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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 37, September 4, 2010

Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa

Wednesday 8 September 2010, by Gilbert Etienne

On September 21 will take place an important international Conference on the Millennium Development Goal (MDG). It was launched by the United Nations in 2000 with the aims to reduce acute poverty by half, to promote rapid progress of basic education and health, as well as gender equality.

Half-way through, there has been some progress in education and health, but, as stated by Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN: "We are not on track to fulfil our commitments." (The MDG Report, 2008, UN) This is not surprising because the strategy selected and the priorities were ill-conceived-to use an understatement-by both the donor agencies and the governments directly concerned.

Although the estimates given below are not too reliable, they indicate rather correct trends: the percentage of people living with less than $ 1.25 per day amounts to 51 per cent of the population in SSA (Sub-Saharan Africa), 40 per cent in South Asia, 17 per cent in East Asia (mostly China), only 3.6 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa, eight per cent in Latin America. Malnutrition is also much more widespread in the first two regions: 25 per cent in SSA, 21 per cent in South Asia (2005 estimates). It is no less striking that in SSA and Asia, particularly South Asia, agriculture and the rural world play a much larger role than in the Middle East and Latin America. The urbanisation rate is around 60 per cent of the total population in the former and 70-80 per cent in the latter, whereas one comes across about 30 per cent in India, 35 per cent in Pakistan, 46 per cent in China, less than 30 per cent in Vietnam or Bangladesh. Employment in agriculture ranges from 50 per cent in India to 45 per cent in Pakistan, 40 per cent in China. In SSA about 65 per cent of the workers depend on agriculture. As to the contribution of agriculture to the GDP, it is around 35 per cent in SSA versus 10-20 per cent in Asia.

It is no less clear that, usually, acute poverty is more widespread in villages than in cities.

On the basis of these elementary facts, the major emphasis of the MDG should have focused on agriculture and rural infrastructures, particularly in the poorest regions of the world, which has not been the case, even if, as seen below, the situation in Asia is much better than in SSA.

In the 19th century, Westerners wanted to save the souls of Africans and Asians by converting them to Christianity. From the 1990s onwards a new gospel became prominent in North-South relations: democracy and good governance, faster social progress would save the poor. A number of donor agencies followed that line. The World Bank put great emphasis on social projects, neglecting agriculture and infrastructures, even banning the construction of big dams, following the pressures of militant NGOs (non-government organisations). The share of agriculture in total public aid fell from 18 per cent in 1979 ($ 8 billion) to 3.5 per cent ($ 3.4 billion) in 2004. In 2002, the President of the Rockfeller Foundation deplored "the dramatic under-investment in agricultural research". In the 1990s the number of foreign agriculture experts declined sharply, by 80 per cent for US AID. Several international conferences and reports played on the same tune. (See for instance, A Better World for All, OECD, World Bank, IMF, 2002, Overcoming Poverty, UNDP, 2002, and MDG Reports)
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THE responsibilities of African and Asian governments are no less heavy. In Sub-Saharan Africa, since 1970, the population is growing faster than agriculture, leading to growing grain imports mostly devoted to cities. Today, many countries still face a population growth of two per cent or more for lack, until recently, of family planning policies. Besides, countries particularly vulnerable to draught have been unable to implement proper policies of storing grain. As to roads and electricity, the gap between investments needed and the actual disbursements exceeds 50 per cent. (UNCTAD, Investments Report, 2008)

Foreign aid, which plays a much bigger role than in Asia (up to 70-80 per cent of public expenditures), has been rather poor. Countless reports underline waste, ill-conceived projects, corruption, uneven calibre of expatriates. The result has been slow growth and rising poverty.

Unlike in SSA, Asia has benefited from a substantial agricultural growth supported by rural infrastructures leading to a reduction of poverty. The Green Revolution gave a big push to agriculture thanks to Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and thanks to the commitment of governments. Yields of clean rice and wheat grew from 1000-1200 kg/ha to 2000 or more in one year, reaching later 3000-4000 kg/ha. In a few years time grain imports fell down substantially. Rural infrastructures expanded. The rural economy became more diversified with rising non-agricultural jobs in services, small industries. Small farmers and landless labourers benefited from the overall development in terms of income. (See my paper in Mainstream, May 22, 2010) Such changes are common to areas fit for the GR, thanks to irrigation, the key factor in the GR which relies on new seeds and chemical fertilisers. In rainfed areas of most countries, plateaux with mediocre soils, progress has been much slower, and poverty alleviation remains limited. In India one must also mention the slow development, and often severe poverty in the Eastern plains, with limited irrigation in spite of a large unused potential.

With the GR came in China, India and other countries grain storage policies, whereby the government buys and stores part of cereals, to constitute buffer stocks compensating for a bad monsoon, or being partly distributed at a subsidised rate to the poor people.

