Journal Issue
Finance & Development, December 1979

A revisit to rural development in Eastern Africa: Progress and constraints are reviewed

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
December 1979
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Uma Lele

Since the world food crisis of 1973-74, the emphasis of lending to the developing world by the international community has shifted from developing infrastructure and the industrial and commercial agricultural sectors to achieving national self-sufficiency in food and developing the subsistence agricultural sector. There has been a corresponding shift in the “means” of development—from increasing production and expecting the benefits to trickle down to the poor to taking direct action to improve their living conditions. Lending for agricultural and rural development has consequently increased significantly—World Bank lending to agriculture and rural development in the Eastern Africa Region rose from an average of $70.4 million a year between 1970 and 1974 to $198.6 million in 1979.

The World Bank’s experience with rural development work in Eastern Africa since the early 1970s is instructive. There are some 70 Bank-financed agricultural and rural development projects currently in progress in these countries. Many involve cofinancing by other donors; the Bank’s experience is therefore generally valid both for the countries and other donors. There is also a substantial body of experience in the World Bank, based on systematic evaluations of selected projects, as well as on routine in-house reviews of ongoing and completed projects or their component parts. This article is derived mainly from these sources of information. Based on the lessons of this experience, there has been a very considerable evolution in the World Bank’s lending policies and projects over time. However, in spite of this evolution, rural development in many African countries is likely to take longer than in other parts of the world and to need higher levels of investment (not only in agricultural projects but also in sectors such as infrastructure and education,) because these countries are at an early stage of development.

Eastern Africa is defined by the World Bank as Botswana, Burundi, the Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zaϊre, and Zambia.

Comparative performance

Experience with the development of predominantly agricultural nations elsewhere in the world has shown that policies and programs can be devised and implemented successfully to benefit subsistence producers and to increase overall food production, employment, and incomes. In Malaysia, for example, new investments in paddy production, the introduction of new high-yielding varieties, and a favorable producer price policy led to the country’s ability to meet over 90 per cent of its rice consumption in 1972, compared with only about 60 per cent in 1957. The high priority given by a number of Far East Asian countries to agriculture has also led to impressive overall economic performance and export growth.

In Tanzania, too, following increases in producer prices of foodcrops and improved weather subsequent to the 1973-74 drought, officially marketed production of foodcrops increased from 160,000 metric tons in 1975-76 to 613,000 metric tons in 1978-79, indicating substantial producer responsiveness to economic incentives. On the whole, however, with a few exceptions, such as Ivory Coast and Kenya, efforts to increase smallholder agricultural productivity, especially of foodcrops, have not yet brought about sustained results in Africa.

It is particularly urgent to come to terms with the problem in these countries, since many of them fall in the least developed category. Moreover, the growing number of the poor in Africa live mainly in the rural areas, and most of their income is derived directly from agriculture. Yet, according to the estimates made by the International Food Policy Research Institute, during 1960-75 food production in sub-Saharan Africa increased at an annual rate of only 1.3 per cent, compared with annual rates of 2.9 per cent in Asia and 3.5 per cent in Latin America. More worrying are the World Bank’s projections in the World Development Report of 1979 that growth rates in Africa will drop even lower over the next decade, implying a widening gap between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world. If present trends continue, by 1990 the food deficit in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to rise to 24 million tons from the level of 2 million tons in 1975.

These trends can be reversed if the underlying causes of the poorer performance in Eastern Africa are identified and tackled. The main reason for the slower growth of the rural areas in Africa seems to be that most least developed African countries have lower levels of institutional development, trained manpower, and physical infrastructure than do their counterparts in the rest of the world. Most also have extremely low densities of population, a situation which increases the problems and the costs of developing infrastructure, communications, and marketing systems. These differences imply that more time and greater efforts are needed to lay the basic foundation for broad-based agricultural development in Africa than elsewhere before noticeable success can be achieved.


In the 1960s, even the few projects involving low-income producers tended to have relatively narrow objectives, such as increasing export crop production, without regard to the subsistence consumption needs of producers. They also tended to be “enclave” projects with autonomous project entities geared to achieving short-term visible results that carried out relatively little training of nationals. Projects now reflect wider national concerns. These include improving the planning and implementing capability of national and regional institutions responsible for agricultural activities; gearing policies and planning more closely to agricultural priorities; making provision for a fuller financing of recurrent costs; and generally showing greater awareness of the need to make the design and implementation of projects more flexible.

