respected and particularly look after the time-table for their implementation.

This supervision to which the peasants are subjected sometimes takes the form of draconian constraints. For example, in the framework of the rice-growing project at Siou in Senegal, and the agricultural development schemes in Mali (Operation Rice Su, Operation Rice Mopti, etc.) that we have been able to examine in some detail, the peasants had absolutely no say in anything to do with the management and marketing of their products. Thus, the Office National de Cooperation et d'Assistance au Dloppement (ONCAD - National Development Corporation and Assistance Office) acted as intermediary between the peasants and the Banque Nationale de Dloppement du Senegal (BNDS - National Development Bank of Senegal).

The ONCAD was responsible for supplying machinery and credits to the Siou rice-growing project. It also had a monopoly on the marketing of these products. Despite its ponderous administration and imposing bureaucracy which sometimes involved a lengthy delay in the actual delivery of machinery and the collection of products, seriously harming peasants' interests, the ONCAD granted itself an interest rate of 25% on credits, not to mention business charges. It is no loss that the ONCAD, so long lambasted, has finally been abolished.

The situation was almost the same in Mali except that instead of one body there were two bodies that shared the task of the ONCAD: the Office des Produits Agricoles du Mali (OPAM - Mali Agricultural Commodities Office) for marketing, and the Soci de Credit Agricole et d'Equipement Rural (SCAER - Agricultural Credit and Rural Machinery Company) for supplies.

Sometimes all the peasants in a village would be made collectively responsible for loans granted to individual peasants. Thus, as part of the Siou rice-growing project in Senegal, credits were only made to peasants by the ONCAD if at least 85% of the old debts of the whole village were repaid.

In Mali, while the interest rate is not very high in the Su rice-growing scheme, there are compulsory levies in the form of obligatory payments, and compulsory sales which deprive the peasant of the bulk of his harvest since the levies can take over 50%.

In addition, the technical supervision is sometimes extremely restrictive. The least lack of respect for the new techniques being disseminated and the time-table for crops leads to the peasant's expulsion from the project zone and repossession of the plot that he was occupying. This supervision takes on the shape of a veritable police operation when it takes the form of the one on the rice-field at San in Mali. (Reproduced in the appendix is a request from the peasants there.)

The only rights left to the peasants in general are that they can have a say when there are, for example, hydro-agricultural works of concern to all to be carried out. They can propose these works, discuss how they are to be carried out and organize the necessary human investments. In addition, they can settle internal conflicts between peasants and discuss whether or not to accept new peasants on the laid out lands.

Impact of techniques introduced via projects on existing social structures

First, what are these techniques? They are generally superior to the existing agricultural implements and involve more demanding farming methods.

Some equipment can be kept by the peasants individually. These include: carts, ploughs, harrows, seeders, cultivators, etc. In the same way, inputs such as fertilizers pesticides and selected seeds can be bought by the farmers as they need them.

Conversely, some heavy equipment is kept by the project administration which hires its services to the peasants. This includes: tractors, lorries, mechanical threshers, etc.

As for farming methods, they are applied under the supervision of the supervisors. Application of these methods is often made the first condition in allotting laid out plots.

These new methods impose some strictness in work conditions, use of certain selected seeds, strict respect for the agricultural calendar in the carrying out of the various tasks performed by peasants. The influence of the new techniques on peasants and village customs, traditions and habits appears in various guises.

By way of illustration we shall refer once again to cases in Senegal and Mali. At Siou in Senegal, more precisely in Casamance, the introduction of a certain variety of rice greatly contributed to reducing the sexual division of agricultural labour. Historically, the Mandinka people who settled in Casamance considered the valley zones as a place for women to work and the plateau zones as a place for men to work. Given that rice-growing was only practised in the valleys, the men never took any part in growing this crop, although the potential was enormous. They rather looked after the growing of groundnuts on the plateaux which brought in money as a cash crop. That was, of course, linked to the relations of domination between men and women in the framework of the family, the men looking after the crops that brought in money and ensured their power, and the women looking after the food crops that ensured the food supply.

Plateau rice had to be introduced to get the men interested in rice-growing. The pressure of the drought years meant that men and women would work together to lay out rice-growing lands. As soon as the men became interested in rice-growing through the introduction of plateau rice, the barrier of the sexual division of labour between ecological zones collapsed.

