Cover Image
close this bookThe Crisis in African Agriculture - Studies in African Political Economy (UNU, 1987, 99 pages)
close this folder5: The second post-independence decade: The food crisis
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSmallholder development projects
View the documentThe basic needs strategy
View the documentAgrarian reform
View the documentMore credit facilities
View the documentWater supply
View the documentThe basic needs strategy in the current capitalist crisis

The basic needs strategy 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.