The Wilson Quarterly has published a long essay of mine on Africa’s rural transformation. With roughly two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans living in the countryside, the future of Africa is in the hands of farmers and their children. Stretching over 17 pages of this august journal, my article represents the work of several years — a synthesis of what I’ve learned from tromping through the African “bush,” courtesy of a few generous foundations, donors and individual patrons. Go read the article (and even look at the pictures, some of which I took). But if you can’t, the gist of my glass-half-full report on Africa’s future is the following:
Through farming more intensively and linking more tightly with cash buyers (ie, markets), small farmers in most of Africa are doing better than they have since the early 1970s. Helped by higher commodity prices and urbanization (freeing land for use by the most talented farmers), food output is outstripping population growth in most parts of Africa. That’s big news. The gains mainly come through greater effort by small and very-small farmers, supplemented by more enthusiasm from buyers (both within Africa and globally). More lasting improvements will come when these “brute-force” gains are reinforced by productivity improvements brought about by technological and infrastructural innovations consistent with market economics (ie, they must be sustainable). The African countryside will not become, say, Israel or the central valley of California overnight. Yet even modest expansion in use of irrigation, improved seeds and improved transport and storage of food will accelerate gains by small African farmers.Â And as these small farmers prosper, international agro-business will find more incentives to deepen nascent ties to these producers. Through the use of information technology and better management, global agro is finding ways of aggregating the output of very-small producers, thus promoting equity in rural Africa and avoiding the need for “industrial-scale” farming (ie, plantations).
In his first expression of wisdom and maturity, Kenya’s president Kibaki has declared his willingness to form a national-unit government with his chief political rival, Odinga. The idea of absorbing Odinga into a government led by Kibaki seems like the best possible way out of a very bad situation. To be sure, Kibaki is the ultimately beneficiary of any compromise that would end the political turmoil in Kenya — and still keep him in the presidency. Odinga will resent serving as Kenya’s second-fiddle, but there are good reasons for him to do so — even if he suspects (and probably rightly) that Kibaki stole the presidential election last month. First, Odinga will surely gain access to some of the machinery of Kenya’s government — and thus begin to reward his followers through patronage, a staple of Kenyan life. Second, Odinga may become president on Kibaki’s death. In ill health for some time, Kibaki, who is 75, may not last a second term. While he lacks the physical vitality to govern,Â Kibaki evidentally possesses sufficient ambition, having gone to great lengths to quickly swear himself in for a second term despite an ultra-close election that even according to official tallies barely gave him a majority. Surely, Odinga deserves a role in government and clearly he must be viewed as Kibaki’s eventual successor. By declaring his willingness to include Odinga in his own government, Kibaki effectively is providing Odinga with a new platform with which to challenge him.
Ghana’s president John Kufuor, current chair of the African Union, is ready to broker a settlement. Critics will carp that “national unity” governments never solve problems and sometimes worsen them. In Sudan, Kenya’s western neighbor, a government of national unity between northern and southern politicians has failed so far to deliver benefits. But at least the Sudanese compromise has limited violence and thus saved lives. In Kenya, such a “hollow” compromise can nonetheless do the same. For Kenyans, an end to the violence will be a great victory, however dishonestly achieved.
A number of newspapers in Asia are carrying an essay I wrote recently for Project Syndicate, which commissions pieces from illustrious thinkers (I am the exception) about world affairs. A brief persual of the web this morning shows papers in Pakistan, Japan, Taiwan, Egypt and Malaysia carrying the article, which argues that many critical needs in Africa are being met and will be met going forward by Indians and Chinese. The origins of the article came on a trip to Rwanda, where I met an California telecom executive who marveled over how far the Chinese have become major suppliers of electronic and wireless technologies to Africa. I’d long noted the influence of Indians in Africa, so I put the two together to create a new “frame” for viewing Africa’s present and future. Maybe Africa is no longer a “white man’s burden,” not because we have been persuaded by NYU professor William Easterley to abandon the continent, but rather because Chinese and Indians have supplanted (or will) Westerners in the task of “saving” Africa. The irony is delicious, and the practical implications enormous. While Westerners debate amongst themselves whether foreign-aid to Africa helps or hurts — a debate, I think, is increasingly irrelevant — Indians and Chinese are pragmatically (if not always effectively) engaging Africa. Quite a historical reversal in any case. For some deeper musings on the historical echoes from my new article, see the ever-perceptive Future Now blog, penned by Alex Pang.