What can would-be African lions learn from the Asian tigers? It’s all about how urban elites see farmers, according to ODI.

March 12, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I am both inspired and alarmed by the work coming out of ODI on ‘Developmental Regimes in Africa’. In previous posts, I’ve moaned at some length about its political infatuation with Mussolini style ‘big men’ who get stuff done. But today, it’s time for a happy face.

Sources of developmental ambition in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, by David Henley and Ahmad Helmy Fuady, is a brilliant

Indonesia's Suharto and Nigeria's Obasanjo - nice hats, v different views on peasants

Indonesia’s Suharto and Nigeria’s Obasanjo – nice hats, v different views on peasants

exposition on what would-be African lions can learn from the Asian tigers:

‘Southeast Asian  countries could reduce poverty fast because their  governments prioritised pro-poor agricultural and rural  development in both political and budgetary terms, as well as providing sound macroeconomic management  and conditions of economic freedom (especially for  peasant farmers).  Public investments – in irrigation, research, input subsidies, agricultural extension, price stabilisation, and rural infrastructure, education and health care – raised the productivity and profitability of smallholder farms. In Africa, by contrast, few countries have ever combined economic freedom and sound macroeconomic management with pro-poor, pro-rural public spending.’

To explore these differences, the authors look at eight countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

First they debunk the ‘you need a massive external threat like the Chinese Revolution to make leaders cooperate and build the nation’ school of thought, concluding:

‘The impact of such threats on the political interests of decision-making elites does not fully explain the differences in policy stance between and among African and Southeast Asian countries.  Differences in assumptions about the nature of the development process are just as important. This has major policy implications. It means priority should be given to changing the mindsets of African leaders by stressing that successful development elsewhere in the world has been achieved with strategies that are inclusive, pro-poor and pro-rural.’

SSA v SEA elite visionsThen it gets interesting, with a discussion of ideas – the ‘learned assumptions’ of Asian and African elites (see table):

‘Regardless of political interests and calculations, even African leaders of rural origin tend  to see rural life and rural people less positively than  their Southeast Asian counterparts. These different attitudes have historical roots. In Southeast Asia there is a long tradition of indigenous urbanism. In Africa, many of today’s cities are colonial in origin, and were seen as alien European enclaves for generations. An African who moved from the countryside to the city in the early twentieth century was crossing a cultural divide.

One legacy of this transformation has been a collective assumption of developmental dualism: a conviction that progress can only be achieved by a quantum leap from (rural) backwardness to (urban) modernity.  In Southeast Asia the colonial experience involved less of a rupture with the past.’

This is followed by some thought-provoking ‘so whats’ for policy makers:

‘Clearly, international actors cannot create the kind of revolutionary threat that helped to inspire such policies in Asia. There is little evidence that electoral democracy can generate the same salutary political pressure on African (or indeed Asian) governments.Nor is it possible to alter colonial history or the cultural factors that have shaped the attitudes of  Africa’s leaders and intellectuals towards rural  and agricultural development.

However, persuading people to change learned attitudes is still easier than trying to reconfigure the national political forces that constrain their actions. Given the common perception among African leaders that policy guidance by international actors has neocolonial overtones, such guidance must be sensitive and support national policy ownership.

The most promising approach, therefore, is to help change the mindsets of African elites by drawing their attention to the fact that successful development elsewhere in the world has been achieved largely through inclusive, pro-poor, pro-rural strategies. This should take precedence over historically less well founded finger-wagging on the importance of good governance, democracy or even free trade.’

And guess what, not a single mention of aid, cooperation or donors. Cool, eh?