Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

8 thoughts on “Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

  1. What happened to those African nations which were once more than self-sufficient in food?  Rhodesia, to name one.

    What happened was, the European farmers with an average IQ of about 100 were replaced by Africans with an average IQ around 70.  Same soils, same climate… collapse in output.

    Life is an IQ test, and the African-run nations have flunked.

  2. I’m not informed on your point about relative IQ, so don’t really have anything to contribute there. I am persuaded that Africa’s agriculture has been severely retarded by the “green movement”. In particular the EU countries and NGOs who favor a romantic view that small-holder farmers should be required to continue subsistence farming (meaning they can’t adequately feed themselves, much less produce a surplus for an exploding urban population trying to escape subsistence farming).

    It’s not just political pressure from EU governments, but all the NGO’s infesting African governments with e.g. “standards setting” projects to establish anti-technology bureaucracies. I highly recommend these backgrounders:

    Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”

    Attention Whole Foods Shoppers by Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

    The bottom line is that governments are afraid to expand modern agriculture for fear their primary market (EU) will be closed to them. African governments are getting encouragement and support from the Gates Foundation, and very limited and timid support from USA agencies.

    Regardless of the wishes of Friends of the Earth, the migration to the cities is happening and, I believe, will accelerate. Converting to modern agriculture has been a necessary step on the development stairway for every other region. And I hope everyone reads Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa.

    On bad governance try this one: Why Africa Is Poor and What Africans Can Do about It (South African development expert Greg Mills).

      • I would say destroyed rather than fell apart. Mugabe has a VIP slot in Hell. AFAIK Zimbabwe is not Africa, which is the fastest growing region. In spite of the greens’ effort to preserve the ‘cute’ isolated villagers.

      • Thanks for the IQ link.

        “In view of these relationships it seems a promising hypothesis that a positive relationship would be present between the average IQs of the populations of nations and their average earnings. It is this hypothesis that we are now about to investigate.”

        How do these average IQ stats change as development proceeds? I wonder what the avg IQ would have been in 1900 Australia?

      • The official accounts are all rosy, but from what I get through other channels the same destruction of agriculture is going on in South Africa. When farms are “transferred” to Black ownership (often by wholesale murder of the White farmers), they just stop producing.

  3. Africans are hungry for land, especially in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The South African government bought large productive farms from white farmers and distributed them to black farmers 90% of these land transfers have failed. The people that benefited (?) from the handover just can not farm. Not even subsistence farming is happening on most of the land. Thus the food security of South Africa which in the past produced surpluses, is now also at risk
    Apart from Robert Mugabe, looking down his nose on GM corn for his starving population I have never heard an African talk about GM and Bio foods, I doubt that even 10% understand the concept. They are more worried to get enough to eat than what they eat.
    Urbanization will accelerate in the near future and can not be stopped.

    • I don’t know of any property-taking that was successful. Do you know of any non-farming cases of a taking-transfer – like steel or concrete that didn’t wreck the economy?

      Boggles the mind that rulers think running a business is so simple that any illiterate can just “do it”.

      What rulers like Mugabe know is it is a proven strategy to keep power.

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