This disruption of an old tradition that hindered the development of the production of rice, the staple foodstuff of the region, can be considered a positive effect of the introduction of some new techniques. But the introduction of new techniques has other even more important consequences on family and social structures.

It is well known that, in the traditional rural world, the extended family embracing several households is quite a widespread type. This extended family has a large common field where every individual of working age from every household of the extended family works. The households may, however, have individual fields to which they devote a portion of their work time.

The acquisition of better implements rapidly leads to the spread of individual fields and the breaking away of households from the extended family. To the extent that possession of an ox plough and a cart makes it possible for a household to take care of the whole cycle of production without having recourse to members of the extended family, this household will tend to go and settle elsewhere.

Thus, the break-up of the extended family gets underway.

Examination of a Malian project, the Option Arachide et Cultures Vivris (OACV - Operation Groundnut and Food Crops) enabled us to observe that the development of individual fields was very clear in families having machinery as compared to those not having any.

Thus, in the pilot villages of the project, the following figures were noted: at Sirak, 88% of the fields are common fields and 12% individual fields in the unmechanized holdings, whereas in the mechanized holdings, only 37% are common fields as against 63% individual fields. In the village of Daban, 52% were common fields and 48% individual fields on the unmechanized holdings, whereas in the mechanized holdings, the common fields accounted for only 29% and individual fields 71%.

The development of techniques will thus tend to break up the extended family in favour of the family reduced to one household. Similarly, the village mutual aid associations will tend to disappear, as households manage more and more to carry out all the tasks of the production cycle without having to seek help from neighbours.

These phenomena occur even faster in projects where supervision and extension work impose strict respect for new farming methods. The new demands spelled out by the supervisors and the extension agents will tend to the development of independent work rather than work with the mutual aid associations in so far as plots are more clearly marked, and the constraints of methods and time more rigorous.

Thus, at the level of the family, the introduction of new techniques has major repercussions, but equally it has no less important ones on social divisions among the peasants. In fact, the plots with machinery save labour time and can offer their services to plot-holders who do not have any. In addition, the mechanized plots can increase their acreage and have recourse to outside labour that can easily be found among peasants who are short of cash.

Thus, in the framework of the OACV in Mali, we were able to observe that the number of working individuals at the level of a household rose with the acquisition of certain machinery.

We can already draw two very important conclusions concerning the introduction of new techniques in the framework of projects without prejudging their positive or negative impact. First, there is the retreat of the communal way of life and the tendency towards the break-up of the extended family and peasant solidarity. Then there is an acceleration of the phenomena associated with the spread of capitalism leading to the deepening of social divisions among the peasants.

Because of the uneven possibilities of having access to inputs as a function of the previous resources of different groups, this social cleavage will tend to deepen between peasants. Depending on the existing social legislation in the different countries, the better-off peasants can increase the size of their holdings in the framework of projects through loans, hiring or even sometimes purchases. The machinery that they hold enables them to exploit other land in areas outside the project. It enables them also to provide services for less well provided peasants.

These better-provided peasants thus have increasingly significant means of accumulation. Thus, a division of peasants into rich and poor is gradually coming about, as a result of unequal access to new techniques and unequal possibilities of exploiting these techniques to the full.

The projects and satisfaction of basic needs

Food needs: Quite often projects aimed at the development of smallholdings succeed in making significant increases in production, yield, productivity and even acreage.

For the Siou Senegal, rice project, realized production reached 2.8 times the targets by the second year, and 3.1 times the target by the third. For the Su Mali, rice operation, while performances were less spectacular, they were nevertheless good. But while increases in production are generally achieved, in no way does this fact make it possible to conclude that the food requirements of the peasant producers are satisfied. For this there are three main reasons:

1) The share taken by non-producers (the state, suppliers of credit, etc.) can considerably reduce the amount remaining in the hands of the producers themselves.

2) The overall production figures for the project do not make it possible to estimate exactly the situation of individual peasant families: they do not always achieve the same results.

3) Even if each family satisfied its rice needs, for example, other food needs might not be satisfied and nutritional problems might arise.

