Science - September 20, 2007

‘Agriculture is Africa’s hope’

Development in Africa has stagnated for decades due to bad governance and neglect of agriculture. But the young African intelligentsia and policy makers look set to make changes, said retiring chair of development economics at Wageningen University, Professor Arie Kuyvenhoven, in his farewell address. That the World Bank has put agriculture back on the international agenda is partly due to the Wageningen professor’s research and lobbying.

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Drought, infertile soils and diseases such as malaria and aids all have dire consequences, but are not the main reason for Africa’s lagging development. In contrast to many Asians, Africans are hardly better off now than they were at the time of independence. This is mainly due to bad governance by the African elite, which has a narrow power base that is maintained through patronage and financed through government money.

A serious mistake that African governments make is that they invest too little in agriculture, Kuyvenhoven stated in his speech ‘Africa, Agriculture, Aid’ that he gave on Thursday 13 September. Bad governance is not confined to Africa however, Kuyvenhoven argued. Western countries’ policies have not always been wise either: African agriculture received considerably less aid in the last twenty years. In addition, western countries subsidise and protect their own farmers and that interferes with the world market. African countries are denied trade opportunities that amount to two billion dollars of lost income – twice as much as foreign support to African agriculture. The Dutch ministry for development cooperation has also chosen to ignore agriculture for many years, said Kuyvenhoven, while research shows that a one percent increase in economic growth in agriculture leads to two and a half percent growth in the incomes of the poorest. In other sectors the figure is much less.

Similar arguments in favour of agriculture as the motor for African development are also made in the World Development Report 2008 published next month. The World Bank has put agriculture back on the agenda for the first time in twenty years. Kuyvenhoven has contributed to this through research and lobbying, confirms a former colleague of his Professor Ruerd Ruben, now chair at Radboud University Nijmegen. Research by Kuyvenhoven and several Wageningen colleagues is published in the World Bank report. Moreover, as a member of the supervisory council of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Kuyvenhoven regularly argued in favour of a re-valuation of agriculture in Washington. He described the World Bank Report, with its focus on markets and institutions, as a welcome addition to the previously published report of the InterAcademy Council (co-authored by University Professor Rudy Rabbinge), which focuses more on technology.

Looking at development in Africa and the role of aid and agriculture, Kuyvenhoven believes that the effect of aid has increased. That is, he said in his farewell address, because aid has become more attuned to local practices, thanks partly to development economics. Kuyvenhoven argued against the ‘grand theories’ and state-led planning that dominated post-war development economics and only gradually made place for more ‘analytical rigour’. Instead of the sweeping view, there is now room for doubt, and attention is paid to local differences and details in development. These are of particular importance in Africa with its great diversity.

A symposium was held for Kuyvenhoven’s retirement, marking his twenty years as chair of Development Economics. Kuyvenhoven also received a book with entries on development economics from fellow researchers and policy makers, including IFPRI director Joachim van Braun and his old friend, ex-minister Jan Pronk. / Joris Tielens

The full text of Professor Kuyvenhoven’s farewell address can be found at: www.mansholt.wur.nl.

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