At the project level, there is also increasing emphasis on trying to adjust to wider local needs and conditions—by developing agricultural research systems to make them more appropriate to particular local environments; substantially raising the resources allocated to the training of nationals; assisting with health and water supply; monitoring and evaluating the impact of projects; and expanding the time horizon in which to expect results. The new approach to rural development thus reflects substantial efforts to overcome the shortcomings of the previous strategy.

But despite this progress, and despite substantially increased lending, achievements have fallen far short of expectations. The causes are many and varied. Generally, the national and expatriate staff needed by the projects have not been available in time and in the numbers required; fewer agricultural trials have been carried out than envisaged and few of those undertaken have yet been able to develop methods and technologies suited to different locations; inputs, such as fertilizer or improved seed, have not been bought and distributed on time in quantities proposed, and thus committed resources have not been disbursed at the rate anticipated. Not surprisingly, the results of the projects have also fallen short of targets. On the whole, yield increases from the new projects have been less than predicted; fewer farmers have used innovations; fewer nationals have been trained, and less data collected than had been envisaged; and not all the data collected have been analyzed for planning or evaluation.

What explains the limited achievements? Even with the wider recognition that development in these countries proceeds more slowly than had first been expected, the foremost reason has undoubtedly still been overambitious expectations—on how quickly projects can be established, as well as on their results. Also, despite lessons of past experience that point to the need for modest projects, the new projects have been excessively complex. Both these causes reflect the fact that the majority of the donor-assisted projects are still being designed by outsiders, due to the extreme shortage of local personnel. But the limited results of these projects also frequently reflect the more basic constraints. Not surprisingly, some of the problems identified in earlier evaluations—such as inadequate policy framework and manpower shortages—are even more apparent now under the new approach, while additional constraints, such as shortages of recurrent financing, have emerged. As the discussion below will show, many of these obstacles can be overcome through a continuing evolution of government and donor policies in the right direction.

National priorities

An unstable political environment has undoubtedly been one of the major hindrances to development in many parts of Africa in recent years. This has meant that resources sorely needed by the rural areas have been diverted to maintain domestic law and order and national defense.

Within these political constraints, however, many governments in sub-Saharan Africa do attach considerably greater importance to food self-sufficiency and the development of the subsistence sector now than they did prior to the catastrophic food crisis of 1973-74. Some steps are also being taken to improve food production in the subsistence sector, including raising producer prices of foodcrops and increasing the supply of fertilizer available. Nevertheless, in many of these countries, policymakers still frequently conceive of development in terms of immediate industrialization, urbanization, and the use of modern technology. If the modernization of the agricultural sector is seen to be necessary, it is mainly to support industrialization—primarily to generate food surpluses quickly to feed the urban masses or to earn export surpluses to help capital formation. Moreover, too often the best way to increase agricultural surpluses quickly is believed to be through heavily capitalized large-scale farms rather than by devoting resources to aid the output of smallholder peasants.

Experience indicates, however, that large-scale farms dependent on tractor cultivation, especially in the public sector, are generally economically inefficient in comparison with small peasant plots. And they do not achieve broad-based rural development. Neither are food surpluses generated more quickly or mobilized more cheaply than on peasant plots—if the latter are provided with appropriate services and incentives.

Even when governments do attach importance to smallholder production, they often tend to overlook the need to support it sufficiently—through providing appropriate technology, for example, or a timely delivery of low-cost services. They may attempt to modernize by changing the organization of traditional agriculture—that is, by establishing cooperatives or collective cultivation instead of encouraging individual farming; or by constructing modern silos for surpluses, instead of improving traditional storage methods. In countries such as Kenya, where smallholder farming is more effectively supported by incentives and services, growth in the productivity and incomes of small farms has been significant—6 per cent annually between 1960 and 1970. The changes in attitudes and policies, which are already noticeable, show that longer exposure to problems of development, more widespread education, and greater participation of the educated in policymaking will undoubtedly make it possible to tailor policies more closely to the needs of the rural areas in low-income African countries.

The public sector

Government is almost the sole source of services, especially in the traditional rural sector in many African countries. Several side effects of this role can, and do, limit development: the excessive growth, of bureaucracy; the frequently inadequate public accountability in the use of public resources; the high cost of services; administrative and political problems in cost recovery; and the consequent need for indiscriminate subsidization of services. Often, the use of scarce government revenues and trained manpower to provide high-cost, subsidized public services—such as parastatals, or officially instituted cooperatives—has also resulted in shortages of these resources for such other important activities as road construction and maintenance or an effectively operating educational system. International agencies can assist in improving the mobilization, allocation, and accounting of funds.