The two rice production projects Siou in Senegal and Su in Mali) provide a good illustration of the scale of deductions. In the case of Senegal this deduction is effected through the fixing of a high interest rate for credit granted. This interest rate is 25%, payable at the end of each season. In Mali the interest rate is quite low (3%) but there are forced deductions in the form of fees and compulsory sales. These deductions may reach or even exceed half the peasant's production. This shows that no satisfactory conclusion can be drawn as to the situation of the peasants from the increase in production on the projects.

Our study of the OACV (in Mali) provides on the other hand an example of the fact that the global figures conceal disparities in situation between families. The OACV is a programme for developing groundnuts and food crops, mainly millet. The consumption norms deemed adequate by the Malian plan were 200 to 250 kg. of cereals per capita per annum.

The results of a survey conducted in four villages in the OACV put the level of consumption at 270 kg. per capita per annum for the villages as a whole. This might lead to the conclusion that the consumption norms were satisfactory. But an examination of the accounts of the holdings studied in the four villages revealed sometimes significant cereal deficits. Of 12 unmechanized holdings studied, seven had cereal deficits and purchases of cereals rose from 6,000 to 90,000 Malian Francs. Of 19 mechanized holdings, seven had cereal deficits and cereal purchases rose from 5,000 to 98,000 Malian Francs. This example proves that the global figures do not make it possible to get an accurate picture of the particular situations of individual families.

Finally, even if the cereal needs were satisfied for each family, other food deficiencies might exist because of inadequate consumption of some basic food staples: meat, milk, fruit and vegetables, etc.

In the final analysis the assessments and surveys that have been made in no way make it possible to say that basic food needs are satisfied by the implementation of the projects, either quantitatively or qualitatively. The only fair conclusion that can be drawn is that in the best cases the projects succeed to some extent in reducing food deficits. But even there, too, this reduction in the food deficit may occur at the national level and not at the level of the peasant producer, the latter producing more in order to feed other strata of society better, while his own food situation deteriorates (see the example of San in Mali, in the Appendix).

Educational needs: In the SDPs (smallholder development projects) the need for satisfying the peasants" educational needs is generally recognized. In reality, efforts are concentrated on training seen as technical supervision and popularizing new methods. Only limited means are devoted to schooling and literacy. For that there are no more than statements of intention and the appearances of action.

Technical supervision is naturally the main concern of the project promoters in so far as in their eyes it constitutes the main assurance of success. Thus no effort is spared to get new techniques accepted.

But for these same promoters the links between literacy and technical training are not always clearly perceived, or else the result of this literacy training appears so slow that it is not thought worth devoting substantial means to it.

In the projects which we have had the opportunity to examine, where literacy training is part of the programme, classes are given either in French or in national languages. The favourite topics are ones to do with production and productivity. But for whom?

Reports are rare.

But we do have one for the Su rice project (Mali). Between 1972 and 1976 results were 30% of initial targets. In the framework of functional literacy training the project envisaged that, by 1976, 600 centres would be opened, training 1,200 instructors for 70,000 students. Actual achievements were 190 centres, 359 instructors and 6,715 students.

But what seems even more serious than the insignificant place given to literacy training is that in none of the projects that we have examined have we found a programme providing schools for peasant children. To conclude, we can say that while references are made in the framework of the SDPs to educational needs, these needs are never really taken into account.

Health needs: The SDPs rarely concern themselves with peasant health problems. In the Su rice project (Mali) a number of actions are reported: between 1973 and 1976, 7,963 prenatal visits; 18,281 postnatal visits; 2,238 deliveries; 18,550 sick children cared for, and 74,579 malaria treatments. The total population of the project area was estimated at 150,000 in 1973. The results of these actions have thus been slight. But in most other projects these actions are not even mentioned and do not figure among their concerns.

It can only be deplored that the rural development projects do not make the building of dispensaries part of their programmes so as to ensure that the peasants have access to elementary preventive and curative treatment. Thus, the satisfaction of health needs does not figure among the goals of the SDPs.

Organizational needs: The requirements of organization pose for the peasants the whole problem of control over their own lives. This is thus a vital problem which for the peasants means control over the structures in which it is being attempted to integrate and supervise them. Only this real control can make it possible for them to transform and reorient development models conceived for them and outside them to serve their own true interests.

