John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Development Revisited

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
May 7, 2013

An aerial view shows the central business district in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, April 7, 2009. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters). An aerial view shows the central business district in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, April 7, 2009. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters).

This is a guest post by Owen Cylke. Mr. Cylke is a development professional and a retired senior foreign service officer with USAID.

A spate of press articles over the past several months speculate on the quality and direction of development in Africa. For the most part, the articles reflect the establishment view that things are looking brighter; but brighter for whom?

For politicians who look for any sign of progress that might generate electoral capital? For investors who take advantage of promising reports and then lobby for ever-increasing favorable treatment in regulatory regimes? Or for international consulting organizations that would build on optimism for their marketing efforts? But certainly not brighter for the poor who continue to hover at the 50 percent breakpoint–50 percent earning more or less than $1.25 a day. Certainly not for the burgeoning populations of young people seeking employment off-farm and in Africa’s cities.

Indeed, if there is a singular sign of weakness on the development front, it is the African disconnect from the global experience and historical association that industrialization and urbanization create higher and more productive levels of employment and contributions to national GDP.

While the international development community remains preoccupied with agriculture and the rural sector, African heads of state are looking beyond that to a larger and historically grounded understanding of the development process–a process known as economic transformation. Their understanding is that the real test for development will be found in the extent to which economies can successfully move labor and resources into activities with high and increasing levels of productivity. And it is widely recognized that these activities are more likely to be in the industrial and urban rather than agricultural and rural sectors.

It is true, even paradoxical, that the modernization of the agricultural sector is key to the desired transformation. But the failure of the development community to engage on a larger development agenda makes the transition from agriculture to industry, from rural to urban settlement, and from self-employment to formal wage employment difficult. Labor may well still flow out of agriculture; indeed it will. But in the absence of deliberate and targeted policies, it will be absorbed largely into the informal sector where the scope for sustained growth in productivity and incomes is limited. In the spatial dimension, that spells slums.

Just last week, the New Partnership for African Development’s (NEPAD) Planning and Coordination Agency (NPCA) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) hosted a continental forum in Cotonou, Benin to further advance the intent of African leadership to achieve the long sought transition from an entrenched agricultural and rural development model to one that supports more productive industrial and urban activity. UNECA has recently also published a report on the importance and prospects for economic transformation in Africa as input to the debate surrounding the Millennium Development Goals post 2015.

This disconnect is now finding voice in the international community. New and established voices on the development front are contributing to the discussion. Writing in Foreign Policy, Rick Rowden notes that African economies are not generating the kind of employment off-farm that Asia did as part of its Green Revolution that lifted millions out of poverty. And the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Alumni is sponsoring a workshop in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center on May 22 directed to “Agriculture, Structural Change, and the Urban Imperative.”

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Stephen Onakuse

    The points and questions marshalled in this article expose the issues that undermine African development.
    I am constantly baffled as to what practitioners, world bank, IMF, and other institutions define as growth. Growth is where people can afford a meal, attend schools, access to healthcare, reducton in maternal mortality and so on. But, African growth is centred on increased corrupt practices, conflict/war for natural resource control, religious divide etc. which diretly further impoverish the most vulnerable within the African society.
    Agricultural development and growth, what next? Land grabbing, China colonialisation of African and so forth.
    African rulers – wake up from your slumber

  • Posted by Jerre Manarolla

    Thank you Owen!! Let me give you my take on the issue, based on 25 years working for USAID as a development economist. At present, USAID’s economic growth activities are devoted almost entirely to agriculture under the rubric of “food security”. When I worked for Owen in USAID’s Food Aid Office, during the late 1980s, we developed the Agency’s food security strategy and made sure it included a balance between domestic production and the capacity to import food, as well as an equal concern for income growth among both rural and urban dwellers. However, the Agency’s current view of food security is much more tightly focused on domestic staple food production for domestic consumption, with trade a distant second cousin, little attention to non-farm employment opportunities, and no attention whatsoever to facilitating the transition of agricultural and other rural families and individuals to urban centers where the opportunities for higher productive jobs exist resulting from economies of scale and agglomeration and where the need an opportunity to assist in creating more such higher productive jobs is greatest. Instead, however, almost all of USAID’s current resources destined for economic growth activities are now devoted to a single-minded focus on agriculture, biased heavily toward the belief that poor countries should produce what they eat. To me that sounds a lot like the popular development belief in food self-sufficiency prevalent in the 1980s, a belief that we successfully fought against when we developed the Agency’s original food security strategy under Mr. Cylke’s leadership. One more point: I think the World Bank got it right in its 2000-2001 World Development Report on Attacking Poverty and the link between agriculture/rural development and poverty reduction. Their approach was a three-pronged one consisting of increased agricultural productivity, off-farm employment and preparing rural folk for a successful transition to urban employment opportunities. That is a much more comprehensive approach to poverty reduction and more supportive of the economic transformation that Mr. Cylke is espousing. Again, kudos to you, Owen.

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