In parts of the world with relatively more abundant supplies of experienced and trained manpower and a more diversified institutional structure, the inefficiency of government is not so serious a limitation as it is in many African countries. Most African countries need to nurture a more diversified institutional structure with a larger role for the private commercial sector and traditional local and community organizations. However, this is not a matter that external development agencies can directly influence. Some governments have not only had extensive control of services but they have also promoted techniques and the organization of production at a more rapid pace than can be justified by potential profits or by the farmers’ willingness to accept them. The high level of fertilizer application being promoted in Lesotho is one example. The pace of cooperative production attempted in Tanzania in the mid-1970s is another. Both cases paradoxically arose out of a concern to promote self-reliance. Where government control has been extensive, agricultural growth has not been sufficient to improve the distribution of its benefits. Where a diversified institutional structure has been tolerated, as in Kenya, the smallholder agricultural sector has grown more rapidly, but the distribution of benefits has not necessarily been equitable.

Capacity of the bureaucracy

The recent shift in the focus of international lending agencies from depending on autonomous project entities for project implementation to improving the effectiveness of the normal governmental agencies has increased the demands on national institutions. Yet the task of orienting national institutions to development has begun in only a few African countries.

Tanzania is one country that has attempted to reorganize its institutions, through the settlement of rural people in organized villages, decentralization, the abolition of the cooperative movement, and the appointment of village managers. In the long run, the decentralized administrative structure in Tanzania has considerable potential to be responsive to local needs and constraints. In the short run, however, decentralization has exacerbated the problem of realistic planning and effective implementation. A particular problem has been the shortage of trained staff now needed both by the regional and the central administrations.

Trained manpower is scarce at the policy, planning, and budgetary levels in all African countries. Consequently, important policy decisions related to pricing of inputs and crops, interest rates, and the allocation of trained manpower and budgetary resources among regions and sectors frequently have to be made without an orderly review of policy options and without examination of long-term objectives and the effects on their realization or of the availability of manpower and financial resources for effective implementation of these decisions. In Zambia, for instance, the recent decline in copper earnings led to across-the-board cuts in government expenditures, delaying payments to farmers for their sales and thus reducing the plantings of foodcrops in the 1978-79 season. Similar sudden cuts in development budgets due to unplanned expenditures are not rare in other countries.

Manpower is also short in project work, where the problem is compounded by the low prestige attached to being employed in the rural sector and by the shortage of budgetary resources for its development. If there are overall shortages in a country, even if the donor-aided project has full local staffing and realizes its objectives, it is usually only at the cost of increasing the number of vacancies in “nonproject” development activities, including those in parent ministries and departments. The additional consequence of overall manpower shortages is that the limited staff are frequently transferred and the planning and implementation of projects has little continuity, causing delays in achieving results and reducing the potential benefits of training and experience.

Education and training

Hitherto the emphasis of donors in the low-income countries of Africa has been largely on primary education and on short-term basic, functional, and nonformal education and training. While primary education is essential, the need for formally educated manpower in the modernization of the traditional rural sector cannot be overstated. The World Bank’s review of training components in 95 projects in Eastern Africa indicated that there is a great shortage of Africans with the necessary formal education in agriculture at the middle and higher levels of management in nearly all sectors that rural development involves. The shortage persists, even though in many cases formal education requirements have been scaled down or specialized training has been split into many parts to accommodate the limited supply of the formally educated at all levels. The substantially increased training funds provided by donors, therefore, cannot be utilized fully due to the shortage of Africans with the necessary educational qualifications.

This article is based on a chapter in the new edition of Design of Rural Development: Lessons from Africa (Johns Hopkins, 1975) by Uma Lele.

Official policies and general attitudes discourage educated Africans from seeking employment in the rural sector. Where the supply of the formally educated is geared very closely to the needs of the modern sector, the problem is aggravated. It is the general “oversupply” of the formally educated for the modern sector in many Asian countries that has eased their supply to the rural sector. In addition to providing assistance for improving manpower planning and allocation procedures, donors will have to increase assistance to education at all levels and to be ready to meet likely rises in recurrent costs.

