Chapter 9: Seeds of hope

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Chinese proverb

The principal purpose of this report is to rescue hope from the present human tragedy. The scale of the disaster that has befallen Africa has awakened a new concern abroad to help. In Africa it has added to the urgency of the search for new directions.

The tragedy in Africa must be reversed. A new will and common purpose to do so is emerging. If these can be harnessed to practical actions for reform, the cycle of disaster that now afflicts the continent can be broken. In this final chapter we propose two areas where a series of very feasible actions can transform the prospects for rural Africa.

The victims of Africa’s crisis are small farmers, both cultivators and herdsmen. At present they need external assistance to survive but they are also the key to the longer­ term economic health of the continent. Unless this sector is strong, Africa’s broader ambitions for development will be thwarted .

To assist them through recovery to strength, two basic institutional mechanisms are required: first, a means of securing the deployment of sufficient relief assistance early enough so as to avert, or at least contain famine; second, away of channelling development aid directly to the small farmer who would then have a real control over its use thereby transforming the prospects of the rural sector. Bu; as we have argued, the growing number of the poor and the long-term decline in food production mean that Africa’s vulnerability to famine is not going to be overcome over­ night.

This report has not dealt with the wider international economic situation because we wished to limit ourselves to the specificity of the African situation and to plead in favour of better management of the existing African environment, social and economic as well as natural. To achieve this we make a set of proposals intended to put the rural sector first and provide appropriate assistance. As we have also pointed out, African governments have, in statements of their own, already indicated an interest in breaking with the urban bias of their present policies. The need for reform is urgent. Famine is still claiming lives. So our recommendations deliberately lie within ‘the art of the possible’.

The reason for not considering in any depth the wider international economic situation is because we wished to concentrate on the African dimension of the problem. Nonetheless, several points need reiterating. Firstly, many of Africa’s current problems originate in a depressed and inequitable international economy. African governments face severe limitations on their economic freedom to act. Thus, while some of the policies pursued have been ineffectual and even, in cases, counterproductive, they should not be made scapegoats for a disaster whose origins lie also in overseas economic events. A number of African governments are seeking to reform domestic policies. By contrast, no serious international economic reforms taking place.

Something, however, must be done urgently about the very high debt burden of Africa, the payments on which offset much of the new aid inflows. This ties the hands of African governments. The need for debt relief is, therefore, a priority. Because so much of it is official, as against commercial, debt it is well within the power of Western donors to reschedule the debt so as to ease the financial crisis of African governments. It is absurd that as relief aid ostentatiously flows in, it is becoming ever harder for African governments either to borrow fresh concessional finance or to pay back the mounting interest on old loans.

This general economic crisis bears on our own proposals for resolving the food production crisis. This is because it handicaps the ability of African governments to act themselves. Their urban populations have already had to bear heavy falls in living standards and governments can no longer adequately finance existing activities. So to ask them to bear the financial as well as the political burden of putting the rural poor first is unrealistic.

We cannot evade the conclusion that the richer countries of both East and West have the responsibility to help Africa with substantial concessional finance for the purpose of reconstruction and development. The ambivalent response shown to the World Bank’s efforts to raise additional resources emphasizes how much more needs to be done. In the area of famine prevention and containment, much can be achieved through a redeployment of existing resources. And by ensuring that relief is available before people are forced to migrate, the relief phase will be shorter and more cost-effective. People will be back on their feet more quickly. In time our proposals for development of the rural sector will reduce the need for relief operations by making rural communities self-sufficient in food and so less vulnerable to famine.

It will become clear later in the chapter that we are proposing a fundamentally different demand-led aid for the rural sector. Rather than donors deciding on the speed and amounts in which they supply aid, the beneficiaries will through decentralized rural credit schemes, set the level of their own demand. This will ensure that aid is only drawn on to the extent it can be successfully absorbed. And because the aid will be supplied principally as revolving credit, whereby repayments are recycled as new loans to other members of the community, a little help will go a long way. Of course, we do not underestimate the difficulties involved in rural credit schemes: high default rates; problems caused by larger landowners; shifting populations, unclear title to land, uncertain responsibility for the loan in co-operative ventures, and much more. Thus the lending conditions either have to be strict, in which case not enough will be lent or there will be repayment problems. Nevertheless, there have been encouraging successes. For example, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has pioneered good schemes. It has now, unfortunately, run into financial constraints because of parsimonious donors. Yet this is a model on which to build.

