Saturday, April 05, 2008

Farming words: Agricultural development still mute on languages?

A friend and former colleague, Jonathon Landeck, once remarked that "it's hard to build food security on the backs of illiterate farmers." I think again of this in light of a recent UN press release (seen on H-West-Africa) about a call for "greater investments in agriculture and rural development to boost economic growth and reduce poverty in Africa" by Kanayo Nwanze, Vice-President of IFAD. This call seems to be at the confluence of two recent trends - increasing attention to African agriculture and various appeals for more funds for African development generally. It's really not that new a trend (see for instance this call from FAO in 2004) and indeed there have been funds pledged for this kind of thing (such as by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations in 2006). So it is all the more important to take a look again at what is missing in these calls and announcements.

Educated farmers - key to development or threat to stability?

It is deliberately provocative to put the question in this way, but the issue of "empowering" rural people and communities - a concept central to the development discourse - involves learning and action. This is not an abstract or tangential issue to fundamentals like enough food. I once asked a former professor about what he thought was the key problem (if one had to name one) to improving agriculture in Africa. His response? Education of farmers.

This is not to downplay the importance of structural economic and policy issues, various fundamental resource issues, the role of research and extension, or the utility of "greater investments." But it points to something that runs obliquely to the general emphasis in agricultural development on technical issues and on farmers as needing outside knowledge, guidance and resources. "Education" is more than just telling people what we think they need to know or do.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago I recall hearing in the extension services that the "paysans sont les ignorants" - farmers and rural people don't know anything.
The notion of "éduquer les paysans" (educating the farmers) was really about telling them to do certain things and not to do others. Or convincing them that some new thing was really better for them. (Or in some cases obliging them to do something.) I think that mindset has been ameliorated somewhat over the years, but the idea of rural people as recipients and potential beneficiaries is still pretty much fundamental.

Farmers are no fools, however, and at the very least can calculate risks and potential benefits based on a lot of experience and local knowledge. The "ignorant" farmers were sometimes smart enough to seem dumb.

Education as I think my professor meant it, and as I use it here, is more about capacities, ways of understanding, and new knowledge in context. How to help farmers figure things out, get the information they need, and integrate new and indigenous knowledge - in short, how to enhance the abilities of farmers to make decisions that work for them and their communities.

A question, though, arises, and that is whether rural people so "empowered" is what governments and donors really want, or whether farmers who can ably make use of technical packages provided by extension services and development projects is preferred.

Farmers work in the vernacular - can development work with that?

In southeastern Mali, cotton farmers in the 1990s used literacy skills in the most widely spoken language, Bambara, to organize a major union - SYCOV (since French is the country's official language, SYCOV apparently keeps all documents in Bambara and French). In 2006, a "farmers' jury" on genetically modified Bt cotton was organized in Sikasso, Mali by IIED - and its main working language was Bambara (the report reflects this; Dr. Michel Pimbert of IIED kindly made that explicit in response to a question I asked in 2006 before seeing the report).

Farmers' first languages and local lingua francas are undeniably important if not central to education and sustainable agricultural development, but is enabling rural people to more effectively use them seen as dangerous by governments and troublesome by development donors? After all, what did farmers do in southeastern Mali with their literacy skills? - unionize and vote against GM crops. When I was in Niger, a colleague suggested that the downgrading or abandonment of local literacy programs by the Nigerien government some years before was exactly because of concern that farmers might get too active.

Indeed, local extension agencies themselves may not like the idea of farmers knowing too much, regardless of what language is used: Peter Easton and Guy Belloncle mentioned in a 2000 report (p. 4) a local research program that was quashed because the extension service "judged it inadmissible to try out with local farmers types of experimentation its own extension agents had not mastered."

And it is common to hear foreign development experts dismiss local languages as too many or too costly to try to do any concerted work in. Questionnaires may be useful, translations as needed by people in the field may be necessary, but much beyond that doesn't usually get attention.

There are so many rationales for not investing in use of African languages in agriculture and rural development, but if we accept that education and "empowerment" of farmers are key factors, is it possible to keep putting it off as if it were unimportant, while pouring new money into old approaches?

Structural issue: Language in the discourse on agricultural development

I mentioned on this blog last year having made (extensive) comments on a report about science and technology for African development. I looked not long ago at the final version of the report - revised after input from readers like me - and from what I could tell there was only one additional mention of the factor of language in one of the chapters. And that mention was in the context of challenges, not proposed approaches. A large part of the issue I think is disciplinary - language is for linguists; agriculture for a range of technical disciplines, economics, and perhaps other social sciences.

How then can the attention of donors, governments, extension agencies, and development organizations who are concerned with enhancing agriculture and investing in development in Africa, be drawn to the importance of doing much more in and with the first languages and local lingua francas of rural Africans? How can we at least research and develop approaches that convey information and promote ways of working in the languages that farmers and their communities speak among themselves?

There are some complex questions in this - one is under no illusion that it's a simple matter of adding "language" to project proposals and paying some translators here and there. But a policy on the part of major agricultural research and rural development actors to explicitly treat farmers' languages seriously in agricultural development in Africa would be a good start, and then some resources to determine optimal ways of using those languages in education, extension and new programs could have a significant impact.


Anonymous said...

"it's hard to build food security on the backs of illiterate farmers."?

Yes if a woman can't afford to hire a tractor to plow her ploy of land.

I can't claim in depth microfinance experience but think I've been to to enough village women's groups meetings to see how business like and focused illiterate women they can.

I am also aware of how urban sprall can deprive women of farm land. Chiefs sell the land and they are left twisting in the economic winds illiteracy not with standing.

george pope
san mateo ca

Don said...

Hi George and thanks for the comment. I probably should put Jonathon's statement back in its original context: it was offered in a discussion on whether literacy training should be part of a food security program or not. I happened to like it as a way of calling attention to the dimension of education when everyone is talking about how African farmers can produce more.

I think we'd all agree that "illiterate" does not in any way mean unintelligent or incapable of dealing with many of complex issues they face. But literacy does provide tools that can be very useful in practical ways, as well as "empowering" to rural people - and perhaps more so the women among them (who on the average have lower literacy rates).

Many people (not saying you) hear "literacy" and think "reading" - and then maybe "what's there to read in their language anyway?" - but forget about the "writing" part. Being able to record minutes of a meeting, write a note to someone else, keep a basic ledger, etc. These were apparently the skills that the Malian farmers used in unionizing. Literacy didn't make them more capable of thinking or organizing, but it gave them more tools to work with (and arguably more confidence in general).

You are right to point out the significance of structural and local power issues. Rural people face a lot of challenges. Among them I'm simply pointing to a different set that tends to be minimized or overlooked - namely the need for more effective extension and education in their main language(s).