Monday, September 2, 2013

Development - of what? for what?

A proud farmer with plantains, Samoa
A few years ago, I spent a few weeks in Samoa, a paradise Pacific island country. I was part of a World Bank team assisting the government in the development of a program for increasing the competitiveness of the agriculture sector. My role was to look into opportunities for commercial organic production.

Some things strike you in Samoa. One are the traditional villages with their special building style, the open fales , houses without walls. The village and the extended family (still) have strong positions in Samoa, land is mostly still communal (some 90 percent) and leaders of the extended families, the mathai, assign land to the members of the family. Soils are mostly rich. In these soils Samoans have been growing coconuts, breadfruit, taro and bananas as well as a number of fruits. Traditionally, pigs played a big role. Later cattle, cocoa and coffee were introduced. Many products are not sold in the market but are distributed within then families and villages, the meat in particular is mostly consumed at big parties. So farming is still not so integrated in the market economy.

There are a number of “obstacles” for a commercialization of farming. In essence this means bringing more farmers into a mainly cash-based and market based economy, both on the input and output side. It means that farmers shall sell products in a market situation, but it also means that farmers use more inputs, both hard and soft inputs, ranging from credits, fertilizers. irrigation to advisory service, business planning. In this way they can increase productivity and their incomes. But the price is increased risk. But not only that. When traditional farming systems are brought into the market economy, the change is not only technical or economic and the effects are not only for the household, but the whole village social context is disrupted, reducing the role of the village, and the extended family, as economic institutions. This was certainly the case for when farming was brought into the market economy in Europe and the same pattern is seen everywhere.

When visiting some dozen farms in Samoa, I realized that many of the farm families seem to be happy with their life. Even on direct question of what they would like for their business, they come up with nothing related to increased production, higher income etc. Combine this with the effect of the foreign remittances: lot of money coming in with little efforts from the locals and a certain shortage of labor. Add the effect of the village structure and land ownership: low incentives to invest in higher production as it will be shared by so many and low incentive to invest in the soil as it is not private. Yes, then there are simply not very big reasons for farmers to increase productivity. In particular there is little reason for why they would like to specialize and increase risk in their production, something that is often a basis for modernization of farming.
A cocoa tree growing in the lava rock, Samoa
Some claim that small holders never voluntarily change into the market economy but must be coerced into it through many different pathways. Sometimes by brutal means such as the British enclosures; trading monopolies or outright colonization. But more often through more subtle means: credit programs that makes them dependent; compulsory schooling that means they need to pay school fees, uniforms, books as well as they loose labor force and the children get other values; land titling, i.e. the transformation of land from communities to individuals etc.

Other ways to force people into commercial farming was the introduction of taxes that had to be paid in cash, a system that turned subsistence farmers into commercial farmers – or laborers. As the Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Wangari Maathai (coincidentally the same name as the Samoan chiefs!) describes in her book Unbowed:
When the British decided to collect revenue and finance local development, they did not want to be paid in goats. They wanted cash. They also wanted to create a labor force, but they did not want to force people to work. So they introduced an income tax for men in most parts of the country that could be paid only in the form of money. This created a cash-based rather than a livestock-based economy. 
 It is called "development". 

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