But this control is really possible only if the peasants constitute a force, are conscious of this force and capable of using it in order to reach their goals. In the last analysis the problem comes down to the mobilization of the peasants in well-structured and powerful organizational frameworks. It is therefore not to be expected that the promoters of the projects should help them to achieve this. The fact is that attempts to do any such thing would rapidly provoke conflict situations among the various parties interested in the project whose interests - to say the least - do not always converge.

It is not therefore surprising that in none of the projects studied did we observe the existence of this type of powerful organization. In the rice project at Siou (Senegal), in order to facilitate contacts with the peasant world it was initially planned to set up village development committees. So 465 committees were created. They could have their say essentially when there were works of common interest to be carried out. They could suggest these works, discuss how to carry them out and organize the necessary human investments. In addition they concerned themselves with internal conflicts and whether or not to accept new peasants on newly irrigated land. Conversely, problems of management, credits, supplies, marketing etc., were outside their competence. The project did, however, express the desire that the peasants might in future be organized into co-operatives federated at the departmental level so as to take over for themselves all the administrative and supervisory operations which were assured by the administration of the project or the ONCAD.

The Siou rice project is perhaps one of the cases where the desire has been declared to go as far as possible in the quest for solutions to the problems of peasant organization. In the Su rice project (Mali), the participation of peasants in decision-making is supposed to be assured by the fact that their representatives attend the campaign meetings and meetings of the management committee. Moreover, the project intends to carry on rural extension activities based on the community development centres and the functional literacy zones. To accomplish this, action committees have been set up at the village level and include local officials responsible for the project, and village and district delegates. The declared role of the committee is to seek solutions to the problems faced by the inhabitants. Rural extension groups have also been set up. Their members are elected by the general meeting of the villagers. Their role is said to be to ascertain needs, and to act in such a way as to ensure that the peasants participate actively in the life of the centres. In practice, it can be seen that control of the peasant world is the real concern.

These then are the various forms of organization proposed to the peasants in most smallholder development projects. In reality, the problems of peasant organization ought to go beyond the framework of the projects and be placed at the national level. The fact is that it is at the level of the central government that the most important decisions are taken affecting their basic interests, and this is done in their absence (fixing producer prices, credit terms, etc.). In order to be able to influence these decisions in their favour, the peasants would need to construct organizational structures that go beyond the village framework to bring together at the national level all the peasants as a whole on the basis of their common interests. Such a peasant movement would constitute a powerful force that could impose itself as interlocutor with a capacity to intervene, make decisions and react effectively to measures taken by the authorities. The process of creating such a movement is not a simple one in Africa, given that it tends to call into question the nature of the existing states and that it is likely to open up eventually the problem of the control of political power by the peasants.

Outside these independent mass movements which constitute frameworks for the struggle for the defence of their interests, all the structures established by the project administration and to which the peasants are sometimes obliged to belong (co-operatives, village committees, extension groups) are generally only means of increasing and extracting peasant surplus labour.

In the minds of its promoters the policy of developing smallholdings was intended to modernize and increase the production of smallholders. This increase has often been achieved. But the smallholders have drawn little or no benefit from it. The reasons for this are state levies for the benefit of other social strata or the exorbitant costs of modernization.

The fact is that, between 1975 and 1980, it was planned that the prices paid to Senegalese producers of peasant products would vary little or not at all, whereas the costs of inputs would rise appreciably. Thus, a ton of fertilizer would rise from 16,000 Francs to 25,000 Francs, an increase of almost 60%. The price of a UCF plough (a popular imported plough) would rise from 14,276 Francs in 1975 to 18,987 Francs in 1980, and a seeder from 16,392 Francs to 21,801 Francs.

Thus, in order to obtain the same implement or the same amount of fertilizer, the Senegalese or Malian peasant would have to provide a much larger quantity of his crop. It goes without saying that many of them would do without such modernization which in practice benefited only the state and the multinationals that produced these inputs.

The new techniques introduced have often destroyed the family social structures for mutual help and solidarity without always providing other balancing factors to compensate.

