3 myths in development economics

Nieuws | de redactie
18 mei 2012 | Agriculture expert Leo Stroosnijder uncovers 3 myths related to land degradation and development. In his farewell speech at Wageningen University, Stroosnijder calls on researchers to question assumptions like irrationality of African farmers.

After 45 years of research at Wageningen University,Prof. Leo Stroosnijder is taking stock of thefacts and fables surrounding his field. His specialist areaexplores the erosion of agricultural land, soil and watermanagement and the role played by millions of smallholders (oftenwomen) in developing countries.

The first myth to be upturned relates to the lack of rationaldecisions made by African farmers. According to the departingprofessor, the neoclassical economics of the free market, rationaldecision-making and maximum profit are impractical in developingcountries. Instead, so-called cultural economics state thattravelling to family in times of drought, for example, is moreprofitable than taking conservation measures, partly becausedrought is often very localised (within 20 km). Forging andstrengthening relations provides greater food security thaninvesting in anti-drought measures. The accusations of a lack ofmarket focus often aimed at African farmers are also based onmyths, says Prof. Stroosnijder. Restricted access to the market iswhat curbs farmers in production. In order to increase production,loans are needed for investment. But in countries like Benin, forexample, the interest rate is 100 % and so the benefits of extraproduction are immediately swallowed up by interest payments,resulting in a debt crisis. 

Land degradation no imminent threat to foodsecurity

There is another widely-held belief that sustainable developmentcan only be achieved if all farmers participate fully. Theso-called participative approach in development aid cooperation isvery popular, but interviewers seldom hear an ‘honest’ answer totheir questions. More frequently, the farmer being interviewedgives the answer he thinks the interviewer wants to hear. The gapbetween illiterate smallholders and better-educated third partiesis often far too wide.

A number of myths also exist in the area of soil-protectionmeasures, continues Prof. Stroosnijder. Land degradation, forexample, is thought to be a threat to food security. Prof.Stroosnijder does not believe in this doom scenario. The myth datesback to 1995, when it was reported that agricultural productionwould drop by 8% per year, leading to a current production level ofjust 20%. This assertion could not have been further from thetruth, even though the FAO still claims that ‘urgent steps need tobe taken’. 

The following phrase crops up frequently in all kinds of researchgrant applications: ‘proven changes in rainfall patterns due toclimate change’. However, analysis of long series of rainfallmeasurements in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso andBenin show no significant changes in rainfall, says Stroosnijder.”So it’s a myth. The world is not being jeopardised by landdegradation or changes in rainfall. A change in land usage and landquality is often referred to as land degradation, but landdevelopment would probably be a better word.” 

Human factor omitted in models

Stroosnijder also quashes the fable of the beneficial effects of alarge-scale approach to land degradation if a small-scale approachfails to achieve the desired results. This is a direct reference toplans to construct an 8,000 km-long and 40 km-wide green belt inthe Sahel in an attempt to stop the desertification of the area.”Doomed before it even starts”, is his opinion. This zone naturallymoves hundreds of kilometres in a north/south direction in linewith consecutive years of heavy rainfall or drought.

The professor goes a step further in busting the final category ofmyths: research models. Although there are certainly a number ofbasic questions for soil physics, there is “no need to know morephysical details, as it is by no means certain that this willadvance our applied field of study”, says Prof. Stroosnijder. “Sothe idea that we can generate a perfect picture of land degradationis simply another myth. Models can never be more than part ofreality, and can never be of better quality than the data enteredto compile them. It is the human factor that is missing inmodels.”

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