Development Requires Local Empowerment


By Leif Brottem *

Foreign Policy In Focus
September 27, 2006

A 5% economic growth rate has done little for Mozambique's vast poverty stricken population. And although the world's poorest countries have recently enjoyed their highest growth rates in two decades, the growth is fragile and not necessarily improving human well-being. These are some of the findings in the recently released United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Least Developed Countries Report.

The major point to be taken from the report is that poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa will not come through a quick fix. Nothing other than the long process of building democratic institutions and the civil society needed to make them work will bring meaningful development to Africa. The sobering reality is that Africa's development challenges run very deep. Amongst the myriad root causes of this, empowerment of local people is one of the most important ways to ensure long-term poverty reduction. Unfortunately, it is still underestimated by development advocates who aim for quick results by injecting money into technically-oriented projects such as infrastructure or enterprises that are ill-suited to local conditions.

No one should be surprised that a boom in Mozambique's aluminum sector has not reduced poverty in the former Portuguese colony of 20 million people. Extractive industries, which comprise the lion's share of Africa's global exports and foreign investment, generate few jobs and practically no local productive capacity, which the UCTAD report claims is essential to meaningful development. Moreover, extractive industries often worsen corruption by channeling revenue directly into government coffers.

Examples of this abound in Africa but a particularly poignant case is the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, which is currently the largest private investment project on the continent. After signing up to the World Bank's wildly optimistic program to channel oil revenue directly into development projects, the Chadian government quickly found other ways to spend its royalties from the Exxon-Mobil led consortium. Chadian President Idriss Deby would rather, quite logically, spend the money repelling attempted coup d'etats.

The crisis management debacle that has become of the World Bank's venture in Chad demonstrates that without rock solid governance, poverty reduction will forever remain a goal and not a reality in Africa. This lesson applies across the continent's economic, ethnic, and regional diversity.

For signs of true development in Africa, one must look for communities building their own institutions with or without multi-millions of dollars of assistance. Although the UNCTAD report focuses on Africa's growing urban population, Africa's true economic potential is found in the countryside, where the vast majority of people still depend on the land for their livelihoods. It is in the countryside where democratic institutions are needed to ensure sustainable economic growth, not just for rural people, but for the growing cities as well.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, farmers and herdsmen face substantial climatic and economic risks. Rains are highly variable; droughts are often followed by cyclical floods. Cash crops, whether coffee, cacao, or cotton, can be unreliable as payments come late and prices fluctuate widely. Rural people have adapted to these risks by developing production systems that minimize investments in costly inputs such as fertilizer and animal fodder. Low rural population densities permitted farmers to continuously clear land for crop production while pastoralists grazed their herds on seasonal pasture lands.

As cash cropping has become preeminent in national development plans and rural populations have exponentially expanded in recent decades, such traditional systems have lost their viability in many regions. Land has become scarce and the institutions needed to mediate resource access and conflicts have been ineffective or even non-existent.

There are hopeful signs that this is beginning to change, especially in democratizing countries such as the West African republic of Benin. Deep in Benin's agricultural heartland of Banikoara, farmers and herdsmen are working together to govern their shared natural resources, which are heavily relied upon yet increasingly scarce and degraded.

Their actions have global implications in more ways than one: Banikoara is Benin's leading producer of cotton, which underpins the World Bank backed effort to "modernize" the nation's agriculture sector. Cotton is also the focus of the Oxfam International led "Trade not Aid" campaign, which seeks to reduce African poverty by eliminating global agricultural subsidies.

Neither of these goals will come to fruition if communities fail to obtain the power and develop the tools needed to govern their natural resources. This is especially true given that national governments and even most development projects have a minimal presence in the countryside. Beginning with structural adjustment, extension services have steadily shrunk and in many cases local groups, such as farmers' unions, take up the slack. This type of "decentralization" to locally accountable bodies is an essential element of long-term African development.

In Banikoara, some locals are noticing the positive changes that are taking place through this process. El Hadj Oumarou, a local Fulani herdsman, asserts that a new local committee has been effective in protecting livestock corridors from field encroachment. Its effectiveness, he argues, is due to its inclusive nature: all user groups and ethnicities have a stake in its operation.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs pledges to "end poverty in our lifetime" through the UN Millennium Development Project. The project is ambitious in scope and funding goals, and contains specific measures such as free school lunches and mosquito nets. The goals of the project are ethically unquestionable and the aforementioned measures will likely improve child nutritional status and decrease cases of malaria in certain communities.

It is an open question, however, whether the strategic approach of the Millennium Development Project is sound. Will project impacts outlast the project interventions themselves? More pessimistically, will the project perpetuate the powerlessness that communities in Africa have long suffered at the hands of their central governments?

It is too early to tell what kind of impact the Millennium Development Project will have in Africa. However, technical interventions that lack the power to transform local-level social and political dynamics are likely to fall short of their high expectations.

The latest U.S. poverty reduction initiative is the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and Benin is among the first countries to qualify for funding. The overarching goal of the MCA is to improve conditions for private investment in recipient countries. In Benin, the hope is that the agricultural sector will attract foreign investors and continue to drive the national economy.

Unfortunately, that country's dysfunctional cotton sector is an example of privatization gone awry and the World Bank is investing heavily in the sector to correct its own mistakes. The Millennium Challenge Account should dovetail with these attempts to reform the cotton sector which is the sole income earner for millions of farmers across Benin and West Africa.

The MCA must, however, look beyond cotton and support real economic diversification. The dependency on cotton is as much a cause of poverty in rural West Africa as it is a potential solution. In order to do this, the MCA should aim for local impacts that go beyond land tenure formalization, which is one of its primary activities. This must begin with careful analysis of traditional land use arrangements, which are currently undergoing rapid change yet are often the only viable institutions in place.

As the agricultural season gains momentum in Banikoara, the local farmers' organization has won an important battle. An input supplier attempted to force cotton producers to accept a pesticide that they had already rejected as ineffective. In times past, high-level connections would likely have aided the company in having its way. Thanks to decentralization, local farmers are finding their voice, and more importantly, their power to say no.


William Easterly, "The Utopian Nightmare," Foreign Policy, September/October 2005.

Jim Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine (U. of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Jesse C. Ribot, "African Decentralization: Local Actors, Powers and Accountability," World Resources Institute, December 2002.

About the Author: Leif Brottem is currently a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow with Washington DC based Ecoagriculture Partners and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He lives and studies in Madison, Wisconsin.

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