Tracking poverty has never been easy. This probably explains why even well-resourced global institutions get away with such over-simplified definitions of the phenomenon as the “one-dollar-a-day” measure. Yet when it comes to defining a poverty eradication strategy the goal posts shift quickly. At seminars, meetings, workshops and (you guessed right) conferences impressive, but a lot more complex, statements easily trip off the tongues of seasoned keynote speakers, technocrats, and other professionals. You have heard them say such things as:
- “While growth is necessary for poverty eradication, it is not sufficient – hence African countries need to invest more in inclusive growth”;
- “For Africa to exit from poverty, it ought to transform itself from a peasant economy to an industrial society”;
- “Transformation of labour markets is essential for Africa’s search for economic development”.
These statements may be well-meaning. Indeed they are a vital recognition that achieving poverty eradication involves a lot more than just having increased income. However the statements are often a far cry from the realities of those who face poverty day in day out. Two things seem to be missing: first, a simplified articulation of the practical mechanisms or pathways for addressing the poverty; secondly, a clear link between development policy and poverty eradication. One hitherto little-explored source of ideas on how to practically address poverty is in the way poor people themselves cope and engender resilience. Over the years poor people have developed farming systems that enable household production of food even in times of extreme weather and vulnerability, thus avoiding (or at least minimising the effects of) hunger and food insecurity. They have also ignored “market wisdom”, choosing not to invest in mono-cropping (which market-savvy bureaucrats argue brings benefits of “economies of scale”). Instead they grow a wide variety of crops on tiny bits of land to spread risk – so that if one crop type is affected by, say, pests there are good chances that the other crop varieties will survive. They also do not establish large poultry farms to produce tray upon tray of chicken eggs for the urban market, or broiler chickens for poultry meat. In any case they cannot afford to do so. But even if they could, they tend to have 6-8 chickens; 3-4 goats; 2-5 pigs; etc roaming the compound and picking bits here and bits there. These are the “small” stocks from which they will sell in times of real need, again minimising risks. Through this they bounce back when shocks, such as illness in the family strike.
There are lessons in all this. Over the years, rural farmers in Africa have demonstrated that the hand hoe, small animals, such as chickens and goats, and other small steps are a better bet for their progression from poverty to sustained growth and livelihood than top-down programmes with big intervention ideas, such as mechanisation. As such, public policy should be aiming at ensuring that there is an adequate supply of inexpensive farm implements (such as hand hoes, machetes, etc) as well as vaccination for chickens, basic treatment for pigs, goats and sheep, and improved access to cultivable land. In recent years farmers working on small-holdings have combined these with one new tool – the mobile telephone – to access markets and to improve the flow of information. This could also open doors for advice from the agricultural extension system. A little extra – some regular cash transfers to those in poverty – would further open new opportunities for savings, risk-taking, and investment. This A,B,C of poverty eradication is not new. But because it is simple, it seems to have been ignored in preference for high-sounding but less grounded models.
So my question is: If it is the non-sophisticated approaches that work best for poverty eradication, why is it that we continue ignoring them in preference of high-sounding theoretical models? And, finally, when the high-sounding models fail, why do we turn to the victims of our folly – small-holder agriculturalists – and blame them for not being rational?