The social division of the peasants into rich and poor has been accentuated without either group seriously appreciating that they are together victims of exploitation by nation-states and big international capital. That sharply attenuates the class alliance and solidarity which ought to unite them since in the framework of smallholdings, even the rich peasants - we ought to have said well-off - have little chance of becoming petty capitalists. But the highest price of this modernization will have been to integrate backward traditional sectors more closely into the capitalist system with the serious consequence, as always, that a tiny minority does well out of it and the vast majority sees its living conditions deteriorate.

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.

Agrarian reform

In Redistribution with Growth, published under the auspices of the World Bank, it is stated: 'Where much potentially productive land in the hands of big landowners lies uncultivated, there may be widespread support for measures to turn it over to small farmers without a hint of an attack on rights to property.'

In Employment, Growth and Basic Needs, published under the auspices of the ILO, it is stated: 'Where large holdings are typically underutilised, agrarian reform may also be necessary to provide for the increase in food production required to meet basic needs.'

It will be noted that the proposals contained in these two publications, which did most to spread the word about the content of the strategy, conceive agrarian reform in the same way. First, the reform must relate to the unused lands of large estates. Next, it must be carried out with compensation for big landowners, as is spelled out in other passages. Finally, it must be carried out without challenging the right to property.

Given these conditions, it may be asked whether an agrarian reform subject to them is really applicable in practice and whether, in that case, there can legitimately be talk of true agrarian reform. In fact, in countries where the shortage of cultivable land is strongly felt, a redistribution of land which only related to the unused parts of large estates would be insignificant and could in no way ensure access to land to the mass of people needing it. On the other hand, getting round the measure would be easy for big landowners who wanted to, and they all want to. All they have to do is to act quickly to give the appearance of making use of unused land.

But even admitting that these lands can be recuperated, the 'fair compensation' mentioned poses problems. Who is going to pay the costs of compensation? If it is the poor landless peasants, it goes without saying that they lack the means, and what we risk seeing happening, as was the case at the time of the agrarian reform in Egypt in 1961, is that only rich peasants will be able to increase their holdings because only they have the means of meeting the expense of compensation. In this case, nothing will have changed in the living conditions of the poor and landless peasants.

If it is states that are responsible for compensating the big landowners, there is a strong likelihood that they will later pass on the costs incurred to the peasants. In this case, for the peasants who have secured plots of land, the running costs of farms will be such that they will continue to live in poverty.

In addition, is not the determination to respect existing property rights in contradiction to any real determination to carry out any agrarian reform? The response cannot be in doubt since wherever the problems of access to land are acute, it is the rich landowners who constitute the real obstacle. If their property rights are being respected, how could pieces of their property be taken away?

Those who advocate such reforms, however, think that 'almost all Third World countries have already adopted or at least promised to adopt legislation for this purpose.' They think that it is the implementation that is simply insufficient. This reveals clearly that an agrarian reform proclaimed by the dominant classes who control power, many of whom are big landowners, is only a charade with the political aim of fooling the people.

Advocates of the strategy declare their powerlessness to act on governments. They simply express the hope that the spectre of revolution will lead these governments to opt for the lesser evil. It is expressed in this way by the President of the Bank: 'But the real issue is not whether land reform is politically easy. The real issue is whether indefinite procrastination is politically prudent. An increasingly inequitable situation will pose a growing threat to political stability.'

Still with the aim of encouraging big landlords to make a few concessions to safeguard the system, other arguments are put forward in Redistribution with Growth. Thus, to counter the fear that an agrarian reform might lead to 'a sort of "landgrab" epidemic, accompanied by a good deal of dislocation and perhaps violence', the authors of this book explain that:

More importantly, there is the general thesis that once the peasantry's immediate demands for land are met, it becomes a conservative force, a bulwark of the [new] status quo. Provided the process is controlled, therefore, a land reform in a setting where land ownership is initially highly concentrated can do much to alleviate the lot of the poor without tearing apart the fabric of society.

All that is very clearly set out and shows clearly that it is the preservation of the system that is the main concern.

But to say that the World Bank and other financial agencies do not have the means to put pressure on governments does not seem to accord with reality. In fact, the great majority of these states finance their economic policy from loans obtained from the Bank or other similar financing bodies. How could they resist conditions fixed by these agencies? Does not this confer on these agencies the most powerful means of pressure if they were truly moved by social goals?