Between the 1980s and 2004, agriculture and infrastructures have been neglected in many countries, leading to a slowdown of growth, many areas remaining very poor.
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HOW to envisage the future of the two continents? By an odd coincidence, from China to Pakistan, in 2004, agriculture made a comeback. Govern-ments became more concerned with growing gaps between urban and rural incomes, social tensions or incidents, especially in China and India, rising grain imports in some countries. This renewed interest for agriculture and rural infrastructures is welcome. China is investing heavily in villages. In other countries present efforts still seem limited.

One hears now Asians and foreign experts claim that it is time for "a second Green Revolution". This is a dangerous illusion, because the GR of the late 1960s was relatively easy and simple to implement. Today the tasks are much broader and costly. One has to considerably improve rural infrastructures. Electricity and roads, after being engines of growth, have become stumbling blocks to progress, with tubewells lacking power, roads poorly maintained. Similar shortcomings are not lacking in several other countries. Extension services have also deteriorated, research lacks funds and scholars. Post-harvest losses amount to 30-40 per cent of vegetables and fruit in China, India, Pakistan, at a time when the demand for such items is rising. Better marketing, including contract farming, is needed. Costly and complex efforts are required in the vast rainfed regions, where watershed development projects are progressing too slowly among populations often very poor.

As to SSA, one shudders when Jeffrey Sachs, one of the main architects of the MDG, claims that the GR could treble yields in Africa in a few years on the Asian model. (Financial Times, September 14, 2006) The continent faces severe constraints. Large river basins with rich alluvial soils, which accommodate the GR in Asia, are much less numerous south of the Sahara. In Asia in the late 1960s, irrigation amounted to 30-70 per cent of the total cultivated land, as against five per cent in SSA today. Agricultural productivity is also much below Asia thirty years ago. Shifting and burning cultivation technique with the hoe, is still widespread. It had its own rationale, saving much work but it relies on 10-20 years of fallow after a few years of cultivation. Under the population pressure, fallow is being curtailed, resulting in soil deterioration. One must also bear in mind that, by the end of the 19th century, the plough-except in Ethiopia-had not crossed the Sahara, nor the wheel, irrigation techniques, manuring except for kitchen gardens. Extension services, rural infrastructures, district administration are also much less developed than they were in Asia in the late 1970s. While changes are coming, such handicaps take time to overcome.

On the other hand, African farmers, illiterate or not, like farmers in Asia, are able and willing to innovate when their interests are involved. Since the 16th century, they adapted groundnuts, maize, tapioca, chillies coming from America. The first cocoa plantations in Ghana, at the end of the 19th century, were created by small local farmers. In Kenya there was a rush to grow coffee when, following the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, the British allowed the natives to do so. More recently, around big cities have appeared vegetable belts. Hybrid maize is progressing in Kenya, in Malawi. Thanks to a most efficient French development agency (CFDT) cotton has spread, after World War II, to West Africa. In the Sahel, farmers are adopting the Asian wells technique: a pulley, rope and bucket pulled by a camel or a horse. Ploughing with bullocks is no more so rare.

The big issue is to promote policies following a strict order of priorities: irrigation, thanks to the rivers Senegal and Niger in the Sahel, so draught prone, land reclamation in central and southern Africa, which enjoy better rainfall, including minor irrigation in lowlands. Considerable efforts are needed in research and extension services, promotion of roads and electricity. All these tasks are bound to be costly, complex and time consuming.

To sum up, in Asia, the level already reached by agriculture combined with the governments’ storage policies prevent any risk of large scale famine or other catastrophes. Besides, the rural world benefits from the growth of industry and services, at least in the emerging countries. However, greater efforts are needed to accelerate poverty alleviation. Except in the least developed countries of the continent, massive aid is not needed, because the governments could bear the main efforts needed in terms of human and material resources. In SSA, any more efficient development policy implies considerable foreign aid, more concentrated with some agencies, instead of countless projects from NGOs, bilateral and multilateral channels, and in a number of cases more able and committed expatriates.

Finally, among the aid agencies, mindsets need to be reorientated towards peasants, by overcoming the lack of Western agricultural experts enjoying a solid grassroot experience. In SSA and Asia the gap between urban elites and villagers keeps on becoming wider. Already in 1975, the late M.N. Srinivas, a leading anthropologist, wrote about "the emergence of dual cultures" the former "based on urban middle classes", the latter on the "rural poor". And Srinivas added:
the ignorance of the urban middle class about rural life, agriculture and values would not matter much but for the fact that officials and specialists hail from it and have an important say in decisions which affect villages. (M.N. Srinivas, On Living on the Revolution, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 79, 80)

Such comments apply equally to the other Asian countries as well as Africa.

Gilbert Etienne is an Emeritus Professor, Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

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