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close this bookThe Crisis in African Agriculture - Studies in African Political Economy (UNU, 1987, 99 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentForeword
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contents1: The performance of African agriculture, 1950-1980
View the document2: Precolonial African societies
View the document3: The appropriation of peasant surplus labour
View the document4: The export-oriented system
Open this folder and view contents5: The second post-independence decade: The food crisis
View the document6: Forms of control
Open this folder and view contents7: The alternative and its prerequisites
View the documentConclusion
Open this folder and view contentsAppendix: Complaints of the rice-growers of San (Mali)
View the documentSelected bibliography

4: The export-oriented system

Problems of growth emerged as a matter of concern in the developed capitalist economies only after the Second World War. Previously, people were rather concerned with problems of general equilibrium between supply and demand and the optimum use of resources.

The problem of growth, which was posed as a goal and became a centre of interest from the 1950s, almost certainly because of concerns linked with post-war reconstruction, led increasingly to studies and research and came to be taken into account in economic policies.

This was all that was necessary for it to be thought, a decade later, in the 1960s, when most of the countries formerly dominated by colonialism became politically independent, that the solutions to the problems posed by the poverty and destitution affecting most of their populations would be found by promoting development policies centred on the rapid growth of the national product. The laws of the market were deemed sufficient to achieve a suitable redistribution of income.

The strategy thus proposed to the new African states was based on development through high growth of the national product. Efforts therefore needed to be directed towards reducing the constraints that might constitute obstacles to this growth. The central core of this strategy was to promote and ensure the expansion of development poles in which investment would be concentrated so that they would act as beacons for all the national economies. Investment, usually financed from external sources, was thus directed towards the relatively modernized sectors centred around primary export products (agriculture and mines). Of course, this was not an innovation, but simply the systematized pursuit of the economic policy that prevailed before independence, during the colonial period. It was argued that once this policy had been given national goals, it could naturally lead to the transformation of structures and to development.

To loosen the constraints of this chosen path, the new states had massive recourse to foreign capital for investment, as well as to foreign aid to ensure manpower training to meet the needs of the economy for skilled personnel.

The 'modern enclaves' which were to form the development poles could, in this perspective, only be the export sectors, that is, the primary products that represented the sole exportable resources of the new states. The export income thus accumulated would make it possible to finance development, notably through the purchase of machinery to begin some industrialization.

In agriculture - the economic mainstay of the vast majority of African states - the economic policy advocated took the form of excessive encouragement to the growing of export crops to the detriment of food crops. Table 5 (see Chapter 1), which shows the evolution of Africa's share in world production of the main crops of the region, brings out the expansion of export crops whereas crops intended for consumption were in decline.

Thus, between 1948-52 and 1971-72, Africa's share in world production of millet and sorghum fell from 17% to 13%; that of sweet potatoes and yams (other staple foodstuffs in the region) fell from 23% to 16%. Over the same period, the share in world production of coffee rose from 12.5% to 27%; that of cocoa from 65% to 72% and that of cotton from 9% to 11%. Between 1960 and 1970, the annual growth rate in the production of basic foodstuffs (cereals, root crops and legumes) was about 2.5%, whereas that of non-food products mainly intended for export (coffee, tobacco, cotton, rubber, etc.) was about 4%. Over this same period, the areas devoted to basic foodstuffs increased at an annual rate of 1.2%, whereas those devoted to export crops increased at an annual rate of 2%. In addition imported inputs were intended essentially for export crops. By way of example, 80% of the fertilizers consumed in Kenya were used on coffee and tea plantations. Uganda devoted 84% of its fertilizers to tea and sugar, and Senegal 52% of its fertilizers to groundnuts.

These figures, taken from the documents of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, bring out the growing interest in cash crops after independence. Devoting so much of Africa's meagre resources to these crops was bound to aggravate dangerously the food production situation.

