Agriculture, structural change and the urban imperative in African development

Aerial view of Monrovia city, Liberia. It’s high time for Africa to focus on structural changes, especially the small town development and the urbanization process, panelists at the USAID Alumni Association forum said. Photo by: Christopher Herwig / UN / CC BY-NC-ND

EDITOR’S NOTE: Structural change has been critical for development in Asia and Latin America, so now it’s Africa’s turn to step up to the plate, retired USAID foreign service officer Owen Cylke writes in a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations.

There has been increased discussion of late on repositioning development economics, structural issues, and the role of the state in the thinking and investments of developing and donor countries. Continental institutions in Africa, including the African Union Commission, African Development Bank, New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), and UN Economic Commission for Africa are rethinking the decades-long deference to the wisdom of the marketplace and the commercialization of its sectoral interests. This was recently reflected at a USAID Alumni Association forum in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The forum examined the centrality of structural change to the success of the development endeavor in parts of Asia and Latin America, and it underscored the criticality of that same process to the development prospects for Africa. While a two hour moderated discussion is not a substitute for analytic rigor and research product, the discussion did reflect remarkable agreement and did suggest a coherent set of findings and recommendations.

First, panelists urged renewed attention to development economics and processes particularly in Africa where the crucial transition from an agricultural and rural focus to something more receptive to off-farm and urban action lags behind all other developing regions.

Second, panelists highlighted the factors that make the transition an urban imperative. These include the need for off-farm, formal employment, such opportunities being historically associated with certain patterns of urbanization. A marked increase in economic productivity, where high density is typically associated with increasing levels of productivity. The development of economic engines that can support higher and more sustained rates of economic growth. Again, both the historical record and statistical evidence substantiate their critical role for structural change. And platforms for providing the efficient delivery of health, education, and other human services; higher density populations enabling more efficient service delivery.

Further it was concluded that agricultural and urban sectors need to expand the range of agricultural concern beyond production and productivity to its equally crucial function in the promotion of structural change. And to expand the range of urban concerns beyond the provision of traditionally understood municipal services to its unique possibility as a platform and provider of off-farm employment, economic productivity, and economic growth.

Specific recommendations are reflected in the presentations of the panelists, nevertheless in summary: re-engage in development economics and processes noting neglect in the area of overall strategy design over the past several decades. Re-orient rural development towards spatial and territorial approaches, with a focus on regional development, urban functions in rural development, and market town and secondary city development. Maintain support for agricultural programs, albeit with greater attention to family farms, staple crops, resource management, and rural-urban linkages (and with particular attention to off-farm activity and employment). And increase the focus on rural-urban linkages, small town development, the urbanization process, and the economic functions of urban centers.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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