The Politics of Development

In many of the poorest countries of the world more than eighty per cent of the population still live in rural areas. Their incomes – and indirectly their health, their educational prospects, and their future – depend on farming. Which is why tens of thousands of highly skilled experts – backed by programmes from all over the world – have dedicated their careers to helping farmers in the developing world over many decades. And yet many farmers are still desperately poor.

This would have been difficult to believe fifty years ago. Great irrigation schemes in the Punjab, based on thousands of miles of brick canals, had turned a desert into fertile land. New fertilisers, pesticides, and agricultural machinery were dramatically increasing the productivity of the soil. Anti-malarials were allowing places like the Nepali Terai, which had been previously uninhabitable, to be cultivated. Breeds of livestock were introduced, which produced far more milk and meat (you can still see Friesian cows, introduced by the Danes, in modern Afghanistan). The Filipino rice research institute developed new varieties of rice, which were not only far more productive, but were also more resistant to disease.

All these technical innovations have been reinforced by skills training – schemes to allow farmers in Uganda, for example, to identify diseases on crops and find the most efficient response. New infrastructure – such as roads and airports – have allowed farmers in Kenya to supply fresh food to UK markets. Production facilities have been constructed to process milk, and refrigerate fruit. World Bank consultants have introduced cash crops into completely different regions of the world – coffee into Vietnam for example. And in order to give more bargaining power to small farmers, chocolate manufacturers such as Divine chocolate have supported farming cooperatives.  At the heart of all these initiatives in agricultural development was the idea that the way to improve the lives of farmers was through better technology, more specialisation, increased capital, and better organisation.

So why are perhaps a billion farmers in the world still living in extreme poverty? Part of the answer is that many of these innovations have benefitted large agri-businesses, who can afford more expensive machinery, and are able to produce more food with fewer people, at a cheaper price – at the expense of small producers. Another part of the answer lies in the injustice in the relationships between buyers and farmers: the terms of trade are set by the buyers who pay little, and pay late, often playing the global commodity markets, and paying farmers under the cost of production.

But my sense is that the central problem is politics. The price that a farmer can receive for a crop is not simply a question of how hard and skilfully he (or increasingly in Africa, she) works. Nor is it even a direct result of the global commodity price. It is shaped by the policies of their national government. We can see this even in Cumbria where during the 1920s the government policy was to plant commercial forestry, and then in the early 1940s the policy was to bring the maximum amount of land into food production. We have seen it more recently with governments who tried to back ‘productive and efficient farming'; and others who have seen the same land primarily as a way of delivering environmental benefits – for biodiversity or climate change. These different overall objectives have led to completely different subsidies, regulations, payment schemes and trade relations (draining land and then re-flooding it; paying per head of sheep, as opposed to paying by acre; creating milk marketing boards and dismantling them). These are incredibly powerful instruments, which can completely transform or overwhelm many farm businesses. (We have lost two-thirds of our dairy farms in only the last twenty years).

But government policies which can bankrupt a farm business in Britain, can have a far more profound and devastating effect in the poorest countries in the world. We have seen this from utopian government schemes (the ‘groundnut scheme’ for example) in which farmers were forced to plant crops in places where they could not grow, could not be harvested, or could not find a buyer; through to revolutionary movements in China and Russia in which governments killed ‘peasants’ and small land-owners. Some governments (Ethiopia in the early 1980s) have created famines through their wars, or attempts to remake agricultural markets. Others (the government of Zimbabwe for example) have used the redistribution of land to reward political supporters, or punish opponents. And even where there is no conflict, hundreds of millions of farmers in the developing world have no secure title to their land and therefore no basis for investment.

Which is why, so often, what is needed to support farmers is not technical knowledge of fertilisers, or soil, or farming techniques – but instead a knowledge of government policy, and the ability to change it.  Without such an understanding, our technical assistance to small farmers will only provide false hope in a world that is stacked against them.

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