First, however, we tum to reform of the international community’s response to disaster. The principal constraints at the moment are political and organizational. The two are interrelated. On the political side, national prerogatives are used too frequently to prevent humanitarian interventions whose purpose is to save lives. This has continued to be a serious obstacle for both bilateral and multilateral aid. The UN set-up for emergencies has often assumed the reactive character of an organization which responds only when it is formally asked to. The non-governmental character of the Red Cross movement and some individual voluntary agencies has enabled them to be more enterprising.

The first step towards enabling the UN, in particular, to establish a more pre-emptive role in disasters like famines, which can be seen building up well in advance, is for some basic principles governing such interventions to be accepted and endorsed at the regional level. The humanitarian pressure from regional powers will facilitate the UN’s task in terms of access and timely aid measures in the afflicted areas. In the case of the African famine, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania as the chairman of the Organization of African Unity has unequivocally demanded a universal right to food for all famine victims. This commitment needs, among other thing s, to be translated into discreet diplomatic pressure to ensure that that right is fulfilled in such areas as northern Ethiopia, Chad and Angola.

Africa is a good example of where the regional layer of internationalism has been under-used. Its growing importance is evident in the proliferation of common trading zones and other co-operative ventures between adjacent states. There are now quite successful associations of states for trade and development in western and southern Africa. Many of these smaller groupings may be able to exercise greater humanitarian pressure than the OAU itself, particularly since the anomalies of colonial boundaries mean many countries may feel close links of kinship with disaster victims in a neighbouring state.

These special interests make it important, however, to secure as clear a separation as possible of the UN’s humanitarian intervention from political considerations. In its early days, a number of UN interventions did attempt to treat victims on both sides of a conflict. This was the case in post-war China, for example. It is interesting to note that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) acted in China under a resolution of its council that enabled it to distribute relief irrespective of who was controlling the territory. The relevant resolution said, ‘…that at no time shall relief and rehabilitation supplies be used as a political weapon, and no discrimination shall be made in the distribution of relief supplies because of race, creed, or political belief. That principle is as important today as it was then.

In Africa, liberation movements have been an acceptable channel through which to pass international refugee assistance, whatever the government concerned might say. Where there is a major disaster, humanitarian considerations must override sovereign prerogatives. Bluntly the UN should be prepared to trespass on states’ rights when these are in conflict with the rights of disaster victims. It is, of course, inherently difficult for an intergovernmental organization to do this. Its members should, therefore, be urged to establish a more creative humanitarian focus within the UN that ensures its considerable latent authority be deployed so that famine and other disaster victims are not left unnoticed, or uncared for, until too late. The UN, at its best, combines its moral authority with discreet diplomacy, its so-called good offices, to powerful effect. It has achieved this on occasions in its peacekeeping work and to some extent on human rights matters. It is for these reasons that the UN system needs to be supported and adapted to play a more central role on humanitarian issues. In particular, effective direction of humanitarian affairs must be vested in a body which has adequate authority and is recognizably non· political.

On disasters in general, the Office of the UN Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO) was expected to take the lead within the UN system. It has not been able to do so, partly because it lacked both authority and finance. Disaster prevention, which is a part of its mandate, calls for innovative pre-disaster planning and intervention. The fact that the UN Secretary General has had to form an office for emergency operations in Africa, as indeed he has done in virtually all other major emergencies, is a clear indication of present shortcomings.

The powerful UN agencies, with sectoral responsibilities of their own from refugees to food and health care, have never really acknowledged its co-ordination. UNDRO is a small under-financed office in Geneva. Effective direction of humanitarian affairs must be lodged in an office with adequate authority and a clearly recognized non-political character.

Information gathering must not remain solely a post­disaster activity but should include early warning. A network of voluntary agencies and others to monitor famine indicators, such as food and livestock prices, in vulnerable areas in the developing world would be an important component of this. The UN Secretary General has begun to improve the monitoring of potential conflict areas on the basis of published information. For humanitarian emergencies, a more extensive grass-roots exercise in information gathering is needed.

