Labor Day Week: Blue Marble Evaluation, cash cropping and labor in an African context: Reflections stimulated Labor Day in the United States by John Wilson

I am John Wilson, living in Zimbabwe and working throughout East and Southern Africa as a facilitator with community-based organizations. The Glocal principle in Blue Marble Evaluation states “Integrate complex interconnections across levels”. The premise to this principle is that sustainable systems change and transformation are more likely to take hold if there are strong reinforcing interconnections up and down levels of engagement from local to global and from global to local.

The drive for cash cropping amongst smallholder farmers in Africa has been a big part of the ‘development’ agenda. The idea was that it would link smallholder farmers into the global market and bring them good cash income, which would then allow them to ‘develop’. This was the model of development prominent in the post-colonial era and it’s very unfortunate for smallholder farmers that instead of helping them ‘develop’ it has often turned them into very cheap labor.

The model for cash cropping has been driven from the top down, by Governments and corporates. They were trying to change things but had no eye on sustainability. The change was to bring smallholder farmers into the global market, but on the corporates’ terms. There has been very little ‘local’ consideration.

Cash crops have been a failure from many points of view but the one not often raised is the way that it has turned smallholder farmers into exploited forms of labour. Let’s take cotton in Zimbabwe as an example. This is a good cash-income crop for smallholder farmers in drier, hotter parts of Africa. It does not need high rainfall and it has a long shelf life. About 40 or 50 years ago, the government in Zimbabwe decided that the Zambezi valley would be a good place to grow cotton on the rich black cotton soils that abound there.

Smallholder farmers were allocated land. Extensive areas of trees in the lowland woodland/forest were cleared for their cotton fields. Large multinational corporates brought in all the inputs: seed, fertilizer and pesticides. These were given freely to farmers along with training about how you grow cotton with chemicals. They followed instructions, harvested, sold to their corporate connection and received cash after the input costs were subtracted. At first it seemed good, the global price was relatively high and some of this was passed on to the farmers. They built ‘modern’ tin-roof houses instead of traditional thatched huts.

But when the price went down, this was largely passed on to the farmers, so less income, health issues from using many pesticides, soil dying with all the chemicals, temperature heating up everywhere because all the trees cleared, a clear downward spiral towards desertification. And all done on the back of very cheap labor.

What if the Blue Marble Evaluation glocal principle (glocal + local = glocal) was practiced: trees interplanted with the cotton, along with food crops, ongoing research into organic practices, a farmer-owned gin. The cotton could feed into the global market but in a way that creates sustainable, healthy development for local farmers.

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The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Labor Day Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week explore the concept of labor from different perspective and in relation to evaluation. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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