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Africa's Organic Peasantry: Beyond Romanticism

By Collier, Paul | Harvard International Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Africa's Organic Peasantry: Beyond Romanticism

Collier, Paul, Harvard International Review

In the Western imagination Africa now stands for the antithesis of our own modern economy: its authenticity contrasting with our own contrivance. More specifically, the dominant image of Africa is that of the peasant farmer. In contrast to the large, commercial organization in which most of us find employment, the African peasant is self-employed. In contrast to the global market into which we find ourselves integrated, the African peasant produces for subsistence. In place of our restless mobility characterized by frequent changes of job and home, the African peasant is rooted to the ancestral soil. In contrast to our industrialized destruction of the global environment, the African peasant preserves as custodian the natural world. In contrast to our atomistic isolation, the African peasant is bound to a local community by ties of kinship and reciprocity.


As the global crisis has made starkly apparent, the deficiencies of our own economy, so these contrary qualities of the African peasant economy look increasingly appealing. Indeed, the counter-culture in our own society: the new emphasis upon the consumption of local produce, on organic food, and on farmers' markets, is a pallid version of a lifestyle of which that of the African peasant is the hallmark.

This is not how I see rural Africa: I see not a paradise but a prison. Peasant agriculture offers only a narrow range of economic activities with little scope for sustaining decent livelihoods. In other societies people have escaped poverty by moving out of agriculture. The same is true in Africa: young people want to leave the land; educated people want to work in the cities. Above all, people want jobs: peasants are unavoidably thrust into the role of risk-taking entrepreneurship, a role for which most people are unsuited. Globally, where people have the choice between the defined structure and safety of wage employment and the open-ended responsibilities of the entrepreneur, overwhelmingly they choose wage employment. Entrepreneurs are important, but in a well-functioning economy they are a small minority. The reality of peasant life is one of drudgery, precarious insecurity, and frustration of talent. Millions of young Africans live out the reality of the most apt epitaph on rural life, Grey's Elegy: "many a flower is born to bloom unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air." Free to choose, they would abandon the peasant lifestyle. People remain peasants not out of preference for a lifestyle but because in Africa the normal process of economic development by which industry creates productive urban wage employment, has yet to start: their choice is between scratching an inadequate living as a peasant farmer, or the squalor of urban marginality.

Of course, concerned individuals around the world recognize that African peasants are desperately poor, not just in terms of income, but also in health and education. Yet our remedies for the overwhelming poverty of African peasant farmers are palliative not structural. We seek to raise farm incomes by increasing crop yields, to improve health standards through rural clinics, and to improve education through village schools. Our aim is to reconcile peasant farming with greater prosperity. I am not hostile to these efforts: we should do whatever we can to ameliorate the conditions under which African peasants struggle to lead satisfying lives. But we should recognize these approaches for what they are: they are highly unlikely to be transformative. We know what brings about a transformation of opportunities and it is not this.

The Perils of Peasantry

The poverty of African peasants is not accidental: it is intrinsic to the peasant mode of economic organization. The very features that make the peasant mode of production appear attractive to jaded members of an industrialized society also make it unproductive. Large scale organization of specialized production, and integration into markets, are fundamental to the generation of income at a level that we now regard as necessary for a decent quality of life.

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