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Photo Credit: bdlive.co.za

Photo Credit: bdlive.co.za

We left our discussion of agricultural development paradigms in a place of tension between the use of commercialized cash-cropping as a way to remedy the deepening poverty within small farm holder communities, and the idea that progressive improvement in farmer livelihood occurs not as a result of more cash-in-hand, but as a consequence of individual and community self-improvement efforts. Proponents of community development, were of the opinion that economic growth should occur by way of capacity development, rather than by the accumulation of money and wealth which should be seen as a result of rather than a basis for development.

We also discussed that despite the pervasive influence of community development on national policies and foreign aid agendas, the idea of development via cash crop commercialization stubbornly continued to find its way into community development discourse, and by the time community development evolved into the more commonly known Integrated Rural Development, it had become very difficult to separate the functioning of one idea from the other.

It is because of this inability to completely divorce the desire to achieve human capacity development from the need for commercial and economic gain that discussion of Basic Human Needs began. Increasing dissatisfaction with the achievements of development efforts so far, and a general concern about deepening rural poverty resulted in a shift in development thinking from its more high-brow persuasion to a focus on principles that prioritized the poor and destitute over other economic groups, that paid attention to requirements determined by society as a whole rather than the preferences of the individual consumer, that catered to immediate consumption over investment for the distant future, and that placed more emphasis on detailed composition of consumption in terms of specific quantities and specific goods and services, than to overall income.

Andrew Saftel - Food, Clothing & Shelter

Painting by Andrew Saftel – Food, Clothing & Shelter

Attempts to define what exactly basic human needs were never reached a place of universal consensus. Rather a range of meanings were ascribed beginning at one end with a minimalist list of requirements for basic human survival e.g. food, shelter and clothes, to the other extreme which considered not just physical needs but psychological as well which were in themselves context specific. Therefore basic human needs were perceived as including not just commodities but public services such as clean water, transportation, employment, education and rights of political expression and participation.

Taking the failings of community development-plus as a whole, development thinkers through the 1950s and 1960s argued for a more direct approach to meeting the basic needs of the poor as quickly as possible. While BHN cannot be said to have been a new economic theory, like the Keynesian and Marxist methods of analysis that were emerging at that time, it is a paradigm that proponents of these schools of thought could quite easily have adopted. While it may be difficult to pinpoint a single coherent theory of BHN, and while when considered side by side, it may seem to almost mirror the community development and other similar growth movements, the former differs from the latter at a very fundamental level in the sense that BHN was primarily concerned with more immediate rather than the more distant future and with the distribution of growth among the poorest of the poor.

Pyramid of basic human needs.

Pyramid of basic human needs.

And no; BHN was not anti-growth, in fact rapid and substantial growth was considered to be a necessary component for the fulfillment of basic human needs within a target period (commonly set at 20 years). However, it was different from the main stream “redistribution-with-growth” school because it considered the finer details of supply and demand and was focused on restructuring the production process in a way that favored the poor; ensuring that they were provided with the resources they needed to begin to rise out of poverty.

The advent of the BHN paradigm in Africa can be linked to a number of factors pertinent among which were; (1) rapidly increasing sprawl of capital cities and urban underclass arising from the urban bias that was reflected in polices of the day, (2) deteriorating terms of trade combined with the commodity boom for those that were fortunate enough to have access to coffee, tea or cocoa land which further deepened rural inequality, (3) a significant drought in the early 1970s that turned the world’s attention to the frightening levels of poverty and famine in the Sahel and Ethiopia, and (4) the surge in development assistance flows to Africa in the 1970s which financed most BHN interventions.

However, the actual adoption of BHN as a development strategy, happened as a direct result of five International Labor Office (ILO) country missions in the early 1970s; most notable of these for our purposes was the 1972 mission to Kenya. Let me tell you that story.