It is difficult not to believe that there is complicity between the Bank and the powers that be in these countries. It therefore seems illusory to expect them to promote a true agrarian reform that would give land to the peasants. Such a reform can only come from the struggles of the peasants themselves, organized in powerful structures capable of mounting a comprehensive challenge to the famous status quo.

More credit facilities

Here, too, we need to go into some detail. In what spirit is the increase in credit facilities conceived? We shall turn to the proposals in the same sources. In the ILO's Employment, Growth and Basic Needs, it is stated: 'Water charges should generally reflect the true cost of providing irrigation facilities, and interest rates the real scarcity of capital. The prices of farm machinery should not in general be subsidized, and those of fertilizers only when this is clearly necessary to promote their use in the early stages of their introduction.'

The speech by the President of the World Bank points in the same direction; 'The fact is that concern over the usurious rates the farmer pays the money lender has led to unrealistically low rates for institutional credit.'

Thus facilities for access to credit are conceived according to the cold rules and mechanisms of capitalism. The approach consists in showing capitalists, notably those in backward linkages from agriculture, that smallholdings constitute outlets for them that have hitherto been unexploited, or insufficiently exploited. Then, in organizing credit systems open to smallholders with the greatest profit for the lenders.

It might be thought that if the small farmers find advantage in it for them, that might constitute progress as compared to a situation of stagnation or regression. It therefore becomes a matter of knowing whether the various imperatives mentioned are compatible, and whether smallholdings can be modernized through access to these credits.

Nothing is less certain. In fact in The Design for Rural Development,2 another publication that appeared under the auspices of the Bank, Uma Lele reports the results of a number of surveys made in Kenya: 'The experience of the SRDP [Special Rural Development Program]'s Vihiga maize scheme emphasizes the importance of identifying the precise constraint to adoption before instituting a credit program.' 'Of the total of 600 farmers selected at random to participate in the Vihiga Maize Credit Program in 1971, only 54 qualified for credit under the Program's standards of creditworthiness. Adding another 22 eligible farmers from outside resulted in 76 potential borrowers. Only 63 farmers finally utilized loans.'

This example among many others shows that credit systems with their built-in demands are beyond the reach of peasants.

Our own experience of the study of a few projects has enabled us to observe very high interest rates (25% in Senegal). While on the agricultural projects in Mali the interest rate is relatively low, the state mops up peasant incomes through very high charges. In addition, the peasants are obliged to make compulsory sales of large quantities at very low prices to the state grain marketing office. When all is said and done, the Malian peasant working on irrigated land found himself short of food during the year (see the letter from the San rice-growers in the Appendix).

Thus, most of the time, credit systems are beyond the reach of the peasants. Those who have recourse to them often do so at the risk of food insecurity because of the debt repayment conditions.

In the last analysis, it can be said that the credit systems as they are proposed do not constitute a solution for modernizing smallholdings and improving the living conditions of peasants. On top of that there are the problems of dependence linked to the new techniques which these credits are intended to make it possible to acquire.

There will therefore be no choice but to turn to other alternatives.

Water supply

Stress continues to be put on large-scale irrigation works, even if it is felt that this needs to be complemented by smaller works. This shows that the lessons of previous experiences are not being adequately learned. Indeed in the same speech by the President of the Bank, it is stated: 'There are too many cases - in our experience and that of others - in which it has taken ten years or more after the dam was completed for the water actually to reach the farmers.'

It seems hard to believe that a dam can be completed and remain unusable for ten years. It is tempting to think that during that period of ten years when the peasant was receiving no water, the dam was being used for other purposes which were in fact the prime targets of the investors: for example to provide energy for mining industries controlled by foreign capital.

The experiences anyway show that a spread of small irrigation works, often built by the peasants themselves with very limited technical support, corresponds much better to the needs and means of smallholder agriculture.

These remarks allow us to say that the basic needs strategy is not a new strategy. It is only the continuation of old strategies of domination with the fruitless quest for escape valves to deal with the serious crisis affecting the whole capitalist system and particularly its weak link, the agricultural countries.

Given the particular features of the crisis, it is worth examining more closely the goals which this strategy sought to attain.

The basic needs strategy in the current capitalist crisis

From an examination of its implementation in the rural areas, it is possible to attempt to sketch out the particular role of the basic needs strategy in the current crisis of the capitalist system.

