That the rural population is an important political constituency has been appreciated in Zimbabwe since the 1980s. The political party with a rural majority normally wins power. But for several reasons, the rural constituency has lacked “countervailing” power: their voices are disproportionately weaker.
Most farmers themselves would argue that farming has little to do with politics and policy. Far from it: policy has to do with everything. What resources go where, for example, is as much a political decision as an economic one. Which areas of the economy are prioritised and why-those are political decisions.
A case in point is the deaths of cattle from Theileriosis all around Zimbabwe. You hardly hear anyone in the political circles talking about it. But we are talking about a scourge that is wiping off the livelihoods of rural people! Where are the leaders when the dipping infrastructure is crumpling? Where are they when there are no dip chemical supplies to save animal lives? It is certainly a case that rural folk do not have a voice. They have nobody to organise them to march to government offices in protest. But should government always wait for that in order to act?
A neglected majority
This neglect of all things rural is a consistent theme of “modernisation”. Modernisation is a development theory that crystallised in the USA in the 1950 and 1960s. The idea itself was a synthesis of the Western world’s development from agrarian society to highly urbanised, specialised societies. It is a subtly value-laden concept, imbued as it is with Western concerns for “democracy”; the superiority of neo-classical economics (Adam Smith); an assumption of unending “economic growth”; the superiority of “science”; the domination of the nature and the “urbanisation imperative”.
Modernisation is not just a theory of development: it is the theory of development. This hegemony came about because of historical events in the Cold War era when the USA was keen to counter Russian influence in developing countries. Funded heavily by American money, and the fledgling UN system, many “modernising” programmes and projects were commissioned in developing countries to help them “modernise”. Suffice it to say that the results have been disappointing, and this has resulted in the search for alternative development paradigms.
The legacy of modernisation
A more subtle, insidious legacy of modernisation has been in the training of development experts. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, bright minds from Africa were funded to study in America and Europe to enable them to lead this modernisation imperative. They came back to become influential government bureaucrats, university lecturers and researchers. In other words, modernisation has become the “received wisdom”, entrenched in university curricular and government policy. Sounds familiar? The classical, top-down extension practices for example, are a living example of “doing” development in developing countries. That has been the standard taught in colleges and universities for many years.
Neglect for all things rural
It is perhaps clearer now to see where the disdain for all things rural is coming from. From an early age, we are socialised to view the rural area as inferior, a second-best. This is seen in education for example in the marginalisation of “rural” disciplines as opposed to “urban” ones; the low pay of rural careers; the heavy ridicule in such phrases as “kumusha” as opposed to town; “traditional” as opposed to modern; “local” as opposed to cosmopolitan. Urban centres are the core- where all services are concentrated- as opposed to the “marginal” rural sector. No wonder rural folk can’t wait to escape to urban centres.
Modernisation: emperor without robes?
However, there is a serious re-think occurring in intellectual circles the world over. True, modernisation and science has led to unprecedented levels of production, health care and nutrition. But at what cost? There is a renewed concern for “sustainable” development: development that ensures that the environment is not raped beyond recovery; a concern for the hitherto subordinated “epistemologies” of local indigenous knowledge and practices; a concern for equality, not just aggregate economic growth. In all this renewed quest for sustainability, the rural is seen as something which embodies a lost past. The world is questioning the hitherto furious rush towards urbanisation. Maybe it is time to make the rural cool again; to make farming sexy, and promote the same. Modernisation/urbanisation is a little bit of an emperor without robes.
A new direction?
It is clear to me that things need to change. In developing countries, rural, non-formal and informal education can be as equally if not more important than the so-called “urban” or modern education. This notion that rural areas need to “catch up” with urbanity is a pie in the sky. It presupposes the existence of a standard of development: a norm. Nothing can be more fallacious. There is no one “development”: there are many “developments!” In Africa, it is often the case that instead of strengthening what we already have, we are “throwing away what we are holding in our hands in order to clap our hands”.
By now, it should be clear that our poverty is in large part a poverty of ideas. Ideas move people. We all clamour for “bullet trains”, but without a solid rural sector, the bullet trains are an empty homage to a plastic god. Politicians need to pay real attention to the needs of the smallholder rural sector. That is where the innovation for sustainable growth is going to come from. That is the sector that can rescue an unsustainable, exploding urban population. That is the sector that can stem the unsustainable flight of young people to neighbouring countries and beyond.
It is time to discard the borrowed robes of “Tarubva”. To facilitate equitable rural futures, there needs to be a new prominence (and funding) to enabling disciplines: adult education; rural extension; agriculture etc. The best minds have to be recruited towards these areas, as part of a whole new way of “doing” development in Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular.
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