The purpose of any organizational change would not be the creation of another international bureaucracy but the more effective use of existing resources. Not all aid operations take place in a difficult political context where help cannot get through to all victims. In many cases the famine victims go unfed because the relief operation is simply not well-enough run. Because of widespread disillusion with the performance of the multilateral system an increasing amount of relief aid during the African famine is being delivered by the bilateral donors and the voluntary agencies themselves . However, as we have argued the United Nations has an ‘entree’ where others might be refused access even when there are no political complications.

One way of strengthening the UN’s capacity would be to establish its own logistics agency to move relief goods to where they are needed. A number of countries which have built up their own disaster corps, such as Sweden and Switzerland, may be invited to wear a UN hat and operate more or less as do the UN peace-keeping forces.

Multilateral and bilateral aid systems should be complementary, not competitive. Problems of duplication should be addressed through a control mechanism as suggested above. Greater efforts should also be made to engage the socialist countries more fully on what should be a concerted effort in a purely humanitarian context.

A more effective role should be accorded to voluntary agencies. Many combine a cost-effective operational capacity with the support of a public constituency in the donor countries. Both are vital. The voluntary agencies do not alone, however, offer an aid panacea. Their strength is their smallness and diversity, which would be lost if they had to carry the whole burden of aid delivery alone. They must remain the innovative partners and vanguard within the aid community as a whole, trendsetters and catalysts. Making them as big as the UN would destroy their main asset.

Better relief, however, only limits the consequences of Africa’s vulnerability. The major thrust must be a longer term re-establishing of a rural economy where the risk of famine is sharply reduced. As we have argued, this requires restoring traditional agriculture, encouraging improvements that fit within environmental limits. Modern agricultural methods have in many cases speeded up the pace of environmental deterioration.

The agricultural trends in recent decades have not only created environmental damage in their own right but played a part in impoverishing the small scale farming sector. Together with increased population pressure and other economic changes, including the lasting impact of famine, the small-scale farming sector is now under­ funded, even by its own modest standards. And in the Sahel states, western Sudan and northern Ethiopia particularly, a living is being scratched off land which can no longer carry the existing population. People in many areas have to walk too far for water or firewood for the family farming unit to be productive.

Turning this situation around will require a package of environmental and agricultural measures that we have discussed in earlier chapters. Here we limit ourselves to a mechanism for achieving this. There is a lot of well-intentioned exhortation to put the peasant first in development policy in Africa; but the biases of aid experts in favour of articulate townspeople and the urban political imperatives of governments make it unlikely that a strategic shift can take place easily.

One of the institutional arrangements which we believe could put power back into the hands of small farmers is the provision of decentralized low-cost risk capital. The small farmer is under-financed both in general but also seasonally. Not only are basic inputs such as seeds often unaffordable (or unavailable) but the consequence of rural poverty and indebtedness is that without credit the farmer has to sell his crop as soon as it is harvested when prices are at their lowest. The livestock herdsman is in a similar position.

The remarkable performance of Chinese peasants in recent years, who have been increasing wheat production at 12 per cent a year, is an example of what an economically liberated peasantry can achieve. In the African context, the performance of countries such as Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Zimbabwe are all encouraging examples. But unlike many, we doubt that raising food prices will be incentive enough for increased food production.

Reportedly, as much as 75 per cent of the basic grains grown by small farmers in Africa never leave the village. This is largely because the market system is so under­developed. Major improvements in rural transport and the phasing out of urban dependence on foreign food imports, which are often easier and cheaper to get, are crucial. The decision of a number of African governments to diminish the role of state marketing boards in setting prices is important. These boards are now criticized for holding food prices artificially low. However, they were set up because one or two merchants could in the past dominate the market to the benefit of neither the food producers nor the consumers. Yet the boards have generally not lived up to their purpose. Inefficient management, coupled on occasion with corruption, have brought them low. Whatever marketing arrangements are adopted, the small farmer’s access to market on fair terms must be protected.

It is not consumers who have been starving during the present famine, it is producer-consumers, the peasant farmers themselves who, whether or not they thought the price was right to grow a surplus for market, would certainly have tried to grow what they could for their own needs. So while growing a surplus for market will be an important consequence of making credit available to rural producers, the first consequence is likely to be that their own food security will improve. They will keep more to eat themselves.

However, a credit scheme will draw peasant farmers further into a money economy. They will have to pay back what they have borrowed. In some cases if there are not realistic opportunities to sell their produce to make such payments, the scheme might take payment in kind, in grains or livestock, because obviously the purpose is not to increase the burden of rural debt. But in most instances low­ interest repayments into a revolving fund to help other members of the community will be possible.

