Will the Make Poverty History Campaign Make Poverty Inevitable?

by Tracy Worcester

Of course it is commendable that thousands of people have heeded the call to rally round and make poverty history. Campaigns like this have shown to make a difference to the broad goals of long-term social change.

However, I must be the voice of caution because, the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign is based on the assumption that the majority of Africans would benefit from a western style export-economy. Such an economy is highly profitable for the international trading companies owned by African or European elites but not so good for the 70% of Africans who still live on the land. In the name of ‘debt relief’, ‘fair trade’ and ‘development’ these people are being uprooted and pushed into slums.

Some examples will throw light on the process by which this happens. In the Burkina Faso, Ghana and the Republic of Togo for example, ‘fair trade’ has benefited communities and farmers in areas where export crops are already grown. High guaranteed prices, marketing and other production incentives are offered to such producers, say of cocoa, fruits (e.g. pineapples, bananas, oranges), and coffee in the Forest zone.

Communities in the drier northern parts of these countries, however, receive very little by way of investment in services and employment generating activities because governments are unable to meet the stringent conditionality imposed by the World Bank and other donors on ‘economic justification’ of all investments. It is irrelevant to these donors that small-scale farmers in these drier areas account for over 80% of the production of the staple food (e.g. maize, millet and sorghum).

The net result is out migration to the forest regions by the younger members of families. No wonder children as young as 8 years old can be found in Accra, Ouagadougou and Lome working as porters and domestic servants; the child slavery scandal in Benin and Ivory Coast and indeed the current civil war in the Ivory Coast have been attributed to the globalization and fair trade policies. Even in the Forest zone, small-scale producers are being squeezed out by wealthier, mostly absentee farmers, from the export crop sector; in other cases, tenant farmers are unduly exploited by ruthless ‘landlords’ and chiefs exercising uncustomary powers of disposition of communal land.

One reason for the lack of investment in the small-scale farm sector is that the current system of analysis of national income is based on measuring progress in terms of GDP, which is nothing more than a measure of annual financial transactions, with no distinction between positive and negative transactions. This means that GDP increases with more crime (more prisons have to be built), more water pollution (more bottled water is sold) and more cancer (more drugs are sold).

In this way of measuring progress, land based, relatively self sufficient communities, who by their very nature do not generate many financial transactions, are considered poor and backward. Where there is a school, the curriculum is geared to getting them educated for elusive city jobs. The urban bias in the schools encourages the young to see farming as primitive and dirty and to want to seek their fortune in the urban economy. There is also a blinkered view held by many ‘globalizers’ that it is only when customary land tenure is replaced by individual tenure that long-term investment can be made. This is often a euphemism for asking small-scale farmers engaged in the production of a diverse range of crops that feed the nation, to step aside for large-scale producers of mono crops intended of the international market.

Unable to sustain a livelihood on the land they are forced to migrate to the city. With increasing mechanization of industry, there are not enough jobs to go around. The consequence is destitution, urban crime and social vices including women being forced into unequal and exploitative sexual relationships with powerful men.

It is therefore important to question the notion that trade ‘fair trade’ per se, can be a means of reducing poverty in today’s global economy. Does it really make sense for Africans to use their land, water, time and energy to provide the west with flowers, coffee,, tea, broad beans (for animal feed), cotton etc. These products utilise the land and resources that have sustained rural communities for centuries. Even if ‘fair’ trade projects seek to provide a better price for producers, they are still serving distant markets reliant on the whims of western consumers, vulnerable to a glut in the market and currency fluctuations.

A recent UN report says that if present trends continue, by 2050 3.5 billion people will live in urban slums. Poverty alleviation cannot be achieved by uprooting millions of rural people.

There are good intentions behind the MPH campaigns but it does not get to the root of the creation of poverty. We need a different development paradigm from the export - led economy that created the Third World Debt debacle in the first place. Instead of continuing to serve export markets, controlled by multinational corporations and banks, Africa needs to have the freedom to answer the needs of their own people before growing for export. In Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, farmers have sat by and watched their governments bow to trade liberalisation policies and programmes only to see farmers producing tomatoes, groundnuts, and other crops forced into debt by the importation of cheap exports such as tomatoes, groundnut oil and other issues.

By embracing poverty reduction through liberalising economies, the MPH may be inadvertently promoting a system that transforms unique communities into mass consumers, exposes small scale farmers to unequal trade, homogenizes cultural traditions, destroys biodiversity, creates dependency on fossil fuels (green house gasses) and creates an expanding stream of waste that the biosphere simply cannot absorb. It is widening the gap between rich and poor world wide and leading to increased levels of crime and violence. In the name of efficiency and growth it is dividing us from each other and from the natural world upon which we ultimately depend.

Surely poverty eradication is about Africa protecting and revitalising rural livelihoods from the vagaries of the global economy. Make Poverty History support could be shifted from the globalising model toward localisation. Such steps would set us on the road to economic and environmental health, stem the unhealthy tide of urbanisation, and support cultural diversity, thereby lessening ethnic conflict and violence. Shifting towards the local would be far less costly to national taxpayers and development agencies than our current globalising path, and would be less socially and environmentally disruptive.