13 November 2012

Agricultural saviours: young, senior and dead

Three items of note today, all--in one way or another--about agricultural development and saviours.

First up, a new IDS Bulletin by my colleague Jim Sumberg and his collaborator Kate Wellard on "Young People and Agriculture in Africa".  Written mostly by African collaborators, the 9 papers take on this "problem". What is the problem you say? Well, Sumberg and collaborators state that the problem is that we keep zeroing in on the wrong problem. The issue is framed either as "agriculture is the saviour of young people" or "young people as the saviour of agriculture". The real questions, they argue, are: (1) what are the determinants of  young people's interest in and success at exploiting the agri-food opportunity space? and (2) and what national and international forces shape that space?

They argue, convincingly I think, for more of a life course approach--pushes and pulls into agriculture may be temporary or permanent, strategic or tactical, but the lifecourse provides a useful way of thinking about livelihood strategies in 3-D. It is remarkable how limited the evidence base is in this area--in the last 12 years there have only been 63 papers published in journals on African youth and agriculture. This is strange given that most poor families, in on away or another, still rely on agriculture for work, income, low food prices and food in the market. There are no saviours, only opportunities to be taken, strategically or otherwise. We need to know more about what the evidence says about how we can enable young people to seize those barriers.

Next up, an altogether different type of saviour, Meles Zenawi, the President of Ethiopia who passed away in August. My colleague Jeremy Lind has written an IDS Rapid Response Brief: After Meles on the implications for Ethiopia's development. Lind writes "Meles built up a complex web of relationships that conjoined domestic political forces with foreign investors, leading the country towards impressive rates of growth and substantial achievement of some development indicators. Under his rule Ethiopia’s national image began a slow transformation from famine-plagued nation to a fast-growing country which was at the heart of a new global realpolitik in Africa. The challenge now is whether Ethiopia’s institutions, dominated at all levels by a single party, can transition to greater pluralism and, if so, will this enable the country to approach middle-income status by 2025 – a much-vaunted goal of the late Prime Minister."  

Lind makes several points: (1) under Meles, Ethiopia's image has been transformed from basket case to one of strong economic growth, including investments in agriculture, (2) but there are real questions about whether this growth is having a sufficiently strong impact on poverty, (3) in addition there are questions about how long the implicit social contract of increased growth for reduced freedoms will last, (4) the new President Hailemariam Dessalegn is from Wolaita – a part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), but is not a member of the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Despite this appointment, Meles' power base is still firmly in control of key sectors of the Government. So is the recipe for middle income status "more of the same" or is it via increasing plurality? My guess is the former--for as long as it all holds together.  

Finally, we have Gordon Conway's new book, One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?  The answer? We can feed the world, if we recognise, acknowledge or do 24 different things, things that are eloquently outlined in the book.  The 24 are entirely sensible, but given the political weakness of hunger leaders it would be a major achievement if any one of the 24 things actually happened (e.g. one of them is the Doha Round is completed with a satisfactory outcome for the least developed countries) let alone a major number of them.  So it is a long list and a non-prioritised, non sequenced, non political one at that.   There are few clues as to how we make political leaders, citizens and businesses wake up to the immorality, bad economics and bad politics of persistent hunger.  For example, "political economy" only comes up once in the index and "political stability" one other time.  This is a fantastically comprehensive book, written by a true authority in the field, but it does not really give us enough clues about how we wake people up about hunger.

The real saviours for hunger reduction are the everyday citizens who act up and pressure their governments to act--we have to find tangible ways to support their efforts.

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