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Small or Big: What Prospect for African Farmers?

June 13, 2013

There is an interesting debate about the future of agriculture in Africa and whether the small holder farmer will be an important player in this field. This post summarizes two positions which are at the opposing end of the spectrum. In the final part it outlines an interesting model which is emerging in Ethiopia and seeks for a middle ground.

Smallholders are the past. The bottom line of this line of thought is the following: for agricultural growth and economic development to happen labor productivity must grow exponentially in Africa. For this to take place one fundamental shift needs to occur: people need to move out low-productivity jobs in agriculture and transition in higher productivity jobs in urban contexts. From this perspective the key policy challenge today is not how to bring up the productivity of smallholders because countries developing economically will do away with smallholders altogether. The challenge instead is to create jobs in urban areas which can employ those people pouring into cities: as Collier puts it “Africa’s future is not as a continent of happy farmers“. This argument is built on the observation that evidence do not support the claim that investments in small farmers will trigger a growth of African agriculture. On the other hand what one should strive for is the establishment of large scale farmers as commercial enterprises which can integrate some of the smaller scale farmer through vertical integration.

Smallholders can feed the world. The opposite side builds a counter-argument on the basis of one observation: if one looks at the agricultural growth rate of those countries with a majority of small farmers and compares it to the performance of countries with large-farms sectors one notices that former have a better track record than the second. On the basis of this observation one can the conclude that the size of the farm does not represent the decisive factor underlying agricultural growth because this growth is determined by many other concomitant factors. If this argument acknowledges that in principle labor productivity is higher in large scale commercial farmers, it also points to the fact that the historical record shows that small farmer in African countries have led to agricultural booms (as defined by increased marketed output in food and cash crops) whereby large farmers has generally failed.

A new model for African agriculture needed? (source

Counter-counter-argument. T counter o the claim that historical records show that smallholders are more more productive, Collier and colleagues argue that what is defined as large farmers in Africa are actually not that large: the vast majority of farmers in Africa are below 2 hectares with few above 5 hectares and therefore far from the Brazil-style large farmers. In other words what these cross-farmers/cross-country comparisons are comparing are small farmers with relatively less small farmers. Another counter-counter-argument is that asking if small farmers produce more proportionally than large farmers is the wrong questions to answer: one should on the other hand asks what is the mode of agricultural organization which is suitable for prolonged productivity growth. From this perspective, commercial farm enterprises are better positioned to take up decisive factors: if one considers for example new technology such as seeds and fertilizers large farmers are more likely to adopt new technologies (they are less risk-adverse) and diffuse them. These economies of scale applies not only in production but also in trading, marketing and storage.

Recipes for today. One model which synthesizes both positions by emphasizing the importance of commercial value chains while recognizing the importance of smallholder farmers is the model of Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. It focuses on integrating smallholders farmers grouped in cooperatives or union to commercial supply chains so that they access the world’s output market. The important point is that ATA recognizes the advantages of economies of scale with regard to resources pooling and knowledge uptake/diffusion and this is why is working to strengthen the farmers union and cooperatives. Interesting is also how ATA is envisioning the introduction of smallholder farmers into big leagues: one way is the contract farming and forward-purchase delivery.

Contract farming and forward purchase delivery contracts are effective ways to link farmers directly to secure end markets in Ethiopia. Direct linkages between buyers and Ethiopian smallholder farmers will enable farmers to generate pre-finance for inputs, produce a better quality product (adding incremental value), and capture a bigger share of product value, while enabling end buyers to reduce transaction costs by sourcing form a reliable, consistent and uniform market. Such linkages also encourage investments across the whole value chain, including in aggregation, storage, access to finance, and marketing.


What We Are Reading 08/06/2013

June 8, 2013

1. Have You Asked Them What They Need?

2. How Recalculating GDP Can Help App Designers in Nigeria

3. Transforming Zimbawe’s Agrarian Economy: Why Smallholder Farming is Important

4. Regional Interconnections and Conflict in Sahel

Fixing it or Breaking it? A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon II

May 30, 2013

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

This is the second of a two-posts series which looks at the practices of humanitarianism today in Lebanon through the lenses of a practitioner and a researcher. In the first post we argued that humanitarianism ends up being the short-term substitute for development: in this sense humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies. In this second post we will look at another thesis advanced by the Italian scholar Roberto Belloni: humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome. By so doing, we will assess whether this thesis applies to humanitarianism today.

Humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome:

Humanitarian providers in Lebanon, with their way of operating, tend to reproduce the same cleavages that pre-existed the crisis humanitarian actors aim at alleviating. There are two cleavages that humanitarianism is reproducing, and they are stigmatized in a “national” – sometimes depicted as “ethnic” – opposition, as that between Syrians and Lebanese; another cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the “side effects” of how humanitarianism is locally implemented.

National/ethnic cleavages. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees are considered by humanitarian organizations as the primary victims of the Syrian conflict. The funds allocated for the Syrian emergency in Lebanon are therefore earmarked for intervention that primarily or exclusively targets Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees, however, do not officially live in refugee camps – whose the implementation is so far refused by the Lebanese government – and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon: hosted or rent payers. They are mainly concentrated in the poorest Lebanese regions due to greater life affordability.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, thus, actually share a similar condition of poverty, exclusion and marginality. Nonetheless, they differ in one dimension: the first are formal recipients of aid, the second are occasional recipients of aid. This divide has inevitably created tensions. Moreover, the way humanitarian programs have been implemented has ethnicized the human needs of such areas: the fact that every kind of assistance is provided according to the “ethnic category” – or, in any case, the specific social group – one qualifies for, has rendered eligibility a watershed between who is entitled to be helped and who is not. Not definitely a humanitarian side effect. By so doing, the humanitarian programs address beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral way and ignoring the variegated spectrum of their experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, these programs totally ignore the process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries, and condemn the latter to survive within – and weirdly in the name of – the spot they occupy in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese and so forth. Hence, the humanitarian programs feed into such cleavages with their modus operandi – that is to say, working on the basis of categories – by establishing who is entitled to what and consequently engendering further tensions.

The Syrian influx also feeds into underlying inter-confessional tensions: some segments of the Christian community do not hide their fear of the Sunni influx (the majority of the Syrian refugees is in fact Sunni). Likewise, some residents in have Alawite villages in Akkar have recognized to perceive more tension now among their neighbors, who allied with or against the Asad regime. With the economic situation deteriorating and Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for the generalized malaise, Lebanese from other sects are taking the matter into their hands, while cases of military raids and mob violence against Syrians are multiplying. The humanitarian response has failed to alleviate such tensions and, on the contrary, it has inflamed them by allocating the most visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, blankets) almost exclusively to Syrian refugees. If, on one side, it is not the duty of humanitarianism to end local violence, on the other, it should not even fuel such tensions by identifying the local capacities for peace.

To its credit, humanitarian organizations have tried to channel as many resources as possible through the Lebanese public service: in the case of healthcare, for example, primary health care centers have improved both for Syrians and Lebanese. The support for Syrians is also based on the principle of equal treatment: Syrians pay as much as Lebanese to access any basic service. The fundamental caveat however remains, as aid was mobilized and allocated only when Syrians arrived, and Lebanese perceive that they were not, once again, the priority. The resentment and the sense of abandonment that the several areas of Lebanon receiving Syrians today have developed throughout the past century, cannot be eradicated by now, and should carefully guide humanitarian actors in the planning of their programs.

From the point of view of the humanitarian practitioner, the challenge lies in the search for eligibility criteria unlikely to create tensions. The latter are a material imperative, as the amount of resources that the humanitarian structure can benefit from is limited, and is, thus, bounded to differentiate between who is entitled and who is not to access services. Apparently, newly designed programs, as affirmed by UNHCR in Qobayat (Akkar) last February, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism, according to which the needy beneficiaries should be addressed through assigning to them a unique moralized and victimized identity. Nonetheless, even the humanitarian modus nominandi dealing with homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still generate frictions, in that the beneficiaries unavoidably carry a diversified experience of historical neglect, war trauma, eviction and deprivation. Besides the fact that the access to some Lebanese areas is still filtered by local leaders that distribute resources through a confessional – and sometimes ethnic – network, the humanitarian structure, while concealing this material compromise behind the human label of universal assistance, keeps implementing projects as though it acted in a social void, deprived of past tensions and present social frictions, de facto fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected.

This apparent apoliticization of the humanitarian actors towards the conflict in which they are working, brings to implicitly blame internal actors for not being able by themselves to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns, which still impinge on humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals that, after a local social renewal, from their perspective,  would run smoothly.

Central vs. decentralized power cleavage. The second reason for contending that the humanitarian assistance tends to recreate and reassert the cleavages that is supposed to dismantle – in the name of neutrality – is the local decentralization in administrative terms, not certainly leading to major coordination and better resources management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies, most of the time, have to comply with the regulations imposed by the local leader and a sort of commissioner – in Arabic respectively mukhtar and mas’ul - who usually are the people in charge of managing all local affairs. This tendency often ends up legitimizing the corrupted dusty structure of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism, all along present in Lebanese society. This feeds an anti-state vicious circle.

