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When modernization theories stumble on peasant realities

Economics of Agricultural Development in Tropical Africa, by Seth La Anyane. John Wiley, Chichester, 1985, 153 p., 14 pounds sterling.

Agricultural development in tropical Africa poses perhaps the most serious of the many problems that together form the permanent crisis of Third World development - most visible in the recent famines in Ethiopia and the Sudan. This book by Seth La-Anyane, former Dean of Agriculture at the University of Ghana, "concentrates on the contributions by the peasant small scale farmers to economic development and on the indigenous institutions that need to be recognized and strengthened in order to render more effective their role in agricultural economic development." This statement, in the author's preface, is quite promising.

The first chapter characterizes African agriculture with respect to its ecological pre-conditions and its present state of development and attempts to summarize the basic theoretical arguments about the role of agriculture in economic development. Regrettably, this summary excludes some of the most important lines of discussion, among others that on peasant societies, which seems to me of fundamental importance for understanding indigenous socio-economic institutions. Ignoring this discussion makes it difficult to understand basic differentiations between different types of peasant production. La-Anyane considers a "discrepancy between theory and practice" that theoreticians frequently claim that peasant farmers in tropical Africa react to increasing prices by working (and producing) less, while in reality in Ghana's cocoa industry there is a "positive response of peasant farmers to the attractive prices offered by the industry". The author obviously does not take into consideration that the cocoa farmer, with his income-maximizing orientation, has little to do with those peasant societies oriented toward the fulfillment of needs and therefore logically react to higher prices for their products with a reduction of their productive efforts. To call this response "perverse", as the author does in the final chapter, and the income-maximizing attitude "the normal economic way" corresponds to the "normal" bias of orthodox neoclassical economics.

The subsequent chapters of the book repeatedly remind the reader of the fact that its first draft had been completed by 1973 - in most aspects, just the well-known prescriptions of modernization theory are repeated. US agriculture is seen as the positive example, with a "meteoric lift in farm productivity... due to a package of improved technologies, larger farm enterprise units, and heavy capital investment". Agricultural development is thus defined as "the transformation of peasant agriculture into modem commercial farming of larger farms". This, of course, implies the abolition of communal ownership of land, for only individual land titles offer a sufficient incentive for improvement and farms large enough that the small cultivator is able to apply the same technologies as large farms, i.e., "to purchase and use fertilizers and spray chemicals necessary to maintain the highest economic yield over the life of the plant, to utilize methods of processing and extraction of produce which will guarantee the economic return to the producer".

Agent of modernization. The role of the state in this context is that of an efficient agent of modernization. Well functioning state credit and agricultural extension services are to be supplemented by the expansion of modern infrastructure. Building of roads, improvement of education, availability of electricity everywhere in the countryside, extended irrigation systems should provide the conditions for a rapid rise in agricultural productivity. The author's rather positive assessments of the Tanzanian Ujamaa village programme and the Ethiopian land reform after the 1975 revolution fit into this modernization orientation, though today one would expect him to deal with the widespread criticism on Tanzanian development and to refer to the Ethiopian famine from which the country has already been suffering in the first half of 1984.

Had it been published in 1973, the book would still have fit into the mainstream of literature on agricultural development. Since that time, however, there have appeared abundant criticisms of strategies of agricultural modernization as they are proposed here - from conservative points of view as well as from rather left-wing positions. Though the author takes up problems of low agricultural prices ("urban bias", etc.) and of state intervention (corruption and the illegitimate enrichment of politicians and bureaucrats, etc.), there is no systematic discussion of neo-liberal criticisms of state-sponsored modernization politics. Furthermore, the great number of critical studies on the ecological and social effects of agrarian modernisation - particularly the so-called green revolution - appear not to exist for La-Anyane. He makes no attempt to evaluate the ecological impact of fertilizer and pesticide use (such as the contamination of rivers and lakes or the growing resistance of insects against chemicals), nor does he discuss the value of species variety in traditional agriculture, the problems of deforestation (he sees tropical Africa as a land-surplus region) or the often negative experiences with irrigation schemes. There is no discussion of the increase in social inequality fostered by capital-intensive agrarian modernization. For La-Anyane, it appears to be self-evident that - as in Europe or the US - industrial development will create sufficient employment for those who will no longer be able to live from agriculture. Nothing is said about the negative experiences of Latin American countries with respect to job creation in industry. Significantly, environmental problems are referred to only in a short paragraph under the heading of "external barriers to development" ("external" in the sense of "from outside the national society"!).

The author's statement that "traditionalist action tends to be reactionary and thereby acts to retard progress" is consistent with this kind of philosophy. But where, then, remains the recognition and strengthening of indigenous institutions demanded in the preface?

Certainly, the book makes some interesting points that deserve a more prominent place: the reference to the absence of any significant intra-African trade, the problems of foreign exchange (particularly of the US dollar as general means of payment), the proposition to diversify export production (with new products like ginger, avocados, mangoes, eggplant), the critique of unrealistic planning and administration in many African states. These points, however, disappear behind the stereotypes of modernization theory.

Wolfgang Hein