This risk was taken in the hope, it was said, of developing domestic accumulation in order to finance imports of needed machinery. Ultimately, these objectives put forward to justify such a policy were almost never realized. The knock-on effect expected of the development poles did not take place. On the contrary, national economies rapidly became exhausted. Export income, which declined year by year because of the unequal system of international trade, was soon absorbed by the political and administrative bureaucracies and government prestige expenditure. In most countries, even the small industries established during this decade were rarely built from local resources.

This 'development' strategy, which virtually condemned food crop agriculture although the latter remained responsible for feeding the whole of a rapidly growing population, provoked considerable imbalances leading to the accelerated and massive impoverishment of the rural areas. Thus, by the beginning of the 1970s, it could be observed that the virtues of a policy centred systematically on producing for the world market in order to attain rapid growth and development had not been confirmed. Even if in a few countries the national product did grow substantially, that neither led to a real transformation of the structure of national economies, nor prevented poverty from growing and unemployment and under-employment from becoming established as scourges.

The most alarming consequence of this strategy based on the priority development of products in demand on the world market was at the level of the feeding of populations. Despite relatively high agricultural potential, food supplies in the region fell constantly, as figures supplied by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) show.

Thus, between the 1960s and the 1970s, imports of cereals rose by 38%, from 5.3 to 7.3 million tons. In spite of this, over the same period, the gross supply of cereals per capita fell from 160 kg. to 130 kg. Between 1961-63 and 1972, the volume index of food imports rose from 100 to 135, and the annual growth rate of imports over the period was 3.1%. By 1970, food imports accounted for 15% of the domestic production of the region, and 20% of food staples were imported.

The consequences of these imports on the external payments situation were naturally additional factors rendering the hopes of domestic accumulation for investment illusory. This policy, which is not neutral from the viewpoint of class interests, rested on the more thorough integration of the African economies into the capitalist world market and the intense exploitation of the peasantry in order to make this integration possible and consolidate it.

The world market itself has foundations which include an international division of labour and a system of exchanges based on inequality and directly related to this international division of labour. The unequal exchange of commodities between products supplied by dominated countries and by imperialist countries on the world market cannot be reduced to the deterioration of the terms of trade, which is simply its current visible and pressing aspect. Unequal exchange has more remote historical origins that must be sought in the relations that the capitalist economies established between themselves and the precapitalist economies of the countries that suffered a long era of domination and exploitation in various forms.

Whilst the vast resources extracted from these countries during the colonial period, and even before it, did not in every case start the process of accumulation in the capitalist economies, they did accelerate it. There ensued a tremendous development of the productive forces and levels of productivity in these economies, while the exploited countries subjected to this draining of resources saw their level of development drop and their socio-economic formations regress. Capitalism almost never sought totally to destroy the precapitalist modes of production that prevailed in these countries because, by maintaining them, it was better able to extract their substance.

Thus, during this long history, between the countries today called underdeveloped and the imperialist countries, a deep and unparalleled gap developed between levels of productive forces, levels of productivity and above all living standards of populations. Taking into account the very low level of the productive forces, the conditions of reproduction of the labour force in the exploited countries were reduced to an absolute minimum. Goods produced in conditions where reproduction of the labour force takes place at a very low level, command a very low price on the world market compared to the quantities of labour incorporated in those products. The result is a permanent and increased transfer of value from the exploited countries to the imperialist countries.

That is particularly true for agricultural products, the main commodities offered on the world market by most African countries because of the role assigned to them in the international division of labour established during the long history of domination. These agricultural products are bought on the world market at well below their value, that is, the quantities of social labour their production necessitated. Thus, the world market is the site where the super-exploitation of the African rural masses that produce these goods is realized. The phenomenon of unequal exchange is cumulative, and the deterioration of the terms of trade which is only one visible manifestation of it is growing year by year.

