I was reading recently about how globally poverty has been on the decline. It got me thinking...really! While this could be true once you bunch all corners of the world together, it couldn’t be more inaccurate the moment you unbundle poverty regionally. 50 years ago, the percentage of people that were living in poverty would have been more that for today. This could simply be because china and a lot of other highly populated Asian countries were in that bracket. The rapid growth of their economies in the recent past would have levelled those figures off, reducing the proportion of the world's population living below the poverty line ($1 a day). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of people living and being born into poverty have in fact been on the rise. The region has become less and less able to feed its people. The green revolution failed to take off, partly due to slow technology transfer and assimilation, poor human and institutional capacity development and perhaps a region not ready for a science-based development. Clearly the people of this region have a way of sustaining their livelihoods which is rooted in a particular tradition which is hard to uproot. In my mind, improving the lives of people in the region does not lie in disengaging this deep seated way of doing things but rather working with them and improving them where possible. Yet the common narrative has always been that such ways are backward and counter-productive. Lets look at it differently for a minute.
Our measures of development have commonly been economic. The higher a country or region's income, the more developed it is. I have always shied away from this narrative because I think its inadequate. Sub-saharan Africa may be economically behind a lot of other regions, but it is developed in another sense. Take social safety nets for example (off the top of my head of course). In many parts of the region, there are strong social structures that allow a more equitable sharing of resources and wealth (since we are so in love with this narrative) than most other “developed'' regions. This social capital (there I go again) can be used positively to ease a region out of poverty. In a small village somewhere in Africa, a chief is responsible for collecting grain from well-to-do members of the society for redistribution to the less privileged in that community, the elderly, widows and orphans. Further to that, the extended family of these less privileged consider it their responsibility to take care of their poor. If this isn’t development, what is? The African labour force is in my mind a very productive force. it is frequently presented as dwindling as a result of HIV/AIDS. Im thinking, these economically active people plough back most of their resources and earnings into their extended families and communities and less on hard drugs or exotic holidays (im being cynical of course...the point remains). Shouldn’t this be considered an asset to be taped into for developmental purposes? That same sense of responsibility and communal-ism has been known to prop-up failing economies through remittances from the diaspora. Imagine how much more could be done with the same mind-set on stable economies. If I had my way, the description of sub-Saharan Africa as “less developed” would be abandoned for the truer description, “low-income”.
Maybe development initiatives for Africa should first focus on local solutions to local problems. These can be shown up for an assimilation of more “progressive” approaches as known in the common narrative. If local farmers are happy to share the few cattle they have for labour to allow each other to produce food for themselves and the extended community, how much more could be done with better technologies and the same mind-set. I say faster and far reaching development. Cutting out an over-reliance on external funds and aid to allow for the growth and spread of these most basic tenets of a strong social structure will allow an even more useful contribution of whatever external resources the continent has access to. No amount of external resources and support without local initiative and citizen inspired transformative involvement will suffice. It all starts with realising that there is value in the way the African system commonly operates and therefore trying to work with it to achieve the mostly adored “economic” standard of development. I talk of agriculture and poverty almost intricately because in the sub-Saharan African context, economies are strongly tied to an agriculture that is climate depended. The looming threat of climate change seems to suggest in my mind that the foundations of development in Africa need to be dug deep. In this sense, digging deep could mean simply entrenching further the positive constructs of the African system and using them as a basis for tackling a new challenge. In this could be the way for an African upward surge out of poverty into development, economic or otherwise. Not forgetting of course the plethora of challenges the continent is and has experienced that would hinder such progress. Today is a good day, I’m not interested in exploring the gloomy side of things.