Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Regionalism, agriculture and economic development


Regionalism, agriculture and economic development

Sean Woolfrey, tralac Researcher, discusses regionalism, agriculture and economic development

A recent special edition of the journal Development Policy Review was devoted to the findings of a study on the comparative development trajectories of South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa over the last fifty years. One of the more notable insights that emerged from the study was the important role agricultural development and pro-rural policies played in the successful economic development experiences of South-East Asia. In particular, the authors of the study found that “[t]he single most important distinction between South-East Asian and African development strategies is that, in South-East Asia, macroeconomic stabilisation has been paired with a concern for ‘shared growth’ through agricultural and rural development”.

The authors also found that, contrary to popular perception, sustained economic growth in South-East Asia was initially spurred, not by export-oriented industrialisation (although this has undoubtedly played an important role in the region’s economic development), but rather by government policies which aimed to improve life in the rural sector, raise incomes for small-scale farmers, increase agricultural productivity and domestic food supply and create conditions of economic freedom for peasant farmers and other small actors. They further inferred that a relative absence of state-led rural and agricultural development has been central to the lack of economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past half a century.

While the study focused on the enactment of domestic policies to boost national agricultural production and food security, the insights it reveals about the mechanics of economic development also have some relevance for the current regional integration agenda in Sub-Saharan Africa, as epitomised by the Tripartite COMESA-EAC-SADC Free Trade Agreement and the African Union’s proposed Continental Free Trade Agreement. After all, the ultimate goal of any regional integration process in Sub-Saharan Africa should be the region’s economic development and an improvement in the quality of life of the region’s inhabitants.

As was the case in South-East Asia half a century ago, many economies in Sub-Saharan Africa are currently highly reliant on agricultural production, and a significant proportion of the region’s population is either directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture as a source of livelihood. Furthermore, in Sub-Saharan Africa, rural areas are often characterised by extreme poverty and economic exclusion. The experience of countries in South-East Asia, suggests that policies and measures which serve to alleviate this rural poverty and to bring small-scale African farmers more fully into the formal economy could play an important role in promoting economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Measures to boost agricultural productivity and output would secure greater incomes for poor farmers in the region and go some way toward alleviating rural poverty. Given the proportion of the region’s population involved in small-scale agriculture, this would also serve to boost the national income of many countries in the region. In addition, increased national agricultural output could aid in stabilising food prices, thereby curbing price volatility and inflation. Addressing rural poverty would also create a larger market for national industrial production, especially for such goods as pesticides, fertilizers and cement.

While for the most part, the policies and measures which can be used to promote agricultural production and eradicate rural poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa are likely to be domestic policies, there are a number of factors that can be addressed in the context of regional integration and regional cooperation. For example, it is widely recognised that governments have a role to play in providing agricultural extension services to their country’s farmers, due to the public good nature of such activities. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it may make sense for resource-strapped governments to pool their activities in this regard and to establish regional bodies for providing such services. Similarly cooperation on the development of rural roads and other infrastructure can serve to assist poor farmers to participate more fully in the regional economy.

Possibly the most important aspect of the regional integration agenda for promoting small-scale agriculture and alleviating rural poverty, however, is ensuring that producers are not impeded from selling their produce in neighbouring markets. In the region it is common for small-scale farmers to face numerous barriers when attempting to sell goods in the territory of neighbouring states. This not only results in lower earnings for the individual producer, but at the aggregate level results in a situation whereby food surplus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can’t always trade their surplus with food-deficit ones, resulting in the region not being able to feed itself.

Sometimes the barriers to such trade arise from issues such as corruption, but in many cases they arise from domestic policies – such as export bans in times of scarcity – which aim to enhance food security in a particular country, but which have perverse effects on food security at a regional level due to the distortions they create. This suggests that there may be a role for regional processes to ensure the coordination of domestic agricultural policies (including those relating to the trade of foods and other agricultural goods) so that national policies and measures aimed at supporting domestic production and promoting national food security, do not end up inadvertently threatening regional production and food security. Clearly, at the very least, the facilitation of regional trade in agricultural products should be an important focus of the regional integration agenda in Sub-Saharan Africa, as a vibrant regional agricultural sector could ultimately spark sustained economic development in the region.



Henley, D. 2012. “The Agrarian Roots of Industrial Growth: Rural Development in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa,” in Development Policy Review, Vol. 30(S1). Available online at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2012.00564.x/abstract

Van Donge, J.K., Henley, D. & Lewis P. 2012. “Tracking Development in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa: The Primary of Policy,” in Development Policy Review, Vol. 30(S1). Available online at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2012.00563.x/abstract


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