The capitalist system has entered a long-term crisis, and there is no sign anywhere to suggest that it will soon end. The manifestations of this crisis in the central capitalist countries are clearly visible: factory closures, record unemployment, wild inflation and revived protectionist tendencies. In the underdeveloped countries, they are the balance of payments crisis, the swelling of the debt with a high service element representing a large proportion of export income, and a significant reduction in import capacities. In short, the capitalist countries are no longer able to sell and the underdeveloped countries lack the means to buy. Thus, the crisis brings together all the conditions for a worsening of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Indeed, the various capitalist groups will tend to increase the organic composition of their capital in order to be able to increase their productivity and make themselves competitive on the international market. The many-sided struggle between capitalist groups which results from this, and which is currently manifested in more or less covert protectionism between capitalist countries, is simply the struggle for the redivision of a world capitalist profit whose rate is tending to fall.

Added to that there is the excessively high external debt of the underdeveloped countries and those of the East, whence their growing difficulty in coming forward as buyers on the world market, which would have enabled production in the developed capitalist countries as well as international trade to pick up.

Usually, the developed capitalist countries were able to ride their crisis by stepping up the super-profits made on the back of the exploited countries, notably through the development of unequal exchange and the international division of labour, but it seems that this process is being blocked, the dominated countries no longer having the means to participate in exchange. As a result, the international division of labour on which unequal exchange rested needed to be modified. The system showed signs of needing new solutions to restore its balance.

The whole of the underdeveloped world could no longer be allowed to remain in the situation of non-industrialized countries. This was particularly important as a mass of technology was accumulating and there was no clear idea who to sell it to, and as the underdeveloped countries represented such a vast labour market that the factories would operate in these countries without excessive expenditure on wages. The size of the reserve army would ensure that wages remained very low.

Because of the need to get the system as a whole going again economically, it was thought wise to transfer some labour-intensive industries to the underdeveloped countries, and this is what was done. This shift was of course very unequal between underdeveloped countries, depending on their potential and the level of development they had already attained. But the hope for a new increase in the global mass of capitalist profit lay in this: a degree of industrialization of the underdeveloped countries based on the intensive exploitation of cheap labour in those countries. This exploitation would pose all the fewer problems because it would involve working classes which were unorganized or little organized, with limited political and trade union consciousness. They would therefore be insufficiently prepared to wage powerful struggles comparable to those of the working classes in the developed countries which were successful in imposing a certain wage level. What was more, the numerous totalitarian dictatorships in the underdeveloped countries acted as guarantors of the interests of capital.

But an important problem still remained: that of the continual decline in the food supply in a considerable number of underdeveloped countries. Wages are a function of the costs of reproduction of the labour force. The cost of food is the essential element in underdeveloped countries, and the food crisis, which led to the import of foodstuffs to feed the working classes in these countries, could not but lead to a substantial rise in wages there.

These foodstuffs necessarily cost more because they had been produced within the capitalist mode of production. In order then to minimize the costs of maintaining the labour force, it was necessary to reduce the cost of its physiological reproduction. Thus, it became urgent to increase food production rapidly and significantly. Local foodstuffs which cost far less would then be available for workers who would then be offered lower wages. Capital would thus be able to go on quietly making money.

It is, therefore, no accident that the growing interest in the food sector on the part of international financial institutions is occurring just when the trend towards transferring some industries to the underdeveloped countries is gathering strength. We believe the two phenomena are linked. It is, moreover, symptomatic that in the agricultural section of the basic needs strategy the emphasis is put only on increasing production, with no concern about knowing whether an increase in production can be accompanied by a decrease in the peasant producers' level of food consumption. This makes one very sceptical about the humanitarian argument used - 'the fundamental case for development assistance is the moral one'3 - and one might wonder whether improving the standard of living of small peasants is the real objective aimed at. It may be, however, that this aspect is not being wholly ignored. But in that case, does not the apparent objective hide other, political designs? We shall return to this point.

