Friday, October 19, 2012

Criticism in Development … how academics can alter policy and the consequences of its deconstruction

I have attacked many on this blog who hold the reigns of African Development: Western Powers (like the USA, China, European Union, and France), International Lending Institutions (namely the World Bank and IMF), Non-Governmental Organizations, African Governments, and even local communities (although my allegiance often lies in this camp). But in this post I am going after a group that I belong to, namely academics. They have less power than most groups in African Development but still, from time to time, shape the policies and direction through their investigation and criticism of past and current trends.

IRIN recently printed an article entitled, Aid Policy: Resisting the mantra of resilience (Available at: ). In this report an academic by the name of Christophe Béné from the Institute of Development Studies is named, but there are others like him who began critiquing the use of ‘resilience’ in African Development. Like other terms in the past (sustainability, vulnerability and poverty alleviation to name a few), resilience is expanding in definition and perhaps overused in both development and academic circles. Béné and others, however, find the expansion abusive and leading to a barrier of improving the quality of lives for many. While I agree with Béné and the others that this is occurring, I hold concern that their critiques can be used by those in development circles to scrap efforts at improving resilience in local African communities that need it.

As an example, I cite the following passage from the IRIN news story, “… The wartime collapse of public services in West Africa in the 1990s initially had less impact on the poor – who never had electricity, were already dependent on well water, and had no need for automobile fuel. Those in the countryside were better able to survive a lack of rice because they knew how to make use of wild food sources. Yet this kind of resilience does not improve the quality of life [emphasis added].” This passage is subjective and very much based on Western models of development, i.e. the quality of life of West Africans would improve if all of them were sedentarised, wage laborers who owned automobiles and used their salaries to purchase imported rice and to pay their electricity and water bills. It is very suggestive of the development models international lending institutions and some governments tried to push on African communities starting in the 1960s and continuing in some places even today.

It is not my intention to place local African communities in a display case. African societies are dynamic and change but in an age where the citizens of industrial nations are waking up to the health and environmental consequences of a mismanaged, wasteful and technologically-driven global food production system by promoting diverse, locally-produced, organic, fair-trade, heirloom foods shouldn’t development policy makers in Africa do the same? Resilience has its place in African Development. Béné and others are right in saying that African Development should not be simplified to one ‘buzz word’ when attempting to improve the living standard of Africans, however, Béné is wrong when he says, “Resilience is a very technical, neutral, apolitical term.” Resilience is in fact a means in which Africans resist not only natural hazards when they occur but also development programmes that are not compatible or welcome in their society. It is very much a political strategy.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Incomplete Picture

Agricultural Season for two sub-climate zones in West Africa


FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization, a branch of the United Nations) came out recently with a report called “Why Has Africa Become a Net Food Importer?” (Accessible at: This report looks at how Africa went from being once a net food exporter (before 1970) to a net food importer (starting in the 1970s). This has great consequence on food security for the continent and thus an investigation into the reasons for this shift is important to both policymakers and the general population of Africa as a whole.

The report indicates that population growth, low to stagnating agricultural productivity, policy distortions, weak institutions, and poor infrastructure as the main causes for the shift from food exporter to food importer. It also explains that countries that are faring better economically (Nigeria, Gabon and Angola for example) are capable of importing foods as they have revenue from other primary resources (i.e. minerals and petrol) to pay for food imports. Most African countries, however, despite what primary resources they possess are not faring as well (Mali, Niger and Zambia to name a few). As a consequence these countries have lived with chronic food insecurity for decades.

The picture is incomplete. No mention is made of the role external actors had and have in contributing to making Africa a net food importer and the tragic consequence of generating greater food insecurity among the poorest of African nations. First off London, Paris and Lisbon have kept strong trade relations with their former colonies, perpetuating the retardation of trade between neighboring African countries. Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have only exacerbated this in pursing their self-interests in exploiting African natural resources. All this competition between stronger economies to capture Africa’s natural resources makes intra-trade in Africa abysmal. Since intra-trade is poor, the infrastructure and markets are not there for food producers. Milk and cheese from Mauritanian herds is not found in Guinea-Bissau and rice and fruits from Guinea-Bissauan mangroves and orchards are not found in Mauritania.  

Second, international lending institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund impose policies that retard (if not block altogether) the efforts African governments make in promoting local food production. Tariffs on food imports are contradictory to the lending institutes’ aim at liberalizing African economies and subsidies to local African producers are viewed as wasteful and often scrapped in order for African nations to receive loans.     

Third, since there are no subsidies to promote local food production and tariffs are not imposed on imports, North America and Western Europe dumps their cheap, subsidized food products on African markets (showing the hypocrisy of world economy … free markets in Africa but protectionism for North American and European farmers). Food products such as meat and milk products, cooking oils and cereals flood into African markets and as a consequence retard local food production. NGOs and their media sources do a decent job in reporting on this (see: ), but overall the reporting of external forces contributing to Africa’s food insecurity are downplayed for local, national and regional factors.

The FAO report suggests two directions that Africa could pursue to alleviate food insecurity and develop a better standard of living. One is to reduce the trade deficit regarding food by finding ways to reduce agricultural imports and boost local agricultural production and exports. For most countries in Africa, the author of this blog sides with this policy. How to do this in an economic environment where external forces both explicitly and subtlety promote their own imports to Africa is difficult. The other is to ignore the agricultural trade imbalance and find ways to increase African exports of non-food or non-agricultural sectors (like services, tourism, oil and mining, etc.). This external forces promoted for years and what has created greater vulnerability to food insecurity for the poorer nations of Africa.

In fairness, the second option (which this author opposes in general) might be the only path to take for some African countries, particularly when dramatic changes in climate are affecting food production. The first option, however, should not be seen as an unrealistic goal. It is possible and should be promoted in as many communities, countries and regions as possible. Self-reliance, not greater vulnerability and dependability on the global economy, is a direction Africa needs to take for greater food security.