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close this bookAfrican Agriculture: The Critical Choices (UNU, 1990, 227 pages)
close this folder1. The agricultural revolution and industrialization
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe failure of the modernization strategies
View the documentThe agricultural revolution, but how?
View the documentThe alternative strategy

The agricultural revolution, but how?

The failure of 'development' has been more dramatic for Africa as a whole than for any other region. Africa has not yet started its agricultural revolution without which no further stage of development can be considered. The production and productivity per rural family have been almost stagnant for long and might have even begun to decline in many places. Out-village migration is not the result of a relatively surplus population created by some agricultural progress, even if socially unequal, but is a desperate attempt by the whole population to escape from famine. This type of migration generates a monstrous type of urbanization with no hope of industrial employment, since it provides no means of financing new activities. Simultaneously, African countries, with very few exceptions, have not begun to enter the industrial age from any viewpoint. There is neither a minimal network of inter-related industries, nor a minimal financial and technological capacity to pursue any consistent industrial policy. Elsewhere, in many areas of Latin America and South. South-East and East Asia, such minimal tasks have already been accomplished, even if in a chaotic, regionally and socially unequal way, hence inadequate from a national and popular viewpoint.

Of course, this failure has deep roots, both pre-colonial and colonial, but in no way can it be considered that the post-colonial decades have begun reversing the negative processes.

Achieving the agricultural revolution is' therefore, the priority target for the decades to come. This is a very complex, multi-dimensional undertaking. It has technological dimensions: what type of equipment and other inputs (for example, control of water, use of chemicals) may bring, simultaneously, significant increases in production per capita and per acre. These technological choices imply the production per capita and per acre. These technological choices imply the design of adequate supportive economic policies: of price and income systems ensuring the rationality of the choices they induce; of the supportive industrialization priorities, the pattern of financing among others. These policies in their turn bear complex social and political consequences: how the various types of social control in rural areas (land property and use, rent and wage system, co-operatives of producers of a variety of types, from lower to higher forms, and so on) command the direction of change (or make it impossible); how the types of social control in place are the historical result of social power balances and imbalances (particularly the result of the relation of the State to the rural communities and their components). And, through which political moves they could be changed, how the various types of social control on trade systems and industry (state, basic collectivities, private national capital, transnationals) combine with the need for agricultural changes.

On none of these aspects, and on how they interrelate, are the lessons from the historical experiences - either of the developed West, the East or of Latin American and Asian regions - transferable to Africa today. There are many reasons for this: differences in the availability of disposable land, differences in pre-modern patterns of social organization and levels of productivities, differences in available industrial technologies, are some. Similarly, the lessons from other experiences of industrialization, whether conceived in the perspective of the world division of labour or 'delinked' from it, based on private capital initiative or state intervention, are of a limited significance for Africa.

Yet perhaps because the task is totally new and the challenges too complex, recipes are suggested hurriedly by agencies (notably from the UN family, World Bank and major bilateral agencies) few of which pass the test of experience. Hence the flow of short-lived 'fashions'. In the name of 'immediate efficiency', those who do not recognize our deep ignorance of what can be done, easily substitute for deeper studies their 'theological' beliefs, whether in market efficiency (as if some minor changes in prices would create ipso facto adequate incentives), or in the state efficiency (without questioning enough the historical, political, cultural dimensions of the state).

Considered from the global perspective of today's world system, the failure of African development bears further dramatic consequences The continent's weakness both at economic and financial levels and, perhaps consequently, at political and military levels, encourages cynical attitudes, allowing the powers to give priority to their geo-strategic views without being compelled to consider local forces and interests. This weakness, combined with the global strategies of the powers, thus creates an additional set of conditions unfavourable for internal changes.

A glaring example of how 'theology' is substituted for scientific analysis of the roots of Africa's failure to achieve its agricultural revolution is provided by the famous World Bank Report on 'accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa'.

It was to be expected that the World Bank would produce a critique of local social and economic systems and the world system of the division of labour, responsible for this failure. Or even that the Bank would make some sort of self-criticism, since for the past 20 years it has supported most of the basic principles underlying the development system now being called into question But instead, the Bank attributes the failure entirely to the African governments, accusing them of having held agriculture in contempt and given far too much priority to industry!

