Re-examining current paradigms and concepts: rural development, environmental sustainability, and poverty alleviation in Africa.

Author:Ezeanyika, Samuel Ezeanyika


It is a truism that terms such as rural development, environmental sustainability, and poverty alleviation are poorly defined and elusive. At best, they represent desired end states. Earlier paradigms of development were largely Keynesian and centered on the state, laying a strong emphasis on growth. More recent understandings have negated that early belief. Analysts no longer see the nation as the engine of production, growth, and equity. Instead, new paradigms support the local over the national, civil society in preference to government, and micro-entrepreneurship rather than industrialization as the way to overcome absolute, acute and disproportionate poverty and achieve sustainable rural development. The private sector rather than the state is seen as the preferred supplier of agricultural services, whether speaking of marketing, credit, or input supply. Furthermore, lapses in reaching desired end states tend not to critique these means-ends hypotheses themselves. Instead, excuses about the lack of capacity and participation are proposed as a justification for the failure to appreciate what is the real problem (Kuhn, 1996).

Notwithstanding the many issues and questions that have arisen in the application of these new paradigms, there is still a strong belief in their ability to contribute more effectively to rural development, environmental sustainability, and poverty alleviation than past approaches. Like the pure sciences, donors and academics tend to cling to their paradigms. Unlike them, paradigms tend to shift when they are unfashionable or politically out of tune rather than when they are wrong.

This article raises a few major questions and discusses some of the pressing issues that have emerged when these new paradigms of development have been applied in the field. The intent is to highlight problems faced by rural people on a daily basis in the face of these new paradigms. Our hope is that the analysis below will lead to critical thinking about the paradigms themselves and the means to achieve them, thereby raising a few questions about current thinking and what is to be done in the future. Section 2 extensively discusses the concept of decentralization and attempts to show how it fails to bring development to the rural communities because of the existing and entrenched patron-clients cleavages already existing, and differing level of access to state power. Section 3 assesses the possible contributions of the civil society toward the actualization of sustainable development in Africa. It also examines its problems and prospects. Section 4 analyses the relationships between the macro-micro sectors and the problems created by donor agencies in their efforts to separate them as if they existed in isolation. Section 5 addresses the problems of sustainable rural development and poverty alleviation, particularly those accentuated by donor agencies that tend to ignore the dynamic realities that both affect and characterize the rural poor. In section 6, the article evaluates the impact of donors' policy encouraging de-industrialization to the development of small enterprises. Marketing, input supply and rural financial services are at the nucleus of dynamic poverty alleviation strategies. Section 7 examines the private sector initiative encouraged by donor agencies targeted at eliminating the inefficiency of the state in providing these vital services.

Section 8 discusses the confusion arising from the introduction of poorly defined paradigms such as capacity-building and their impact on sustainable development. The article concludes that a number of these new paradigms discussed, instead of solving old and existing development problems are rather raising both conceptual problems and creating operational difficulties. It therefore, suggests their comprehensive and systematic re-evaluation.

Decentralization and Service Delivery

The concept of decentralization has become popular and a recurring theme in the plans and policies of international assistance agencies and developing nations in recent years (Rondinelli, 1981: 133). It involves the deconcentration and delegation of legal and political authority to plan, make decision and manage public functions from the central government to subordinate units of government, semi-autonomous public corporations, area-wide or regional development authorities; functional authorities, autonomous local governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Rondinelli, 1981: 137). Decentralization also involves the devolution of power from the central government to the local governments (Ezeani, 2004: 3).

Decentralization has become a central linchpin of the new paradigm of rural development. Its institutionalization is seen as an antidote to corrupt extractive nations that characteristically have exploited the rural poor, a means of improving service delivery to them, and the best way of encouraging popular participation so that rural people will participate in their own development (Hyden, 1983).

The above ideal-type vision of what would occur if this paradigm was put into practice is not necessarily what has happened. Instead, when decentralization has been implemented in Africa, two situations have commonly arisen: first, although decentralization was partly conceived as a way of overriding the nation of its negative characteristics, its implementation often has reproduced the state in another guise. Formally, decentralization is in place in the majority of African states. Informally, however, decentralized authorities are often just new clones of the nation (Nyerere, 1972; Conyers, 1974). When this happens, as it often does, decentralized authorities are no different than their predecessors: that is, not more accountable, not more democratic, and not more interested in the plight of the rural and urban poor, integrated rural development, or environmental sustainability than the centralized state preceding them. In addition, the rural poor sometimes have fewer avenues of redress than in the past when they could appeal to a less parochial and higher authority that was removed from their day-to-day situations. Instead, because rural communities are often highly stratified, authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive, as well as responsive to parochial interests, citizens often feel they cannot exercise their rights even when formally speaking, they have decentralized institutions through which they can articulate their grievances (Khalil, 2007).

The reality of decentralization is not always what is projected by donor agencies. Usually absent from the decentralization thinking are two fundamental elements. The first is that there is no uniformity among Africa's rural communities. Instead, class and patron-client relations stemming from complex cleavages based on family ties, ethnicity, religious differences, as well as differing levels of access to state power divide populations. These divisions and cleavages tend to reproduce themselves institutionally in decentralized authorities, often offering no improvements over the central state, and sometimes a further regression to the mean from the standpoint of the rural poor. The second is that the decentralization equation falls into an unfortunate intellectual trap: it assumes one can change the way in which organizations operate solely by making formal changes in institutions or by developing new organizations. As a matter of fact, this simplistic assumption is not true.

It is therefore, obvious from the above argument that similar formal institutions in different places operate differently because of different norms, belief systems, and enforcement mechanisms. These have been called "rules of the game" (North, 1994) and tend to change over long periods of history rather than overnight. This is apparent from what has happened when the decentralization paradigm has been put into practice in Africa. The results raise the broader question of whether the implementation of formally decentralized institutions is likely to achieve the mythical ends desired in the light of existing theories about change and development, as well as concrete realities on the ground.

It has been the central and generally erroneous argument of champions of decentralization that local authorities tend to be less corrupt, more accountable, and more likely to improve rural service delivery than the centralized state. In reality, this has not happened in the majority of those African nations that seem to champion decentralization and have institutionalized its basic structures. Nigeria is a very good example where decentralization is constitutionally institutionalized creating a third tier of government. However, its practice and applicability in the rural areas are generally wanting. Instead, by virtue of setting up multiple foci of fiscal autonomy, decentralized authorities have the potential to be no better than the centralized state on all of the above counts (Treisman, 2000).

The Nigerian example illustrate the observations of North (1994) that changing the formal rules of the game is far easier than transforming the informal rules of the game and the norms and incentive systems that support them. In addition, the fact that in the past, the state often has performed poorly does not imply that it is inherently incapable of being the engine and purveyor of dynamic change...

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