The dominant image of Africa is that of the peasant farmer. In contrast to the large, commercial organization in which most Americans find employment, the African peasant is self-employed. In contrast to their industrialized destruction of the global environment, the African peasant preserves as custodian the natural world. These contrary qualities of the African peasant economy look increasingly appealing. This is not how the author sees rural Africa: He sees not a paradise but a prison. Peasant agriculture offers only a narrow range of economic activities with little scope for sustaining decent livelihoods. It is time to get real. The organic peasant life is a luxury that appeals to those jaded by the downside of affluence. Ordinary Africans recognize peasant agriculture for what it is, and the most ambitious seek to leave. Americans' trade policies and their priorities for aid could reshape those opportunities.
feeding the planet Features Africa’s Organic Peasantry Beyond Romanticism PauL CoLLIer a G r I C u Lt u r e I n the Western imagination Africa now stands for the antithesis of our own modern economy: its PAUL COLLIER is Professor of Economics at authenticity contrasting with our own contrivance. Oxford and Director of the Centre for the More specifically, the dominant image of Africa Study of African Economies. He is the author is that of the peasant farmer. In contrast to the of The Bottom Billion which won the Lionel large, commercial organization in which most of us find Gelber and Arthur Ross prizes for 2008. His employment, the African peasant is self-employed. In latest book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy contrast to the global market into which we find ourselves in Dangerous Places, was published in March. integrated, the African peasant produces for subsistence. In place of our restless mobility characterized by frequent changes of job and home, the African peasant is rooted of a lifestyle of which that of the African peasant is the to the ancestral soil. In contrast to our industrialized hallmark. destruction of the global environment, the African peasant This is not how I see rural Africa: I see not a paradise preserves as custodian the natural world. In contrast to our but a prison. Peasant agriculture offers only a narrow atomistic isolation, the African peasant is bound to a local range of economic activities with little scope for sustaining community by ties of kinship and reciprocity. decent livelihoods. In other societies people have escaped As the global crisis has made starkly apparent, the de- poverty by moving out of agriculture. The same is true ficiencies of our own economy, so these contrary qualities in Africa: young people want to leave the land; educated of the African peasant economy look increasingly appeal- people want to work in the cities. Above all, people want ing. Indeed, the counter-culture in our own society: the jobs: peasants are unavoidably thrust into the role of risk- new emphasis upon the consumption of local produce, on taking entrepreneurship, a role for which most people are organic food, and on farmers’ markets, is a pallid version unsuited. Globally, where people have the choice between 62 H A R v A R d I n T e R n A T I o n A l R e v I e W • Summer 2009 Features AfRICA’S ORGAnIC PEASAnTRy: BEyOnD ROMAnTICISM the defined structure and safety of wage employment peasant mode of organization has always been incompat- and the open-ended responsibilities of the entrepreneur, ible with economic development, but in Africa the issue overwhelmingly they choose wage employment. entrepre- is even starker than in other developing regions. Africa neurs are important, but in a well-functioning economy has the fastest population growth rate in the world, so they are a small minority. The reality of peasant life is that if the extra workforce is to be employed in peasant one of drudgery, precarious insecurity, and frustration of agr
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