The Bank's proposed strategy can be accurately summed up as follows:

The internal structural problems and external constraints impeding African economic growth have been exacerbated by domestic policy inadequacies ... trade and exchange-rate policies [which] have overprotected industry, held back agriculture... the public sector has become over-extended.

Upon which, the Bank goes on to suggest a strategy of adjustment to the demands of the world system, based on exports (agricultural and mining commodities), supported mainly by devaluation measures and resort to a larger measure of liberalism, these to be accompanied by offering greater scope to private initiative. A carrot, that of doubling external aid in real terms during the 1980s, is dangled to encourage countries to accept these principles of 'healthy' management.

Low agricultural productivity in Africa is a platitude. What the World Bank report does not say is that this low productivity, which goes hand in hand with the land-extensive type of agriculture, was - and still is - economic from the point of view of the world system of the division of labour. It allowed the West to acquire raw materials without having to invest in its colonies. It has been clearly shown that this mechanism is responsible for the impoverishment of the land that has resulted in poorer yields. The transition to intensive agriculture, a necessity today, implies an increase in the world prices of raw materials, if they are to be exported: land, like oil or water, is no longer an 'unlimited' resource. Yet the Bank has managed to discover only three ills from which Africa suffers: overvalued exchange rates; too high a level of taxation of farmers; and excessive growth in administrative expenditure.

Obviously, if prices in foreign currencies are maintained, devaluation would allow the exporter to obtain more in the local currency. But it cannot be assumed either that devaluation would bring about equilibrium in the balance of payments without control or that prices in foreign currencies would remain stable if the African countries devalued their own currency. Experience has repeatedly shown that in many Third World countries the whole range of local prices tends to adjust to the import prices and that, therefore, the effect of devaluation both on comparative price structures and on the balance of payments is cancelled out. The absence of a self-reliant and autonomous economic structure explains this generalized contagion' which reflects how local price systems are dependent on the world price system.

It is true that peasants in Africa are subjected to a considerable degree of 'hidden taxation,- the difference between the export price, the real cost of internal marketing deducted, and the price paid to the producer. But where else would the state raise these resources if this margin were abolished and if the country were to give priority in its development to the production of such export commodities as suggested by the Bank? Why not reduce consumer taxes (for example, on coffee) in the developed countries for the benefit of the African peasant? Clearly, such hidden taxation reflects the local states' 'antipeasant' bias, but this bias is a consequence of the nature of the states' relations with the world system. The anti-peasant feature is not that of the local state alone, but that of the global system of exploitation within which it functions.

By failing to extend the analysis of the system further, the World Bank condemns itself, on the subject of public expenditure as on others, to distribute advice that is hardly efficient and to suggest ways and means of tinkering with the economy in order to reduce this expenditure (by very little). Such savings are invariably made at the expense of the poor, in contradiction to the fine speeches about 'basic needs' Moreover, does not the IMF, a close partner of the World Bank, always impose devaluation, austerity and a reduction in the standard of living of the poorest sections of the population? 'Real prices' (world prices being the supreme reference) and the abolition of subsidies for the most basic consumer goods always operate against the interest of peoples.

Conversely, is industry in Africa really over-protected? Will not reducing such 'over-protectionism' of an industry which is still the most fragile in the world reduce even further its already negligible rate of growth?

Wages in Africa are said to be too high and those of Bangladesh are held up as a model. Does the World Bank see the future in terms of the Bangladeshization of the Third World? How does one reconcile this statement with that on satisfying 'basic needs'? In addition, there is no discussion on industrialization strategies, and import substitution is considered as by far the superior option (no attention is paid to the fact that this strategy reproduces and reinforces inequalities in income distribution) although it is said to have been 'badly applied' in Africa because it too often required state intervention (without which, despite the Bank's pious hopes concerning 'entrepreneurs', the rate of industrialization would have been even lower). The Bank also recommends processing mineral resources for export, although it is a known fact that such processing swallows up considerable capital without leading to interaction between the exploitation of the resources and national development. It also recommends light export industries. Have the disasters of the textile industries in Morocco and Tunisia been forgotten which, after having followed such 'recommendations', saw the doors of Western market firmly closed to their products? As for the industrialization required to ensure agricultural development, this is one aspect of which the Bank is, apparently, quite unaware.