Peasant farming, when properly financed and with adequate access to markets, is one of the best banking risks around. Where appropriate this link-up with local capital might be facilitated if donors are willing to provide collateral for African banks to run such schemes.

Credit must be promoted because the one common aspect of the crisis in the African countryside is the impoverishment of the small farmer. But equally credit is the answer because, impoverishment apart, no two agricultural communities are the same. No top-down agricultural theories will work. Development aid has to have built into it an adaptability to the community with which it interacts. Credit will give the community the dominant say over how financial resources are used.

But at least in the early stages the majority of such schemes should be run at the local level by voluntary agencies and other s familiar with particular communities. There has been considerable experimentation with such funds in Africa and elsewhere. IFAD, which specializes in rural credit schemes, now has a special programme for Africa. However, what is crucial for the success of rural credit is that a scheme is structured with the particular needs, opportunities and character of a community in mind. Obviously, a poorly executed scheme could enrich the leaders of a community and pass others by. After all, credit favours the risk-takers: often only the rich can afford risks. Or if land rights are required as security for a loan, women who head most farming households in Africa may be excluded because traditionally these rights have rested with the men. Successful schemes will almost certainly have some co-operative element to them, not just because of the revolving fund but because there are common needs such as warehousing.

A plausible channel for credit is an indigenous local group, which understands the local power structures and the needs, and which co-operatively borrows the money and manages the loans to individuals. An international aid agency can identify such groups, guarantee collateral to a local bank to allow them to make such loans, and then provide the group with whatever expertise, research or other help it requires.

So, it becomes crucial to encourage the growth of local voluntary groups committed to the rural sector. These will provide an indigenous channel for aid and may as they gather strength become a legitimate voice for rural interests, listened to and tolerated by governments in a way political organizations at the grass roots could not be.

Credit must be wedded through these community-based agencies to the continued provision of more traditional forms of assistance which build up the human capital of the community with the provision of schools and clinics and so on. Agricultural extension services must be improved so that farmers have useful relevant advice at their disposal. The main attraction of credit is that used intelligently it gives the borrower a power over its use which as a beneficiary of free aid, he, or she, never has. The tanner can choose what advice to take and what to ignore. Getting aid is no longer tied to doing what the ‘experts’ tell you . This, in turn, gives Africa a chance to recoup traditional farming wisdom and allow a more balanced marriage with new productivity-raising methods.

Obviously such schemes have to be ultra-sensitive to local realities if they are not to be exploited by the richer farmers. So rather than offering a single institutional blueprint, we propose that those with aid programmes in Africa take a conscious decision to allocate a fixed proportion of their funds to rural credit schemes. By definition the cumulative impact of these funds, recycled between borrowers whose economic prospects could be so much better than those in the urban sector, is likely to exceed that of other parts of a donor’s aid programme.

Famine begins as a local crisis. It develops when acute food shortage remains unattended to and is only acknowledged outside the community when it achieves a wider dimension involving death and disruption. What is astonishing is that the slow-burning fuse of food crisis, with its series of community-level crises from soaring prices in the local market to forced migration of the destitute, should remain virtually invisible at the national and international level until widespread starvation breaks out.

The fact that counter-measures are not taken sooner goes to the heart of what is wrong with the development process. The urban orientation of government, and the virtual exclusion of the rural sector from resources and power, has led to the impoverishment and vulnerability that brings about famine.

Restoring local self-reliance requires a restructuring of government policies and international aid so that they serve the interests of the rural majority in Africa more effectively. In particular the rural poor, the current famine victims, must be economically enfranchised. Aid should be channelled to this group, principally in the form of low-cost credit. Such an approach, based on self-help, will provide incentive, restore human dignity and eliminate overtones of charity.

Taken together with improved price incentives for food production, there is then a real prospect of rebuilding small scale agriculture. Furthermore, such an agriculture understands the limits of its environment. When we raise the question of whether famine is man-made, we are not denying the role of climate in Africa. We are only emphasizing that in the past, people knew how to farm within Africa’s severe ecological limits and to take the precaution of ensuring that there was enough food stocked in the village for the years of bad harvests. It is this sort of wisdom which must not be lost.