Infrastructure, technical assistance

Another constraint on rural development in many African countries is the inadequacy of resources allocated to major transport systems. In spite of increased loans for feeder roads in recent years, in many countries there has been a net deterioration in the quality of the trunk road system. This has led to such problems as the frequent breakdown of vehicles and the spoilage of crops, as well as a reduction in the returns to the feeder road system. The difficulties in attracting educated, qualified staff to take up positions outside the capital city because of the poor amenities provided—and thus the adverse effect on the quality of planning and implementation of governmental services in rural areas—needs no documentation for those who have visited rural development projects in Africa. Aid to infrastructure that has been relegated to the background in recent years will have to be increased considerably if rural development is to be achieved.

Even if investment in education and infrastructure is expanded, technical assistance is still needed in the short run in parent ministries and policymaking bodies in these countries. But not all governments are willing to use outside assistance in politically sensitive areas, such as budget and manpower allocations. And even where technical assistance is accepted, for it to be effective, it has to be carefully selected and used.

Provisions of technical assistance are usually ample at the project level but the cost of staff recruited on international terms has been high—typically $60,000 to $100,000 per annum compared with $15,000 to $30,000 for technical assistance staff recruited directly from other developing countries. The quality of staff has not necessarily been commensurate with the costs. There is a need to examine ways of providing technical assistance on a more competitive basis, even though there are difficulties in assessing the benefits of such a service. Again, the World Bank has gone considerably further in encouraging the use of low-cost technical assistance than have many bilateral donors.

There is also the problem of lack of continuity in technical assistance. With relatively few long-term career prospects, most internationally recruited staff stay only three to five years in a country and have relatively little motivation to be effective. Moreover, neither donors nor recipients give adequate attention to the effective training—both formal and practical—of nationals so that they may continue to do the jobs efficiently. These shortcomings of technical assistance are a strong argument for the expansion of educational programs to prepare nationals for the planning and implementation of their own projects.

Recurrent costs

Shortage of local recurrent budgetary resources is a pervasive constraint to rural development programs over time, limiting the operating funds available to utilize the investments already made, causing lack of adequate maintenance of past investments, and thus partly explaining the delays in meeting targets and the slower realization of project benefits.

This shortage appears to be a result of a number of factors. These include clashing priorities in the allocation of resources referred to earlier; the failure of governments to recover costs; extensive subsidization; and the wide, unpredictable fluctuations in the export earnings of primary producing African countries. As would be expected, the problem of budgetary shortages has been compounded by the almost simultaneous shift to an emphasis on poverty alleviation by the entire donor community, as the new projects are more demanding of the recurrent budgetary resources per unit of investment than those financed previously. There has also been an absence of commensurate increases in allocations by governments. Moreover, donors tend to finance capital rather than operating costs, partly because they wish to promote exports from their own countries, partly because they do not fully recognize the importance of operating costs, and partly because they want to raise government allocation. These factors in turn create a bias at the national level in favor of capital expenditure and against the allocation of domestic resources for operating costs and maintenance.

The effects of the donor’s policies can be positive, too. In many cases, they have strengthened financial and administrative discipline and resulted in increased government support for these expenditures. Besides, donor policies have begun to evolve considerably. Agencies such as the World Bank, for instance, now provide capital costs for the maintenance of infrastructure and other development—as in the case of the roads projects in Kenya. They also finance incremental recurrent costs (such as salaries and travel allowances during the project period) as with the Shire Valley project in Malawi, and expect graduated government contributions of recurrent funds in projects. Donors will, therefore, have to provide greater assistance for overall development planning to improve budgetary allocations, and may well have to follow even more liberal policies toward the financing of recurrent local costs.

Donors’ role

Given their current limited capacity to plan and implement rural development projects, African countries will continue to need greater external assistance in the form of project aid of the type now being given than other more advanced countries. Even with the evolution of the project concept and lending policies described earlier, projects alone cannot bring about the immediate alleviation of poverty and the wider institutional development required in Africa. This means first that, in addition to project aid, external assistance will have to include greater assistance for overall development planning than before. Second, especially if the new broader rural development objectives are to be realized, in addition to direct poverty-oriented projects greater emphasis will have to be placed by donors on allocating their own resources to education and infrastructure. Even with these changes, however, rural development will be a slow and difficult process in Eastern Africa. But a stronger foundation would have been laid.

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