The Land of Africa

evandavisA few weeks ago I was listening to a discussion about Business in Africa on the BBC Radio 4 programme “The Bottom Line”. When the discussion turned to the low GDP growth figures recorded for the African agriculture sector I was struck by the following statement made by the programme’s host Evan Davis 20 minutes and 30 seconds into the show:

“The way other countries have made themselves rich is by taking people out of low value agriculture and putting them into high value industry. It’s what China did, it’s what Japan did, it’s what Europe did and it’s what Britain did 200 years ago. Why is it not happening in Africa?”

This is a statement of faith that encapsulates quite succinctly mainstream business theory. By unpacking the assumptions that underpin it one is afforded a glimpse of the unquestioned belief system that lies at the core of the dominant paradigm concerning economic and human progress.

africafieldTo start with people are regarded as “human capital” to be moved around the economy like pawns on a chess board in the name of increasing economic output. Under this thinking small scale self sufficient agriculture is seen as undesirable while extensive large scale agribusiness is considered a much better use of land. The practice of land grabbing is not discussed. Worst of all there is a complete blindness to the untold human cost of removing millions from the land. No link is made between this process and the abject poverty experienced by a large part of the world’s population concentrated in the teaming slums on the outskirts of mega cities around the globe. There is no understanding that poverty causes the population to explode, not the other way around as Malthus erroneously argued.

Many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America are indeed following in the footsteps of Europe. Yet when looking back at the terrible living conditions in the slums of 19th Century Britain, as described by Dickens, few stop to think about the underlying causes of this poverty – namely the removal of the peasantry from the land by the enclosure of the commons. The mainstream view is that this was on the whole a positive development, a price worth paying, a necessary and unavoidable step that freed up the workforce and fuelled the industrial revolution, propelling society forward to the prosperity enjoyed today.

africaslumThis narrative must be challenged. It is the story of the elite, of the establishment, and not of the people. Human misery must not be relegated to a footnote. That progress, development and technological innovation can only be achieved through the commodification of the earth’s life giving resources is the biggest fallacy of them all. Fred Harrison argued in his recent book “The Traumatised Society” that human civilisation is falling far short of its true potential in terms of both economic and cultural achievement due to the privatisation of commonly created rent from land and other natural resources. If our economy was based on fair sharing of rent rather than exploitation of the many by the few we could all be enjoying a level of existence far in advance of our current lot. This alternate paradigm is beyond the comprehension of those peddling the myths that dominate our airwaves today.

The UN Habitat II Action Agenda, adopted by all UN member states in 1996, states:

Access to land and legal security of tenure are strategic prerequisites for the provision of adequate shelter for all and for the development of sustainable human settlements affecting both urban and rural areas. It is also one way of breaking the vicious circle of poverty. Every Government must ….strive to remove all possible obstacles that may hamper equitable access to land and ensure that equal rights of women and men related to land and property are protected under the law. The failure to adopt, at all levels, appropriate rural and urban land policies and land management practices remains a primary cause of inequity and poverty.

This Action Agenda recommends “land value capture” and “land based taxes” as important approaches to addressing these challenges.

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