Fantu Cheru is an economist from Ethiopia now teaching at the American University in Washington, DC. His book The Silent Revolution in Africa: Debt, Development and Democracy (Zed) won the World Hunger Media Award for 1989. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in the spring of 1990.
How would you characterize the present situation in Africa in terms of food, nourishment and productivity?
Official statistics certainly show production going down, but I challenge those statistics. We really don’t know how much is produced and how much is consumed. What is marketed through formal channels certainly shows a decline, but people have been marketing their materials through unofficial markets domestically and smuggling across borders.
So it may not be as dire as the statistics indicate?
There has been a decline in per farm investment, because the state sector is extracting more and more resources from the peasants. We know that. But we don’t really know how much overall output has declined versus how much people have marketed outside official institutions.
What does that mean in terms of who is getting the food? Are people having greater access than if it went through the state?
Not necessarily. Rural labor, farmers, still have no control over the means of production. They are paid in cash; they have to buy at inflated prices. Those are the people who are completely neglected, the large pool of rural labor lacking land and cash.
You have the three d-words in the title of your book: debt, development and democracy. Which of these is the key element?
Debt is the symptom of the development crisis. And successful development has a lot do with democratization — control at the local, grassroots level. The overall management of the debt crisis now simply does not address the fundamental problem — in fact, it pushes the very strategies which created the debt crisis.
The official priority is payment of debt. The last 30 years of development have been anti-people, anti-peasant. Given the way the debt is being managed by the very elites and social groups which created the problem in the first place, people are resorting to a silent revolution, bypassing state institutions as much as possible to defend themselves. People, out of necessity, have created a means for survival and at the same time a political awareness. These emerging popular institutions are the only ones that can articulate an alternative to the status quo.
Where is this happening?
All across Africa. In Ethiopia, in West Africa. The largest are cooperatives, environmental institutions, self-help type organizations. They don’t define themselves as political, because there is still heavy coercion of the state.
In Kenya, the government tried to build a 60-story high-rise costing $200 million. The challenge came from grassroots environmental organizations, the so called greenbelt movement — not from the educated class, the political parties or the labor unions. These are women, mostly, who saw the environmental issue directly affecting them. Nobody bothered this organization until they challenged the development model of the state. Increasingly, you see states announcing with great fanfare price increases for farmers. That has not come about at the insistence of the World Bank and IMF, but because people are bypassing the state institutions that impose low prices. The states are being starved of revenues which they need to carry on their anti-peasant strategy. So out of self-interest they are trying to bring people back into the formal economy.
One feature of the development dilemma is the regime interest in cheap food as a way of keeping wages down for urban workers and urban dwellers. Rural producers, though, want to get as much as possible for their products. Are there ways of bringing together urban, unlanded working people and rural working people?
Structural adjustment programs have been particularly divisive, setting farmers against civil servants, civil servants against labor unions. Mass mobilizations for democratic alternatives become almost impossible. Everybody is so poor that survival takes priority over long-term solutions that can build solidarity among urban and rural people.
Is this phenomenon of empowerment through local committees trying to address these questions?
They are operating under extreme conditions. The agenda right now is survival. The state is irrelevant right now, an abstraction.
The police and army are not abstractions.
No, but even people who are sent as representatives of the state are winking at flourishing black markets and cross-border trading. These officials become much more sensitized and acculturated to local reality. Given salary structures, they probably also get paid off by local people for turning a blind eye.
Is this showing itself in a continued growth of urban population, in internal migration?
There is a lot of rural migration and cross-border migration. Before the conflict became more severe in Ethiopia, a lot of western Ethiopian peasants worked in Sudan’s Gezira cotton scheme. And Ethiopian herdspeople sold over 250,000 cattle in Kenya and Somalia from Ethiopia last year.
Who’s buying these quarter of a million head a year?
Beef industries in Kenya. These cattle have to go through different phases before they become acceptable for foreign markets. The Ethiopian government loses foreign exchange. The peasants gain cash in the short term, but in the long term they are losing their means of production.
Let’s follow these oxen a little further. In Kenya they are grazed longer to become healthier and more attractive as commodities. On whose table do they end up?
Officially are the exports coming from Kenya?
Kenya, Botswana. A major beef exporter is Somalia. Leaving aside the environmental impact of large cattle herds, when you have so many other countries doing the same thing, the return is very limited. But the need for foreign exchange prompts this situation.
So debt payments represent only one aspect of the net transfer from the poor to the rich. Foodstuffs — in this case, meat — move from where there is starvation to where there is obesity.
Exactly. And the foreign exchange generated may not go to improving agriculture but to waging a war, or producing pineapples and carnations for export. Lesotho, where there is local malnutrition, grows asparagus for export. Food security is an illusion.
What is the role of food aid?
Food aid is one component of the structure of poverty in Africa. That’s why, when people here say they’re concerned about the emphasis on Eastern Europe leaving Africa forgotten, we say, “Please don’t develop us anymore. That’s the best thing that could happen.” That would force our governments to begin to dialogue with their own people.
What are the key issues?
First, the current approach to resolving the debt crisis in Africa is more emphasis on the same strategy which created the problem in the first place. Africa, which is supposed to be a basket case, is transferring close to $24 billion a year in interest and debt payments to the industrialized world. It’s not a resources crisis; it’s who decides about the management of these resources.
Secondly, development is not what the experts claim; it’s what people do. People do plan; people do care about the environment. Third, the renewed interest since 1987 of the US in debt relief is to preempt this social upheaval. They want to preempt issues of environment and democracy by short-circuiting structural and political change. Perestroika without glasnost, privatization without political reform.
The key issue is the political one. You cannot have equitable, democratic, sustainable development unless you change the structural power relationship. As regimes continue to maintain their relationship with the institutions, they fail to allow any kind of democratic debate on future economic policies. Structural adjustment is very political: You have to stick it to people. Only a strong state can survive structural adjustment policies, which have no public support. So the civil society-state gulf becomes much wider. That’s why people increasingly move into the informal, black-market economy. It’s a political statement on the part of people. They are basically saying: The state stinks!