Friday, December 15, 2006

Rural engines of African economic development

Between the university and the village

By Mokubung Nkomo
Business Day
December 8, 2006

Show us a country that ignores the rural sector and we will show you a country with a high poverty quotient. Show us a country with a high poverty quotient and we will show you a country packed with implosive material. A century ago, amid the extreme contradictions that characterised Britain, Charles Dickens made the profound observation that “detestation of the high is an involuntary homage of the poor”. South Africa is a country of contradictions. Two decades ago few would have found it easy to declare its trajectory with certainty. Ten years ago, the country seemed to be balancing on a thin edge. Today, while pregnant with hope, filled with resilience, and still rich with robust debate, it is also mired in dangerous countervailing tendencies. The paradox of SA is that despite its ostensible achievements it remains divided in a number of crucial ways.

The gap between rich and poor remains huge, and available evidence suggests it is widening. Despite the end of apartheid, severe poverty and huge socioeconomic inequality remain, leaving the country a powder keg of social unrest.

Universities can be at the forefront of the epochal battle against poverty. A situational analysis conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at the universities of Fort Hare and the North (now Limpopo) argues that universities, especially rural-based universities, can and should play a vanguard role in poverty reduction.

Rural universities in SA are located in environments that are characterised by the anaemic conditions of the second economy. They are predominantly black, underdeveloped and surrounded by poverty and high unemployment. The two universities mentioned are strategically positioned to play a crucial role in releasing the rural sector from its traditional marginal status.

There now exists a permissive environment that makes previously inconceivable possibilities realisable: there is a democratic dispensation that, despite some ambiguities, allows for relative academic freedom, unfettered creativity and innovation; an enabling legislative and policy framework; technology that can break the spatial isolation; synergistic partnership networks; the vision to harness indigenous knowledge systems; and the creation of trust among stakeholders.

These are the requisite conditions for the conversion of the albatross-like, rural-based universities to catalytic agents for sustainable development. The National Plan on Higher Education and the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy are the instruments at the disposal of the rural-based universities that can launch them into the realm of the possible.

Despite the challenges they faced in the past, rural-based universities produced many among the current crop of leaders in politics, business, science and culture. The question is: if they were able to produce such leaders under adverse conditions, why can’t they do so today under favourable conditions? If they take advantage of the existing opportunities and there is commitment from government and development agencies, they can become the long sought-after hope for the millions in rural communities; and a ladder to leapfrog into the first economy.

There is a critical need to resuscitate the rural economies as potential engines of economic growth and development. A strategy to achieve growth and development must be founded on an understanding of how rural areas grow. Growth in agriculture, tourism, forestry, and other primary activities generates additional income. For example, agricultural growth generates demand for inputs and the retailing activities associated with delivery. Also, natural resources will always be an important factor in rural development, as these may be the only assets people possess. Via research and development initiatives with local industry, government, research institutes and community agencies, rural universities can add value to locally produced goods through beneficiation activities, and add value to the service sector. There is also a need for the development of initiatives designed to exploit existing government programmes that have the possibility of wide impact. The success of such initiatives will become possible if based on well-co-ordinated bottom-up approaches.

The situational analysis, accompanied by reflective essays, points to the need for a concerted effort to critically engage rural people’s day-to-day life experiences. Such an approach seeks to bridge the gap between the university and the village through the application of appropriate research and technologies.

Integration through effective partnerships should be the goal of sustainable rural development. The success of sustainable development depends on welding together a variety of players in the sector to generate the necessary synergy that can be sustained for the benefit of posterity.

Even though the institutions may still display symptoms of the debilitating past, there is strong evidence they can reinvent themselves within the context of a democratic dispensation, relevant legislative and policy frameworks, visionary leadership, and institutional culture change that includes unleashing indigenous knowledge systems encased in their communities.

Rural-based universities can become critical nodes for development, enlisting the various players within their environments. The land-grant universities and community colleges in the US, the Gandhigram Rural University in India, and the Northern Scotland University of Highland and Islands are but a few examples of the important role they can play in countries’ development.

Poverty, like HIV/AIDS, is a cruel pandemic that must not be given space to breath. A fundamental reconstruction of the soul as well as the transformation of the mind set is needed: that is, encouraging the development of attitudes, values and ethics that will serve as the fuel for sustainable development and averting social implosion.

Nkomo is a professor of education at the University of Pretoria and a co-editor of Within the Realm of Possibility: From disadvantage to development at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the North, published by the HSRC Press (2006).


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