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

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?

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

    Sounds like interesting research! I’m a bit confused by your last sentence though… If the section you cite is called ‘Policy Implications’, and someone is supposed to provide this guidance that will change mindsets, who is it? My assumption is aid, cooperation or donors, but maybe you had a different take, or different actors (e.g., peer mentoring from other developing countries) were mentioned at the event?

  2. Geir Sundet

    Asia: incremental, enrichment of poor people, growth, establishing immediate priorities.
    Africa: transformative, establishment of modern institutions, modernisation, creating massive plans.

    I can see were most donor institutions’ comparative advantage lie. 😉

  3. Andrew Wells-Dang

    Cool, except that the rosy picture of ‘inclusive, pro-poor, pro-rural’ SE Asia isn’t quite all that. Indonesia, Malaysia, and later Vietnam started out with pro-poor, rural-based development policies, but over time the gains have been increasingly grabbed by elites (both in ruling parties and multinational business). Thailand is hopelessly divided among urban-biased Yellow Shirts and rural Red Shirts, the latter with their own billionaire patron. These days, elite visions of development in SE Asia look mostly like the ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ column in the above table, with gaping urban-rural divides, corruption and land seizures. It’s definitely true that successful development is pro-rural and pro-poor – but I’m not at all convinced that changing elite attitudes is the key to bringing it about!

  4. Sean

    The Asian pro-rural polciies are discussed in Diane Davis’s Discipline and Development. She is contrasting them with Latin America. The book focuses on the state’s ability to discipline capital and industry, but uses Asia’s, specifically Taiwan and South Korea’s, pro-rural bias to show how it was easier to initially ignore, or not prioritize, capital’s interests. Anyway, I was surprised the authors didn’t cite her work.

  5. Mohamed Hussein

    Interesting research; My believe is that Donors are with good intention and if all efforts put together in Partnership programs with Governments (with good governance), the impact might be huge & fast moving “From Poverty to Power”. While working in changing leaders mind-sets, practical examples must be demonstrated & applied.

    • Duncan Green

      Blimey, where to start?! Check out the Developmental Leadership Programme, the IDS Bulletin on ‘turnaround states’, and let me know if they are what you are looking for.

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