In light of this, Lebanese areas that have always been neglected have suddenly hosted a massive presence of non-state actors, often international, importing standardized models of emergency planning from outside, and, at the same time, not aiming at supporting reformist internal tendencies and winking at pseudo-tribal local leaders that have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process. Thereby, Lebanese little villages are thrown into the bipolar schizophrenia that leads them, on the one hand, to desire an administrative modernization in marginalized contexts that have not been addressed by the Lebanese state yet; and, on the other, external actors basically feed the feudal structures that, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from[1]. The humanitarian actors instead seem to show “cultural respect” – and therefore detachment – whenever it turns useful to them in political terms, as they can access some areas just through local mediators, not always appreciated by the local community.

Thus, humanitarianism as implemented by international structures, both eastern and western, seems to lead to the reproduction, nay reinforcement, of the social, confessional and, in some cases, ethnic cleavages present in Lebanese society. Aid, therefore, unfortunately turns into a paradoxical factor of international supremacy and interference, feeding into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination. Yet, such a compromising supremacy is pragmatically paraded as humanitarianism.

[1]  Interviews conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 in the Akkar towns of Halba, el Bahsa and al ‘Abdeh (North Lebanon).

What We Are Reading 24/05/2013

May 25, 2013

1. Kenya : Ethnicity, Tribe and State

2. The Elusive Search for the African Middle Class

3. When You Build a Small Roof for the Dog. Garment Industries in Bangladesh and Cambodia at confront

4. Where is the BOP Health Care Fortune?

5. Bringing Health to World’s Poor Goes Beyond Drug Prices

Fixing it or Breaking it? A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

May 22, 2013

by Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

In our combined effort of providing the perspectives of the practitioner and the researcher, we would like to take as a point of departure Italian scholar Roberto Belloni’s theses according to which humanitarianism, on one hand, ends up being the short-term substitute for development, and, on the other, tends to reproduce the same cleavages it tries to overcome. This first post will look at the first thesis.  

Humanitarianism as a short-term substitute for development:

While conducting research and grounded humanitarian work in Lebanon, we have noticed how humanitarianism, while providing increasing quantity of aid, avoids addressing the root causes of Lebanese chronic poverty, administrative anarchy and recurring war-like events. Predominantly western and Gulf countries have focused their attention on managing the symptoms of the malaise without effectively addressing its causes and hence engaging in the long term.

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon are surely huge for both Syrian refugees and long date neglected Lebanese host communities. With the massive influx of Syrian refugees since August 2011, the Lebanese community, living in the poorest regions, has felt the pinch. Indeed, many residents are currently trying to tackle increased expenditures and drop in income caused by a variety of factors: the closure of the border and the consequent inaccessibility to Syrian cheaper goods through the usual border-cross smuggling; fierce competition in the labor market that has been increased by the presence of Syrian workers; a deteriorating security situation; and reduced access to the agricultural lands strewn with landmines[1].

The situation for Syrians is similarly grim: according to a recent report, more than 50% of Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees live in substandard conditions, as Lebanese host communities are no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their houses. The vast majority cannot afford their medication for chronic-diseases, while others are foregoing hospital-level care because of the prohibitive cost and insecurity conditions. Many of them do not even have enough food to meet their families’ nutritional needs.

While some of these needs were not preventable, as they are inherently related to the Syrian conflict (i.e. interruption of trade and smuggling with and through Syria), widespread insecurity and an abysmal lawlessness stem from the structural weakness of the Lebanese state in asserting its control (meant as monopoly of violence) over the entirety of its territory. The state, however, neither assert its authority, nor it offers sufficient basic services. Feelings of abandonment, lack of authority and economic precariousness in Lebanese realities – like Tripoli and Arsal – end up feeding the militia culture, triggering, therefore, a recurrent spiral of violence.

How is humanitarianism fixing Lebanon? (source: condenaststore)

The paradoxical result of this flimsy post-war order led in fact the Lebanese of the peripheral regions to go access basic services, such as healthcare, in Syria before violence outraged. The international community has always been happy with the patching up, while the deep root causes of the generalized malaise could wait longer.  In this sense, humanitarianism is the short-term substitute for development in Lebanon: foreign powers still hold political sway in the domestic scenario while apparently preserving the neutrality of the humanitarian aid. This disguising mechanism gives birth to a fake apoliticization of the foreign humanitarian market, while the latter is not marginal at all to local political realities. Many humanitarian organizations have therefore abandoned previous local development projects in Lebanese areas that have been less targeted by the Syrian migration flow, and have consequently joined the humanitarian efforts meant to deal with the Syrian crisis. Such a dynamic is often dictated by the direction into which donors’ funds are channeled, since emergency relief is constantly prioritized with respect to challenging development plans.