What seems certain is that the general behaviour of national states and financial and credit agencies towards small producers in the framework of projects to develop food agriculture does not make it possible to say that the satisfaction of the basic needs of small peasants is the central concern. The example of Zaire where, in 1971, the state obliged the big mining and transport companies to invest in food crops (cereals and legumes) with the aim of supplying the workers in the cities, strengthens us in that belief. It is quite certain that, in this state decision, the interests of the peasant producers are a minor consideration. Even if there is more investment in this sector, they will enjoy little or nothing at all of the results of this investment which will be creamed off and directed elsewhere.

But the economic objectives are not the sole concern of agricultural policy in the framework of the basic needs strategy. There are also political concerns. They are sometimes quite clearly expressed in the official literature on basic needs. The repeated warnings against the spectre of revolution to governments hesitating to make even the tiniest changes in the socio-economic situation of their country, the repeated statements that famine and poverty constitute threats to the stability of the system are all so many indications of the political objectives which can be summed up as the defence and consolidation of the system. How can this be achieved? The attempt consists first in trying to forestall the upheavals that foment under the scourge of famine and prevent the revolt of the starving which might result. Next, by seeking to promote among the small peasants themselves a small well-off stratum attached to private property and able to act as a support for the development of capitalism in traditional agriculture.

It is true that the situation of poverty and famine which is developing in the dominated countries in the periphery is becoming a nightmare for the leaders of the system concerned about its overall stability. It is obvious that any revolutionary upheavals that supervened in the countries of the periphery would be bound to have serious repercussions on the capitalist countries of the centre. So the strategists of the system put forward one proposal after another for action to defuse the bomb of poverty. But in doing so, they run up against the contradictions inherent in the system itself. For in fact the political objectives of defending the system as a whole are often at odds with the immediate economic interests and objectives of those responsible for putting these proposals into effect, i.e., the dominant classes of the national states and the providers of funds. This contradiction takes the following form: how to fight against poverty and reduce suffering, while at the same time ensuring substantial profits for foreign investors and guaranteeing significant transfers to the benefit of these dominant classes and their bureaucracy, and all that through the implementation of development programmes based on the super-exploitation of these same poor people?

This is a fundamental contradiction. And despite the questions begged and the declarations of good intentions, the structures of the system end up imposing their laws, which have nothing to do with the 'moral' argument. The problem therefore remains one of knowing how to guarantee the stability of the system while reducing the threat to its periphery.

For the time being, since it is not possible to improve the lot of the poor, the attempt is being made rather to silence them by establishing or maintaining political dictatorships which at best manipulate the poor masses, and at worst purely and simply massacre them.

As for the other option which would consist in wanting to promote, within the mass of peasants, a well-off fraction capable of prospering within the system as it currently functions so as to be able later to defend it, that remains within the realm of the possible. We have, in fact, observed that a small minority of peasants who are rather better off before the implementation of projects sometimes succeeds in deriving substantial advantages from the execution of these projects. They can acquire means of production (a plough, carts, oxen, a seeder, etc.). They can enlarge their farms, or hire out services to peasants in difficulties. In this way they accumulate, which enables them gradually to separate themselves from the mass of the peasants through their income level and their conditions of production. They are naturally attached to private ownership of the means of production and there is no doubt at all that they will fight fiercely to preserve it. They constitute links in the system, and it is hoped that they will acquire sufficient political power to play the role of leading the great mass of peasants and involving them in the defence of the system.

But it seems more likely that things will turn out otherwise: a mass of peasants getting poorer by the year will surely end up openly fighting against a minority that gets richer by the year with the support of the leaders of the system. Only the ensuing class struggle will open up the hope of a radical reordering of the system.

To conclude, it could be said that the capitalist system has experienced regular periods of crisis of varying importance, followed by periods of a return to a certain equilibrium under the impact of measures that are often simply conjunctural. This system is currently experiencing a prolonged crisis which is manifested in various forms and is eating it away at various levels.

The basic needs strategy is part - even though in a very secondary manner - of the panoply of ways and means being tried out to rediscover this equilibrium which is never anything but an unstable equilibrium. These few comments from an examination of its agricultural section will perhaps have made it possible to bring out, to some extent, the insurmountable contradictions with which the system is confronted.


1. Speech by the President of the World Bank, Nairobi, 1973.

2. Uma Lele, The Design for Rural Development (Washington D.C., Johns Hopkins University Press for the World Bank, 1975).

3. Speech by the President of the World Bank, Nairobi, 1973.