FORUM - Attacking the Root Causes of Instability
by Per Pinstrup-Andersen
Tragedies such as those in Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia are well publicized by the international news media, but such stories are only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Chronic instability is simmering in dozens of the poorest developing countries, which are burdened by rapid population growth, slow economic growth, weak governments, and low human development.
Ethnic tensions and political rivalries are the usual purported causes of these situations, yet there is no doubt that the real causes go much deeper than that. Weak agriculture sectors, food insecurity, hunger, and environmental degradation are certainly big contributors to chronic instability and conflicts in developing countries.
Virtually throughout the developing world, farmers are working on tiny plots and eking out barely enough to feed their families. Such situations are a breeding ground for desperation and conflict. In many countries, internal migrations are clearly connected to the problem of too many people farming on too little land, or of new entrants having little or no access to existing land. Often, such migrants move to forest areas or more marginal lands, a process that may undermine a nation's natural resource base and diminish prospects for future growth.
The inability to muster more than a marginal living has another important effect: it reduces the overall purchasing power of rural people and thus plays a major role in the inability of rural economies to contribute to national gains in economic welfare. Furthermore, economically marginal farmers rarely have the financial resources to make the kind of long-term investments in productivity improvements or resource protection that could help lift them out of poverty.
Somewhat surprisingly, many leaders in developing countries still do not see the quiet crisis in rural areas as a threat to the security of their government or their nation. Occasionally, governments even use food as a tool in regional conflicts, trying to support some regions at the expense of others.
Such cynical, short-term policies must cease. Developing countries must make food security a priority if they want to increase internal stability and build a stronger base for future growth.
For that matter, developed countries and international institutions should strengthen their focus on improving food security and boosting rural economies. Over the past several decades, many developing countries have almost miraculously managed to raise food production fast enough to keep pace with population growth. Research leading to the development of high-yielding varieties played a major role in this success. This effort must continue and be promoted in countries that have not been successful in the past.
Continued growth in environmentally sound agriculture and food production is absolutely critical if developing countries are to reduce the risk of scarcity-induced conflicts. For one thing, more than half of the economically active population in developing countries works in agriculture. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the two regions where the food security situation is most worrisome, about two of every three economically active people are engaged in agriculture. In these countries, economic progress must include gains in rural economic welfare.
Quite apart from the need to feed today's population is the effort to feed tomorrow's. As a group, the developing countries are expected to grow from the current total of about 4.7 billion people to about 6.5 billion people by the year 2020. That increase of 1.8 billion people is roughly three times the entire current population of Sub-Saharan Africa. With so many more mouths to feed, any serious lapse in food production is potentially catastrophic.
The developed world is at a crossroads. If our commitment to help developing countries continues to weaken, we are likely to see instability and conflict become a chronic problem in some regions over the next few decades. If we can strengthen our commitment, we may see improving internal stability in many countries and gradual improvements in economic welfare. To take the latter course seems just and in the best interest of both the developed and developing worlds.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)