In a nutshell, humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies, and, as such, it has been proving that emergency plans just serve its purpose of refreshing funds and commitment for the humanitarian structures.

[1] Rapid Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Crisis on Socio-Economic Situation in North and Beqa’, 2012, UNDP Lebanon.

What We Are Reading 17/05/2013

May 17, 2013

1. Seeing Like a State: Data Needed 

2. Insects Might Be the Taste of Next Generation

3. Bangladesh in its “T-shirt phase” 

4. Circumcision Plans Go Awry in Swaziland

5. India’s Middle Class: Growth Engine or Lose Wheel

6. The differences between China’s horizontal and the West’s vertical health diplomacy in Africa

Keep it Up: GDP Growth in Africa

May 16, 2013

According to McKinsey, Africa’s real GDP grew at a rate of 4.9% per year between 2000 and 2008 more than twice the pace of growth in the 1980s and 1990s. As Africa grows policymakers and business manager are asking what is driving this growth. And while many argue that what African countries are experiencing is just another commodity boom, a cursory look into the drivers of this growth shows that it isn’t just a resource boom.

It’s not just a resource boom. The surge in resource (minerals, grain, oil etc.) prices fueled only 32% of Africa’s GDP growth between 2000 and 2008. GDP growth is being consistent across the continent and countries without resources have grown as fast as those with resources. Other sectors have significantly contributed to this growth: wholesale and retail, agriculture and transportation and telecommunications. The underlying drivers of such growth are according to McKinsey the results of governments actions: the termination of conflicts and civil wars, the improvement of macroeconomic fundamentals (e.g. reduced inflation) and the creation of a business-friendly climate. In addition governments took steps such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises, increasing openness of trade and improving the physical and social infrastructure which drove the growth. The most important change these factors brought about is according to the report the growth in productivity of 2.7% per year across countries and sectors. If one then asks if the African growth can be sustained into the future one needs to look at two key dynamics, one international and the other domestic: one is that resources prices are set to continue to rise; the second is the trend in urbanization, expansion of labor force and the rise of African middle-class.

But resources are a big part of the story. As per the first factor, the global demand for fuel, arable land, natural gas, minerals and food is set to increase and Africa stands to benefit from it. It has in fact a large availability of resources such as oil, gold and uranium. The first consideration one can then make is that Africa’s growth is not just a resource boom, yet on the other hand resources matter by far the greatest deal in the African growth. When the CitiBank CEO was asked by the FT what sectors businesses should pay attention to he mentioned resources were at the top of his list. This consideration alone lends itself to the criticism of the skeptics of the African growth: development is about diversification of economic activities with a shift from agricultural and natural resources sectors to manufacturing and service sectors. If one then defines development in this fashion the picture is not as optimistic: Africa accounts for only 2% of manufacturing value added worldwide, roughly the same proportion it accounted for two decades ago. Similarly, the share of Manufacturing Value Added (the net output after adding up all outputs and subtracting intermediate inputs)  in Africa’s GDP fell from 12.8% in 2000 to 10.5% in 2008. African optimists counter this narrative pointing out that Africa’s growth does not stand to rely exclusively on international factors because there are key domestic dynamics which underpin Africa’s growth in the medium term.

Sell it to the African Consumers (source

Sell it to the consumers. The first of such domestic factors is urbanization: according to McKinsey, it can increase productivity, demand and investment as business can create economic of scale and bring down fixed costs. The second factor is the expansion of labor force which has the potential to boost domestic consumption and production. Finally, and related to the second factor, it is the rise of African consumers who can spur domestic demand: the number of household with an income of over $5,000 can increase from 59 millions in 2000 to 106 million in 2014. There are however caveats to this potential domestic dynamic: for instance, for the productivity to increase, for the labor force to expand, be productively engaged and for it to turn into a consumer class, Africa’s growth must generate stable wage-paying jobs. And this is far from automatic. First of all, in the past ten years Africa’s labor force has increased by 92 millions but only 37 millions were employed in stable wage-paying jobs; the majority was engaged in subsistence activity. If manufacturing, agriculture and retail and hospitality continue to grow at the current pace they are likely to bring up the share of workers with wage-paying jobs in 2020 to around 32% from the 28% of today.  The bad news is that as resources continue to make up for a big share of GDP growth stable jobs creation is set to remain low: if one looks at the period 2002-2010 the resource sector did not create any significant stable job. The debate about the prospect of African growth is far from being settled.


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