Structural Adjustment and the Decline of Subsistence Agriculture in Africa

by Sean Redding

I want to begin by explaining that, despite the title of my talk, there really isn't anything called subsistence agriculture in Africa today, except on a very small scale and in very limited regions. Subsistence agriculture still exists where production and markets have been disrupted by war or disease, for example, and perhaps in some parts of the great lakes region of central Africa, where there have been waves of warfare over the past several years. But there really hasn't been anything that one could call subsistence agriculture for at least 100 years. Almost all farmers, whether male or female, are engaged at some level in production for the market. That doesn't mean that men and women farmers do exactly the same thing however. In fact, in much of Africa, agricultural production is gendered to the extent that when men farm, they often farm principally for the market - in other words, they're selling most of their crops for the market - whereas when women farm, they farm principally for household consumption and then either market the surplus or grow a specific crop on the side to be marketed. However, the notion of the subsistence farmer who produces only what his or her family needs, and all that the family needs, is largely a fiction.

As to the second part of my title, structural adjustment policies are policies that have been imposed by external donors on indebted African states, as a condition for either rolling over existing debt or allowing new debt to be undertaken. For many African states, some of the existing debt goes back to the late sixties and early seventies, the first decade or so of independence, when newly independent states often took on a lot of debt in order to build up new infrastructure, to try to bring certain types of facilities up to "First World" levels, and so on. Over the last 25 years, for a variety of reasons, independent African states have often been unable to retire that debt. Principally, structural adjustment policies have attempted to force independent states out of direct participation as owner--operators of economic enterprises. They have attempted to abolish state-controlled price levels on agricultural products and to abolish state-controlled marketing boards of agricultural products.

As a secondary goal, structural adjustment policies have also attempted to liberalize political processes. The idea has been to make African state economies less centrally planned and to loosen the hold that the ruling parties have had in state apparatuses, often since independence in the 1960s. Many policies have explicitly focused on trying to raise the prices paid to farmers for their produce. Although these goals may seem laudable in the abstract, in their implementation, structural adjustment policies have largely failed. Rather than making life better for the average African in the rural areas, they have frequently made it worse. And since many of the average Africans in the rural areas are women, it often means a much worse situation for women in the rural areas. However, this worsening condition cannot be completely attributed to the imposition of structural adjustment policies. I'm not trying to get structural adjustment policies off the hook here, I'm just saying that they are not the only problem that has worsened conditions in the rural areas.

One goal of structural adjustment policies has been to break the economy loose from the management of the political elite, which tends to be dominated by men. In order to understand this, we first need to know who the political elite were and what their relationship had been to the countryside prior to the implementation of structural adjustment policies. Since I'm an historian, I'm going to go into a little bit of history here. For the first 25 years of independence, most African countries continued with the centrally controlled economies that had been left by the colonial powers. In the interwar period and after World War II both Britain and France, who were the two major political powers in Africa, had created large bureaucratic apparatuses in their colonies to plan and control the economies. Colonial administrations set quotas for agricultural production, they set prices for produce, and they either directly controlled or indirectly oversaw companies engaged in the export and marketing of goods. They built and controlled the roads, railways, and harbors that moved the goods, and they taxed the income that accrued from the sale of goods.

Despite these restrictions in many colonies African farmers, both male and female, responded by marketing increasing levels of agricultural goods, as well as by adopting new crops for which markets existed. Thus, colonial economies seemed to grow in the 1940s and '50s, the last two decades of the colonial period; but one could argue that they grew despite colonial policies rather than because of them. In some colonies, particularly in central Africa - French Congo and King Leopold's Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo - the state actually pursued very coercive, and in the long run counterproductive policies, forcing Africans to engage in various types of agricultural activities that were not locally popular. Not only did these coercive policies not contribute to economic growth in those areas, they tended to destabilize African social and economic structures to such an extent that Africans often preferred to remain outside of the formal economy and to participate in the underground market, what is often called the "second economy."

During the colonial period, administrators planned their colonies' economies not principally for the benefit of their African subjects, but to offset the cost of colonial administration and to provide some benefit to the metropolitan colonial power. At independence African political elites took the reins of these centrally planned economies. Although most of the new leadership had populist roots, they frequently found that their hold on power was dependent upon satisfying both the material needs of the people living in the cities and the political aspirations of the small elite class. These policies tended to exclude women from political power, as it was often men who initially migrated to the urban areas to become wage laborers, leaving women in charge of small holdings in the rural areas.

