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Working For Food – Working For Money
When I gave a talk on project design to the ARC-ISCW in Pretoria (a government research centre) a researcher there who had worked on cattle projects in Buluwayo asked me about my support for subsistence projects. He said that in his experience people would not work for food but only for money. So you might be able to invent a way in which farmers could increase their subsistence production – their food production. But if this meant they had to do some work to achieve this result, they would not do it. On the other hand if you could find a way to help people increase the production of things they could sell – then they would do work to achieve this end. For example, if people were just planning to slaughter their cattle for home consumption, they could never be persuaded to put in any work to improve the condition of their cattle or the long term sustainability of their pastures. But if you could find a way to improve their chances of selling their cattle and getting a good price, then they might be quite happy to put in work to erect fences or improve their stock. This way, they would be working for money as they improved their herd and pasture condition.
An implication that you could draw from this is that you can only get people to participate in projects if you are willing to pay them an income – even if the project is intended to improve productivity on their own land. This certainly seems to be the rationale behind many development projects. But, as everyone knows, this strategy causes a typical problem. People enrol in a project to get an income but do not really have any commitment to maintaining or using the infrastructure that they are setting up. So you can get a whole lot of farmers to put in contour bunds by paying them to do so. But after the project is finished they are not maintained and after a while they stop working as gaps in the bunds mean that they will no longer hold water.
If this nostrum about work and money is true, there is quite a barrier to strategies designed to relieve village poverty by increasing subsistence production. You are asking people to put in a lot of work but you are not promising them any cash income. As I have explained in other writings, a subsistence strategy can actually be the most effective means to relieve village poverty and improve health outcomes. So what do I make of this claim about working for food and working for money? If we take it that this is a true statement of on the ground reality in African countries, how can we work around it?
Find the ones who will work for food
One solution is to work with anyone in the village who is prepared to work for nothing on their own agricultural projects, without the prospect of a cash income. Find the few who are. This is the method used by many successful long term interventions. For example the Is’Baya organization offers farmers in Eastern Cape fruit trees to plant on their home stand at reduced prices. But the farmers are not paid to plant these trees on their own land, they actually have to show their own commitment by making a compost heap and digging holes to plant the trees under instruction from the project coordinators. At the end they have no guarantee that the fruit they may produce will be sold, but Is’Baya is aware that the fruit will contribute to household nutrition. Another example is the extremely successful CELUCT project in the Chikukwa villages of Zimbabwe. There, the project was initiated by a club of villagers who got together to deal with the problem that their spring had dried up. They met and worked on their own land and gradually recruited other villagers to help them, free of charge, to put in contour bunds and fencing and plant woodlots throughout their village. In other words, these project designs depend on finding the few who are keen to improve their circumstances without being bribed with promise of a cash income. Work with these few volunteers and others will join later.
In South Africa, most projects are what I call ‘entrepreneurial projects’. They are designed to promise to create a commercial enterprise which will make villagers a cash income to relieve poverty. Very often there is some paid work associated with the project and younger villagers are recruited to do work on the land owned by their village. These projects are all premised on the philosophy expressed above – people will only work if they are promised an income. Yet these entrepreneurial projects rarely work. The problem with giving people money to work on their own land is that after the project is finished, the improvements are not sustained. The problem with a project that aims to get everyone an income making money from agricultural production is that the beneficiaries cannot actually run a commercial project, especially if it is a cooperative (see my chapter Types of Project).
In this context, finding the people who are prepared to work for food and working with them still makes sense. Find the people who are prepared to do some work to improve their subsistence production, work with them and get long term results. It is these people that you should be working with.
It is mostly men who will only work for money
This is a gender thing throughout Africa. Men will only work for money – it is beneath their dignity to work for food at the instruction of a professional advisor, especially if they are white. Women, however, feel a responsibility for family subsistence and do a lot of work for food and will be involved in projects.
What is realistic and what you say to get people going
It is not realistic to promise villagers that they can get a real job by using their small agricultural resource and turning it into a business – what is realistic is to use this small resource to provide most food for the family and allow more disposable income because you are not spending so much on food. It is true that there is some small surplus that you may be able to sell if you improve your subsistence production, but most of the extra will be eaten or given away in cash free village exchanges. And certainly some people will always become successful entrepreneurs if you improve the productivity of a whole village. But most people will only get an increase in their food production and their well being through that.
Nevertheless, perhaps this realistic analysis is not the best thing to be saying to villagers as you are promoting some technology to increase food production. Maybe the best thing to be saying is that you can use this technology to develop a cash income. The strategy of promising a surplus, and a supplement to income through this, to encourage work on food security is a way to deal with this pervasive mind set. For example, Is’Baya seems to let people believe that the fruit trees they are distributing will produce fruit that can be sold. Of course the reality is that you make very little money through this and there can easily be a glut – but of course you can do heaps for food security by persuading people to grow fruit trees.
How this mind set comes out of the failed promises of development
This decision to only work for money is a self defeating strategy based on anger. It is really a response coming out of the anger that has been accumulated after years of being promised development, jobs and affluence – without anything much to show for it. If you cannot give me a job, this view says, do not expect me to work. It is hyper-conformity. You have been telling me that subsistence is old fashioned and stupid for decades and that a real job and a cash income is the only route to happiness and status. So do not come around here asking me to work for nothing and pretending it is for my own benefit. What is your motivation for this behaviour, you must be getting something out of it; that is what the rich developed world is all about? If you really want to help me, give me a job and an income.
The effect of this mind set is that a lot of people in Africa are living on sufficient land to ensure good food security and year round nutrition, but their land is lying fallow because they are not prepared to work on it. This is especially the case in South Africa where the social grants make it possible to be unemployed and survive without doing subsistence agriculture. But these people are actually suffering from huge problems of malnutrition.
This is a problem that can only be dealt with over time. If government is not actually prepared or able to give people jobs, and they are not prepared to pay them enough money to ensure food security, then the only answer is subsistence production. Again, as in my first point, the practical answer to this is to work with the people who still are actually doing some subsistence work and increase the productivity of that subsistence work. This will create a situation where their health and happiness becomes obvious to other villagers, who gradually start to copy their strategies and work in their own fields and home stands.
The other answer to this is to really work on the school students to re-package subsistence agriculture as glamorous and exciting. The way to do this is to permaculture the whole of the school grounds from one fence to the other with a food forest. This has to be done by everyone in the school taking part, bringing mulch and plant cuttings and seeds, helping to construct cheap cement lined ponds and tanks for water harvesting, planting trees, making compost. This has to be connected to outside class rooms under big fruit trees, to school lunches created out of the school production. This strategy is being tried in East Africa and the best site to look at is called “Never Ending Food”. “Seeding Schools” is another web address.