It is obvious that African political leaders who are endeavouring to involve the economies of their countries closely in this world market are middlemen who transmit the consequences wholly to the direct African producers. The fact is that prices at the level of African agricultural producers are generally fixed by government decisions. They take account of prices on the world market and the cuts taken by the African bourgeoisies who are actively engaged in international trade. And, from the circulation of products between African producers and the world market, the African ruling classes take a share of the surplus labour of the producers. Thus, integration into the world market turns out to be a very juicy business for these bourgeoisies. And if they denounce the deterioration of the terms of trade, it is simply in order to demand a larger share of the surplus labour extorted from the African producers, and thus consolidate their own economic base.

The consequences of this policy systematically directed towards integration into the world market have been disastrous, first and foremost for the African rural areas: massive and rapid impoverishment of the peasantry, accelerated degradation of soils, declining yields, and food shortages and chronic famine.

In fact, the almost exclusive encouragement given to cash crops brought a larger fraction of the peasant masses into the cash-crop economy. As a consequence, production of local foodstuffs fell and the incomes derived from cash crops were no longer sufficient for the people to keep themselves provided with foodstuffs because of the production costs incurred. Thus, by the end of the first post-independence decade, famine was widespread in a large part of the African rural areas.

Since the countryside feeds the towns, it goes without saying that the urban masses were not spared. The rural exodus and the flight of destitute and starving peasants towards the urban centres aggravated the situation.

This awful poverty and food disaster are the end product of the economic policy of euphoric extraversion of the first development decade.

We will be criticized for not giving enough importance to the particularly unfavourable climatic conditions of the late 1960s. Of course, these conditions affected the situation, but above all as an aggravating factor. The fact is that at the height of the drought in the early 1970s, which affected the Sahel particularly, the growth rates of export crops from the region were rising or marking time, whereas those of basic food crops were falling. Thus, between 1969-70 and 1973-74, percentage variations in the production of the seven1 Sahel countries were -33% for millet and sorghum, -3% for groundnuts and +8% for cotton. The sharp decline in the production of millet and sorghum, the basis of the ordinary man's diet for a very large fraction of the population of the region, whereas production of cash crops was being maintained (as with groundnuts) or was increasing (as with cotton) can only be explained by the particular attention given to the development of the latter by the authorities (best lands in well-watered areas, hydro-agricultural installations, access to inputs, etc.).

The acute food crisis that resulted from the economic policy pursued during this period led to a greater dislocation of national socio-economic systems. Migrations, and above all urbanization, accelerated at a quite disproportionate rate since the supply of urban jobs was hardly rising. Massive unemployment was the result. The gradual depopulation of the countryside - as people moved elsewhere to seek some activity to enable them to survive or in the hope of benefiting from food aid - aggravated the decline of agricultural production which, in Africa, is based essentially on the massive use of labour power. For all these reasons, famine began to take on the appearance of a structural feature in most African countries.

How then could the threat this situation posed for the world system both economically and politically be dealt with?

In fact, vast starving masses of people are unlikely to produce in conformity with the objectives of the system. They cannot contribute to the accumulation of capital at the national and international level, nor assume the role assigned to them in the international division of labour. In addition, they constitute powerful political forces that can be mobilized with a view to the total overthrow of the whole system. This question came to preoccupy the monopolies, the multinationals, the international institutions and agencies that are heavily involved in the financing of the economic policies of underdeveloped countries, especially those in Africa, and which therefore have major decision-making capacities at the level of the orientation of these policies in the various countries.

The great crisis of the late 1960s thus precipitated a reappraisal that led to changes being proposed in the orientation of the economic policy advocated and implemented, especially in the essentially agricultural countries suffering from famine and deepening poverty. The proposals that were formulated and widely disseminated in numerous international and then national bodies were articulated on what was called the basic needs strategy, whose goal was to be the satisfaction of the basic needs of the great mass of the poor in the underdeveloped world. The main theme of this strategy, in so far as concerns the rural areas, was to consist in promoting the rapid development of smallholdings which provide a living to the vast mass of the poor in the rural areas of the underdeveloped world.

Thus, the so-called 'development of agricultural smallholdings' policy was tried out during the second post-independence decade in the framework of the basic needs strategy.


1. Gambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Chad.