Street Vendors

Street Vendors

Development programs in SSA the 1950s and 60’s were structured and implemented based on the widely accepted assumption that with the right mix of economic policies and resources, the poor, traditional economies of the region could transition into dynamic modern ones. The plan was that the traditional sector which comprised of petty traders, small producers and all sorts of casual works would die a slow but deliberate death; absorbed into what would emerge as the new capitalist, formal and more desirable economy. Stories of success from Europe and Japan based on this model and burgeoning industrialization in Europe and North America following WW2 further reinforced its credibility; and everyone was positive that Africa would follow suit. By the 1960’s things were not quite shaping-up as hoped and people began to get worried. Persistent and widespread unemployment was a major concern for national governments and poverty seemed to be dipping to unprecedented levels. Deciding to take on the daunting task of figuring out how to address the unemployment problem the ILO sent a series of caravan missions to a number of developing countries, and in 1972, the first of these touched ground in Kenya where they found a traditional sector that was not only stubbornly thriving despite a harsh economic climate, but one that had also expanded to include profitable and efficient enterprise and marginal activity.

Bike (okada) Drivers

Bike (okada) Drivers

The ILO mission report labeled this small-scale, unregistered economic activity “the informal sector”, and although the report hailed the sector’s efficiency and creativity, other development circle observers were not so sure. In the minds of the skeptics, this so-called informal sector was marginal and peripheral and because it had no ties to the formal, modern capitalist economy, it had little chance for long-term survival once countries reached the industrialization stage of development. Fans of the informal sector however, argued that maybe…just maybe developing countries in Africa were not set up in a way that demanded that they follow the development path of the developed economies and the informal economy should not be discounted offhand.

Following the presentation of both sides of the argument at a 1976 World Employment Conference, held under ILO auspices and attended by 121 member state delegates, an agreement was reached to adopt strategies and national development policies that included as priority the promotion of employment as a basic human need. Their rationale was one that we have alluded to here; that a basic needs-oriented policy goes beyond the provision of physical goods and services, but also implies the participation of people in making decisions which affect them through means of their own choice, and freely chosen employment enables this to occur. Employment yields output, provides income and gives individuals a feeling of self-respect, dignity and of being a worthy member of society. Consequently, employment is both a means towards acquiring the resources to meet basic human needs, and an end product of the acquisition of these resources. Therefore, it is an essential non-divisible element of the basic human needs approach to development.

Adoption of BHN as a policy priority for allocation of program and public investment in Kenya occurred as a natural consequence of the ILO mission recommendation, and beyond Kenya’s borders, BHN very quickly became a guide for national government and donor priorities across SSA.

Bringing the discussion home to the context of agriculture, the BHN paradigm was very instrumental in redirecting national emphasis to food production for increased self-sufficiency. It argued that improved welfare, education, technical knowledge and active participation of poor people will go a long way towards improving their productive capacity, especially when compared with the trickle-down approach of other growth strategies.

BHN considerations in the context of African agriculture gave priority to smallholder agriculture. It summarily rejected the trickle-down approach, and looked towards targeting the poor directly, and the poorest in those days, were the smallholder farmers who were considered to be more efficient agricultural producers. Remember also that food production was prioritized over export production (which is more of a cash-crop commercialization formula for growth) and because resource allocation was not focused on who could produce more cash crops, but rather on who was just simply…poor, local food production was viewed as a better way of ensuring that the poor were catered to.

A major pitfall of the BHN paradigm was something I mentioned briefly earlier; which was the tension surrounding the definition of what constitutes a basic human need. This tension was felt most acutely at the implementation stage of BHM centered programs and the issue was most often centered on the extent of distribution polices i.e. should shelter and clothing be included in a package with clean water, food and health services? Subtler questions emerged around issues such as the right to employment and free political expression and participation as basic human needs. In the context of agriculture, the latter was of particular significance because it raised the question of how best to ensure that smallholders benefit from polices that protect their production interests. Furthermore, local government officials were viewed as increasingly instrumental agents of agricultural development as they were critical to securing pro-agricultural policies and mobilizing resources in rural areas.

While it is difficult to determine decades later what the exact growth results of BHN polices were, especially considering the fact that BHN was only one of many growth policies and paradigms shaping agricultural development at that time, it is fair to say that it had a significant influence on the intellectual thinking and discourse surrounding African agriculture at that time and far into the 1990s.

Next Up: “Good Neighbors…Good Friends”


ILO (1972) Employment, Incomes and Equality: A strategy for Increasing Productive Employment in Kenya. Report of an Inter-Agency Team Financed by the United Nations Development Program and Organised by the International Labour Office Geneva; ODI (1978) Briefing Paper No. 5. London, United Kingdom; WIEGO. Informal Economy – History and Debates; Hart, Keith (1973) Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 11, Issue 1.