Why the president’s countrywide tours may win him peasant votes but not make them rich
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | President Yoweri Museveni concluded his countrywide tour, an early campaign effort creatively dabbed “wealth creation,” with a letter to “bazukulu”. The letter is a tour de raison of the economic history of Uganda from pre-colonial times to date served by an unstinting host. I wish such rich historic insights were available to students in Uganda from primary through secondary school to university.
Yet in spite of such an excellent command of our economic history, Museveni’s strategy for wealth creation is misguided. The president seems genuinely convinced that the missing ingredient in peasant agriculture is “enlightened knowledge” by farmers on how to transition from subsistence to commercial farming. This approach is not only patronising but also naïve. It misses the lesson of a market based capitalist economy: people respond to incentives.
Peasants devote most of their time to producing food to eat i.e. subsistence agriculture. They see the commercial motive as secondary. This behavior is neither stupid nor irrational. It is based on generations of experience that has bestowed on them particular lessons. Peasant agriculture depends predominantly on nature. The vagaries of weather have across time and space fostered the evolution of particular technical and social adaptations among peasants.
Telling farmers to change their behavior will fall on deaf ears
For instance, patterns of farming like choice of seed varieties, mixed farming (animals and crops), planting a variety of crops (instead of product specialisation) are technical adaptations to mitigate risk. The peasant is risk averse: he will avoid planting a single crop that may promise the prospect of a huge profit windfall in favour of many crops that ensure a small but steady yield. Mixed cropping is a form of insurance: if locusts descend on the maize and ruin most of the crop, the peasant will survive on cassava; if a wilt destroys potatoes, the peasant will still have his millet.
These technical adaptations are reinforced by specific social and moral arrangements peasants evolve to deal with the continuous threat to their survival. James Scott in his classic, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, calls them “the subsistence ethic.” Patterns of reciprocity, patron-client ties, work-sharing and extended family systems are social institutions erected to provide insurance against the risk of starvation. These form the moral universe of the peasant.
For instance, a hungry or sick peasant goes to a better off neighbor or relative for assistance and expects his needs to be attended to. Likewise, the better-off neighbour or relative responds positively because that is what is expected of him/her by the value system. To act otherwise is seen as wrong and attracts social sanction in form of negative gossip and a bad reputation. While such social practices are humane, they are also economically inefficient.
Without appreciating this reality, telling farmers to change their behavior will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, there have been many interventions of Museveni’s type from Latin America to Asia backed by the best agronomists a nation can find. They have almost always all failed. It is not the lack of education that peasants focus on producing for their stomachs. Rather, it is because of facing the constant risk of starvation due to the capriciousness of nature.
Museveni’s summons will not make peasants Schumpeterian entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs form a small section in every society. Joseph Schumpeter estimated them to be about 4% with another 16% being imitators. The rest are regular guys working for someone else. Historically peasants have never transformed themselves. Instead, other classes, especially the bourgeoisie (rich industrialists) have done this with the help of the state they control.
For instance, in Great Britain the transition from peasant agriculture to modern industry was occasioned by the forceful expropriation of peasants’ land to open it for large-scale commercial agriculture otherwise called the “enclosure movement”. The peasant was reunited to the land through the agency and initiative of capital, but this time as an agricultural laborer.
In South Korea, peasant agriculture was made unsustainable through deliberate state policy, making peasants destitute. This forced them to go to cities to look for other means of subsistence. It is this precarious economic situation that forced peasants to accept substandard wages in urban factories and thereby make manufacturing profitable. In practically every other country that has transitioned from peasant agriculture to modern industry, another class, the bourgeoisie, backed by the state, was responsible, not pious summons by an enlightened elite.
I do not blame Museveni for his misguided position. First, as a politician, he has every incentive to position himself as the savior of the masses, and also do his campaign for 2021. Second it is amazing how many people actually believe this idea of development as an outcome of altruistic intentions on the part of benevolent leaders. Development everywhere has been and will always be a product largely (not entirely) of enlightened self-interest. The kind and charitable people of this world can deliver charity and welfare but certainly not social and economic transformation.
Here is my point (which may sound brutal and insensitive but which I think is realistic): there is no country anywhere in the world where agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the majority of the population, which has a per capita income of more than $1,000. To depend on agriculture for income is, therefore, to be relegated to perpetual poverty. Indeed, the process of growing rich (development) is a transition of most citizens from depending on agriculture for a livelihood to industry and services.
Hence Museveni cannot create a society of prosperous peasants – not in the next 4,000 years. There is no way Uganda will make 70 percent of its citizens rich while they remain peasants. Most of them will produce for the market to supplement their subsistence but that will not transform their lives or the country. At best it will make them less poor but it cannot make them rich. A few enterprising individuals among these peasants will adopt modern agricultural methods and prosper. But that is it – only a few.
The future of Uganda lies in ending peasantry, not in making if profitable – an impossible task. The only way out is to invest in manufacturing. This will attract excess labour out of our low productivity agriculture to high productivity industry. Museveni’s countrywide tours will win him votes of these same peasants but will not transform Uganda or make them rich. The President should spend more time with industrialists asking and prodding to know what they need to expand their scale and scope of business.