The Multinational Monitor


B O O K   R E V I E W

Harvests Under Fire

Harvests Under Fire: Regional Cooperation
for Food Security in Southern Africa

By Carol B. Thompson
London: Zed Books, 1991
176 pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Dear

In Harvests Under Fire Regional Cooperation for Food Security in Southern Africa, Carol B. Thompson admits that the pervasiveness of the human suffering experienced throughout Southern Africa in the past decade makes any attempt to analyze regional efforts at development "almost arrogant." From the tens of thousands dead from malnutrition and South African- and US- supported armed aggression in Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and elsewhere in the region to the pain that led to food riots in Zambia, most of the people living in Southern Africa had little reason during the 1980s to feel optimistic about an improving quality of life.

But it is during these years, Thompson argues, that one of the most successful experiments in regional economic cooperation has begun: the Southern African Development Coordination Conference. Since its inception in 1980, SADCC has sought to promote strategies resistant to South African hegemony in the region and conducive to mutually beneficial development projects among its members. SADCC brings together 10 widely divergent states-- Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe--to focus on planning for addressing commonly shared national interests such as improved communications, transportation, food and agricultural cooperation, mining, industry, trade relations and financial integration.

With a highly decentralized structure, SADCC relies upon consensus of agreement on policy choices and upon each member state to be responsible for coordinating those choices in one economic sector of the region. For example, Zimbabwe administers agricultural programs, Tanzania, industry and trade, and Angola, energy conservation and development.

Thompson's book analyzes SADCC's attempts to promote food security against both an often overwhelming legacy of colonialism and attempts by South Africa and the United States and other Western interests to shape the region's future using the old theories of directed development: large-scale farming operations with cash crops, unbalanced comparative advantage, highly restrictive loan and grant packages and the like. Thompson seems optimistic that SADCC's first decade shows that it has the potential to meet many of these challenges.

SADCC was founded with the idea that the region can break out of its subordinate role to South Africa and at the same time redefine the region's role in the global economy from that of a producer of unprocessed minerals and agricultural commodities to an exporter of food crops and energy. SADCC, Thompson argues, has promoted improved food distribution and an agro-industry that produces for the basic needs of food, clothing and housing. In so doing it has provoked a change in the status quo that has prevailed for over a century.

With examples from throughout the region, Thompson describes how skilled and relatively prosperous African farmers were turned into subsistence and sub-subsistence tillers while the white large-scale commercial farm sector prospered for decades, using the best land and African labor. The result, Thompson writes, was the overpopulated areas, unsophisticated production techniques, infertile soil, deforestation, lack of hybrid seeds for traditional crops and lack of irrigation that still pervade the region. These arrangements intensified the exploitation of women in Southern Africa, prohibited prospects for free market exchanges, increased social divisions among Africans and underdeveloped the factors of production. Every country in Southern Africa, including South Africa, remains a primary commodity exporter today.

The strength of Thompson's book lies in its assessments of the current pressures against attempts to implement alternative modes of development across the region and of the extent to which SADCC has succeeded despite those pressures. Most of Harvests Under Fire is an analysis of the external forces acting against SADCC's programs in food security; the book looks at the core issue of politics of food production and distribution rather than techniques of agriculture and economics. South Africa and the United States have been the key antagonists in these politics.

In particular, the U.S. Agency for International Development's influence on SADCC appears to be rising while it urges SADCC to emphasize certain themes whose benefits to SADCC are questionable. They include: the creation of "master farmers" using high technologies for specialized farming (with the effect of diminishing land reform), specialization of production (which could benefit the stronger economies, such as Zimbabwe, and hurt the weaker ones), the promotion of cash crops (often in place of food crops) and the promotion of hybrid research (which can bring more equity problems). U.S. actions regarding SADCC, Thompson argues, are laying the groundwork for a free South Africa to continue to dominate the region.

SADCC's goals, Thompson writes, "although modest and logical when viewed historically, are a major challenge to the international economic status quo."

SADCC programs are oriented to decrease the region's dependence on South Africa and to promote a rationalized regional division of labor. One goal is to coordinate the production of some goods. For example, Swaziland will produce low-cost tractors and Tanzania conventional tractors for the entire region. SADCC members also aim to share agricultural technology and information, engage in joint research programs, train farmers throughout the region and encourage more processing of food to take place in Southern Africa. SADCC programs target smaller farmers, reflecting most member countries' commitment to small farmers; while national policies vary considerably, only in Malawi and Swaziland, Thompson reports, have local ruling classes joined forces with foreign interests to expand corporate holdings.

With Harvests Under Fire, Thompson shows that in its first decade, SADCC has successfully promoted the region, both locally and internationally, and has learned to begin to set its own priorities in the face of strong and opposing interests.

Whether Southern Africa can move toward self-sufficiency will become more apparent during the 1990s as SADCC continues to evolve and begins to define a relationship with South Africa during this crucial time in that nation's history. Those interested in alternative development schemes should watch SADCC. Though somewhat dry, Harvests Under Fire provides a useful, sympathetic but critical, interim report.

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