In independent Nigeria, for example, the state kept the costs of food artificially low in the urban areas, so that the urban population could eat cheaply and thus not be dissatisfied with the regime. This had the effect of impoverishing many women farmers, who produced the food for market. At the same time, state officials, who were largely from the northern part of the country and from a military background, denied access to the state to anyone else. This effectively denied the farmers, who were mostly women, and southern city dwellers as well, a political voice with which to challenge these economic and political policies. All this occurred despite the fact that Nigeria had an enormous income from oil exports. In fact, most of the profits from those oil exports were simply appropriated by the small political elite and not invested into the broader economy. In 1985, when General Ibrahim Babangida took power, he tried to implement structural adjustment policies, largely because otherwise Nigeria would not be able to take out new loans. He was sort of forced into this position, it's not as though he did it from altruistic motives. But the policies, which revalued Nigeria's currency in relation to other currencies, and which brought in southern Nigerians to implement them, resulted in instability. They increased the cost of agricultural and manufactured goods to Nigerians, which caused unrest in both urban and rural areas. At the same time, the attempt to broaden the political leadership posed a threat to the old political elite, which in turn threatened Babangida's hold on power. When, after many delays, elections were held in 1993, Moshood Abiola, a southerner and a businessman, was widely considered to have won. This outcome was intolerable to the old northern elite; the elections were annulled and Sani Abacha, another military officer, was installed. This effectively put an end to political and economic liberalization until Abacha's death in 1999.

In the rural areas, the structural adjustment policies had the effect of promoting large-scale agribusiness-type farms, usually run by men, at the expense of small peasant-style farms that were often controlled by women. The policies were not specifically trying to put the small-scale farmers out of business, or drive them off their land, but they were quite explicitly aimed at creating a rural type of capitalism, as a kind of counterweight to the political elite. However, the fear of political instability in Nigeria that resulted from the implementation of these structural adjustment policies and from the relatively sharp increases in the prices of consumer goods, tended to undermine everyone in the country, both peasant and capitalist engaged in agriculture. Thus, the effects of the structural adjustment policies were swamped by local political realities. At the same time, women's access to donor aid was sharply inhibited by the political dominance of men in Nigeria. The structural adjustment policies were supposedly gender-neutral; they did not specifically target either women or men. But precisely because the policies were gender-neutral, they tended to favor men over women, because it was men who had the kind of international contacts, the kind of access, that allowed them to get that donor aid.

Nigeria may have had a particularly bad experience with structural adjustment policies, but the policy's effects on women were typical of what occurred elsewhere. Most of the agricultural labor on African farms, even large agribusiness farms, tends to be female. And most African agriculture is very labor intensive. Typically, women work as members of the household on household-controlled land. Yet legal control over the land is usually given by the state to men in the household. Any loans that the farm receives are in the man's name, and most of the income from cash crops usually goes to men. Thus, even given a best-case scenario, the effects on rural women could be quite harmful. As far as I know, no best-case result of structural adjustment policies has ever actually happened, but even if prices for agricultural produce were to rise without a substantial increase in the cost of the consumer goods, the results could still be negative for women. Men might require women to work longer hours in cash-crop production, resulting either in less production of food crops or in pulling girls out of school in order to increase production. Meanwhile, any additional profits derived from these additional cash crops would be pulled into a male-dominated economy.

In Zambia for example, structural adjustment policies imposed in the 1980s increased the price of corn - a crop usually controlled and marketed by men - to such an extent that many men tried to put additional land under cultivation of corn, at the expense of another cash crop, peanuts, which are usually grown by women. Most women resisted this change, probably for fear of having to spend their labor on a crop from which they would not profit. Similarly, many structural adjustment policies have focused on the privatization of land as the foundation of capitalist agriculture. This is an attempt to change another part of the colonial legacy: the notion of communal tenure, in which farmers had a use right to the land but did not have the right to buy or sell the land. The intention of the structural adjustment policies in this area has been to allow profitable farmers to increase production by investing their profits in additional land, which would be bought from less profitable farmers. However, the effect of land privatization has been to weaken women's access to and control over land and to make them increasingly dependent on their husbands, who are usually the only ones who can legally own the land. This dependency has harmed not only women but also children, who still tend to rely solely on their mothers for the provision of food. In Nigeria, for example, land privatization policies had the effect of fueling a wave of land speculation in rural areas, which effectively took land out of agricultural production. The agricultural workers - women who had been either independent farmers or wage laborers - were pushed off the land and into the urban areas, where there were no new industries to absorb them.

Thus, although structural adjustment policies have been designed and implemented supposedly to improve economic conditions and to promote liberalization in both economic and political spheres, in most of the African countries that have implemented them women have rarely benefitted; indeed, in many places their position has worsened. Of course, this condition can also be attributed to a number of social and economic conditions that were already prevalent in the regions, and not purely to the structural adjustment policies. But it cannot be denied that these policies have contributed to women's plight, often exacerbating the adverse conditions under which they were already laboring.


Sean Redding is a Professor of History at Amherst College. Her recent work has been on the cultural effects of taxation on women in rural areas in South Africa. She is also active in the Five College African Studies program.

© Sean Redding

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