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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Africa's Organic Peasantry: Beyond Romanticism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.