How can Africa’s agricultural sector drive its own development?
Agriculture is the key to Africa’s economic and social development and likewise significantly impacts the environment, biodiversity and public health. To consider, as some do, that agriculture in Africa boils down to a few agricultural products primarily targeting the export market, is, in my eyes, to greatly underestimate its scope. Seventy percent of the working population in Africa makes a living of agriculture, compared to 43 percent worldwide and four percent in France. The sector’s productivity is one-thousandth that of productivity in France or the United States. Paradoxically, only two to four percent of the budgets of African governments are allocated to agriculture, even though ten to twenty percent of GDPs depend on it. Furthermore, development assistance rarely focuses on agriculture.
The result has been a massive rural exodus toward cities that are increasingly stretched thin with the arrival of migrants.
Shantytowns in Africa are growing at a rate unmatched by the world’s other poor regions, at an annual rate of five percent versus an average of two to three percent in countries located on other continents.
The fundamental issue for Africa is thus ensuring the development of its agricultural sector, as much to boost the process of economic take-off as to help settle on the continent a population that is becoming vagrant and devoid of hope.
Will this issue not be resolved if the Doha negotiations draw to a close?
Africa’s agricultural sector is fragile given that the great majority of Sub-Saharan countries are experiencing economic and social collapse:
> 39 out of 40 States do not meet the threshold for food self-sufficiency.
> 85 percent of Africans are living on less than two dollars a day.
> An additional 67 percent fall below the absolute poverty threshold.
Agriculture, unfortunately, as often inspired by international assistance policies, against all logic is not the priority. Investments target energy and mine production, education, healthcare... These are of course fundamental issues. But as long as the foundation – the subsistence farming that ensures the minimum needs of these communities are met and provides income for two thirds of their population – has not been built, nothing will be resolved.
Professor Montagnier, a member of the WOAgri sponsorship committee, is carrying out research on the effects of food shortages in Africa and attributes a considerable proportion of observed pathologies to malnutrition.
Now, Doha! The Doha Round has been called the development round1 and everyone came to believe that clinching a deal would solve everything. This is not only a political illusion carefully maintained by all those who require full public support, but also an economic sham and an instance of deceit on a global scale. Negotiators have been drawing on the conclusions of the World Bank model, which asserts that the more trade is liberalized, particularly in the agricultural sector, the more worldwide well-being will increase, particularly in poor countries. This model, however, is quite unfounded, and its conclusions mistaken, as we have proven at great length, so much so that the World Bank itself has recognized, since the audit it commissioned in late 2006, the relevance of our approach.
An unregulated liberalization of trade would in fact exacerbate the situation in the poorest countries, namely in Africa, and would destroy whatever remains of their agricultural sector.
But how can you so categorically challenge what appears generally accepted by the International Community?
We have observed the World Bank model very closely. We noticed something that many people already knew; that the model rested on very rough hypotheses. Those hypotheses for the most part rose up from an industrial vision of the economy, one that barely takes into account the unique characteristics of agriculture. These characteristics are already quite tricky for the agricultural sectors of developed countries to manage. They are all the more so for the agricultural sectors in the poorest countries. The first relates to price volatility. The prices of agricultural products can vary as much as 300 percent (even 400) according to fairly low-level changes in inventories and production volumes. This is a real danger for the poorest countries. Stabilization mechanisms have existed, but they have been insufficient and at times misused. Africa, more so than Europe or the United States, countries that benefit from better protection thanks to their preference systems, has borne the full brunt of the erratic variations of agricultural prices. Under such conditions, it is impossible to make long-term forecasts and difficult to invest. Africa’s agricultural economies are suffering from this volatility but also from a lack of investment and therefore infrastructure.
But shouldn’t a liberalization of trade favor the poorest countries?
The idea of a liberalization did then emerge, namely at the World Bank. It should help those countries improve their export activities. In reality, however, this is but a creation of the mind. The models do not take preferential agreements into account, in particular those in place between Africa and the European Union. If customs duties are reduced, products from the world over could enter these countries, often at prices well below those from local production. The consequence would be the disappearance of entire portions of agriculture, particularly subsistence agriculture, despite the fact it is protected by the Lomé accords.
The accords should be rolled back by 1 January 2008 at the very latest, to be replaced by what are referred to as the “economic partnership agreements” (EPAs). These agreements, made between the European Union and the main regions of Africa, are nonetheless still pending since it is well known that if they were to be implemented tomorrow, they would include a reciprocity mechanism that does not exist under the Lomé accords. Indeed, the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific group of States (ACP) can currently export to the European Union without reciprocity. With the EPAs, this will no longer be the case. Worse still, the rollback of customs duties will cause customs revenues, often the largest line item of budgetary funds, to decrease by 70 to 80 percent.
Between opening borders up to cheaper products and the all but disappearance of customs duties, one comes to the realization that Africa may very well find itself subjected to an economic and social cataclysm that it really could do without.
You paint quite the catastrophic picture. What can be done to ensure that we build Africa’s agricultural sector of tomorrow to drive its own development?
There can be no development in Africa without an agricultural sector powerful enough to create reserves of capital for investment (thus allowing for the development of other activities). This has been the model used more or less throughout the world. One would be mistaken to think that Africa could transfer directly to an economy based on consumption, industry and services without first meeting a minimum of food self-sufficiency. Likewise, issues related to regional conflicts, access to water, the protection of biodiversity and soil erosion, to name a few, cannot be resolved as long as development of the agricultural sector lags and can only be resolved with a minimum of protectionism, provided that protectionism is coordinated at the international level.
Abandoning preferences and protectionist mechanisms following overall schemes that do not take into account the great insufficiency of infrastructure and that set their sights on the long-term benefits of unregulated liberalism is not an optimal solution for these countries. The approach must be much more careful and progressive. One cannot impose the physical training of a high-level athlete on a body that unprepared for the task. Certain steps must be followed, the first of which is to ensure an acceptable level of health. We are far from having reached that goal, in both the literal and economic sense, in the least developed countries (LDCs). We must therefore adopt a different approach, using tools for assessment that can measure difficulties and risks and allow us to take appropriate measures with both pragmatism and realism. Developing agriculture is clearly the priority. That is WOAgri’s philosophy, one that I am convinced is the only viable one for the African continent.