Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Developed Rural Africa

Time has passed with little word from me on this website lately, but that's what happens when you try to maintain a blog from rural West Africa. It's hard enough to make a local call from village to village in the rainy season if you're not on top of a water tower, let alone post content to the internet. However, just because my fingers have been absent from a keyboard for quite awhile doesn't mean my pen (or should I say Black Warrior pencil if you know me well) has been packed away. I'm now in the greater Banjul area for a couple of days and so I decided to share some thoughts I'd saved up. I've become obsessed with finding practical ways to improve the lives of the community members that have welcomed me in. The contributions I make are small in the grand scheme of things (the crude measurements of economic development/growth), though I like to think if embraced, the changes I've catalyzed together with my Gambian counterparts have been steps in the right direction. There are so many issues that cross my mind, I'm bombarded by them every day. I don't always have the time or energy to flesh out every worthy subject, but I have been able to scribble a few into the pages of my notebook. The following series of posts are entries from my current notebook,a black, lined Moleskine, the third volume since my arrival. These topics are very far from exhausting the material that makes for solid analysis and debate surrounding development in rural Gambia, yet I offer them as a sample of the concepts, visions, questions, ideas and critiques that run through my head.

A Developed Rural Africa
Written on the highway from Gambia to Dakar, Senegal March, 2009

What does African Development ideally look like outside of the urban centers?
The vast majority of rural Africans are engaged in farming. Thus a more developed rural Africa entails improvements in the agriculture sector. Under favorable conditions I imagine a highly productive agricultural sector that efficiently and effectively uses the land and resources available to produce the largest gains.

African communities have always been able to successfully utilize the various plants in their respective environments. It's now time to use these biological resources with more control to achieve higher levels of production while ensuring that environmental resources are sustainable. Ideally, gains from agriculture would produce surplus agricultural wealth that could be used to invest in other trades or create new industries. A significant surplus would allow farmers to readily send their children to schools as well as to improve household health and nutrition. High yields and profits would come from the harmonious use of modern machinery and technical knowledge tailored to the particular environment individuals and communities find themselves in and an understanding of what is demanded by the market at what prices. Solid infrastructure would relay market and production information as well as physically facilitating the voyage of crops to market.

Qualified and skilled workers are essential if agricultural gains are to be made. This means offering high quality educational services and the constructive use of those services by families. You can't get rich by sitting around. The wealthier societies on this planet have high levels of formal education. It's not a coincidence. All children must go to school. People like to say that education is a human right. Well, then to not send your child to school and to not support them financially and with motivation if you have the means is to deny the human rights of your child. Families friends and neighbors must support each other in area of education as they always have in other ways. Communities themselves must act as coherent units to demand quality services from the teachers and the systems as a whole. Education salaries should be competitive with other jobs so as to attract solid talent. Countries that are relatively poor in natural resources have to invest heavily in their human resources to develop social capital. A literate society will attract investors and create jobs in the knowledge sector. Much of this requires a values shift, a reevaluation of priorities that may reorganize the way people spend their time and limit overindulgence in luxury items.

Development requires a certain consciousness of the challenges that lie ahead and a willingness to sacrifice to achieve one's goals. Overall, standards must be raised. Ignorance is becoming a poor excuse for inaction with the proliferation of mobile and information technology. People must join others in claiming math and science as their own, a valuable creation of the human race for the advancement of technology that eases our labor. Science and math are not menacing tools designed by one particular group to enslave the world, they are ever-advancing tools for all.

Development in not manifested in illegal migration that finances a mammoth house for one's mother and father. It's about using exiting knowledge and resources to create sustainable livelihoods. The African environment is not homogeneous and certainly it is not the same as that found in Europe or America. Africans should take a step back and find examples of groups and individuals operating successfully in a similar climate to their own, then seek to replicate those successes. Those positive role models hold the key as to how to manage one's resources in an innovative and more prosperous manner.

Ultimately the product of a "developed" rural Africa will not look the same as developed areas elsewhere in the world and it shouldn't because Africans have their own diverse cultures. The image of America as the ideal Africa is just a mirage and unrealistic for social and environmental reasons. The true ideals of development lie in the opportunity to rise from the bottom to the top with hard work, determination and a little luck. Development is not just something that sounds like a nice idea to people as they hope someone will deal with their problems and help them to realize their desires. Development is a conscious action, a change in lifestyle, a search in which all avenues are tested in the journey to the higher standards of living that people want. What people want is defined by themselves, but in the globalized world of today, those wants are often influenced by those other people we happen to share our planet with. Its not only the reality that we're getting more and more connected, but it's also simply good to know and understand each other, as shared experiences strengthen cooperation and build peace.

A developed rural Africa is a peaceful place in which the people are healthy and live with comfort and pride.

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