Thursday, December 31, 2009

Poverty in the Country versus Poverty in the City

In America, there exists a class of the relatively well-to-do who make a point of quitting their stressful jobs in the city and retiring to quaint villages in the Berkshires or Vermont, locales rural enough that they can afford acres of forests and fields accessible only by dirt road, where they can renovate an old farmhouse into an interior-decorated mansion and live the life of a gentleman farmer – but close enough to civilization that they can still get the Times delivered to their doorstep. Out in the country where the cost of living is cheap, a successful professional with a decent-sized nest egg can escape from the consumerist alienation and impersonality of metropolitan life, and instead bask in the freedom to chop wood in the morning, fish in the afternoon, read poetry and criticize after dinner. Such country gentlemen have no real need to till the land– for the rest of their lives they can eat off of the interest from their savings accounts and the dividends from their mutual funds – though it is nevertheless obligatory that they wear flannel and work boots, bide their time farming and hunting so as to justify their bucolic residence, to demonstrate to the locals that despite their former careers as urban professionals they are in fact country boys at heart.

When I think of the “rural splendor” that I know so well – the land of bed & breakfasts, ski chalets and gourmet country stores, the kind which my parents aspire to retire to – sometimes I can’t help but laugh a little. Without the influx of money from Wall Street and all of the sub-industries patronized by the titans of finance (e.g. psychiatry, real estate), those ski lifts could not operate and those cute little bed & breakfasts would go out of business. The “country” which I knew was really no such thing; it was really an extension of the New York suburbs.

I think of this façade of the American country lifestyle when I bike far down the road out of Sanadougou. The roads out of this village will forever remain unpaved, glorified cow paths - not because any retired doctors or lawyers want to preserve the aura of a Norman Rockwell painting, but because at no point in the foreseeable future will the subsistence farmers of the local Minianka tribe ever generate enough tax revenue to justify the construction of a real road. But in truth this Minianka village doesn’t really need a paved road; they don’t have to commute to work, they travel to distant markets more for pleasure than for necessity, they can produce all of the commodities they truly need to live from the fields immediately adjacent to the village.

A term which repeatedly comes to mind is autarky: a term usually applied to the economics of states policies, autarky means the quality of being perfectly self-sufficient. Autarky entails one must grow all of one’s food in order to live, it means zero participation in external trade. It is the absolute individualist extreme of the local food movement. Even the most radical of American brown bread-eaters find this ideal easier to profess than to actually live by; when he spent his year “in solitude” sowing the bean fields along Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau relied heavily on purchased dry goods, he regularly supped at the Emersons’ dinner table and his mother even did most of his laundry. If Thoreau had indeed spent all of his days practicing perfect autarky, he would been so occupied with the constant drudgery of manual agriculture that he would have never had the time to study his tomes of Greek philosophy and Latin poetry, to travel to Concord every other day to catch up with current events, to meander through the woods and contemplate Nature and the Higher Law. Even the first proponent of the “back to the land” movement farmed not because he really had to, but as a pastime to round his hours from a life of contemplation.

The concept of the “back to the land” movement is absolutely untranslatable in an anomalous nation where 68 percent of the population lives in the country and – even more – 80 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture due to seasonal migration from the cities. This is a society which has been living off of this land for untold generations, and it most likely will be until the end of time. These fields which the villagers of Sanadougou hold in common and manure and plow and plant and weed and harvest are truly all they have. The vast majority of their land is dedicated to the production of millet – the basic cereal crop which constitutes about 90 percent of their total caloric intake. A significantly smaller portion of the fields are planted with corn and rice, which require so much water that they can only be successfully grown in the rare floodplains. Land too barren for cereal cultivation is planted with peanuts and beans to add a smattering of protein to the Minianka diet and rejuvenate the poor soils with nitrogen. Less than 1 percent of the cultivated fields are fenced in to act as vegetable gardens, and all of the remaining land is left for grass and weeds to grow wild for the grazing of cattle, sheep and goats. The Miniankas’ land – worked by their own calloused hands with only the simplest of hand tools – is the source of all of their food and the better part of their very modest wealth.

This is not so much the case in Sanadougou – which is really a rural town of roughly 4,400 persons, but if I bike only a few kilometers outside of the town limits I pass by a few solitary huts. These are occupied by men who found their family concessions to be so crowded that they decided to leave the village altogether, build a hut kilometers away from any human improvement. Like Jacob in Canaan, the Minianka tribesman who digs a new well to slake a new family outside of his father’s village is founding society anew. From the perspective of a subsistence farmer, this decision makes economic sense; land is allotted by the dugutigi according to use and geographical proximity, and to escape the orbit of the village and stake out virgin fields means that they can cultivate many more hectares and increase their yields with little to no competition. Though to live so far outside the village means that the enterprising settler can only go to market on rare occasions, he cannot possibly live off the profits of commerce, his family must be essentially self-sufficient and farming enough millet, maybe a little corn and peanuts to feed themselves unaided.

Unlike the Vermont country gentleman who might grow a few tomato and basil plants on his windowsill, what the Sanadougou subsistence farmer produces in his fields in November and December is literally his food for the year. Depending on the size of his family and the success of his yields, that millet should be able to allow his wife(s) and average 7 children each a bowl of porridge in the morning, a batch of goopy toh with leaf sauce at lunch, and whatever toh is left over to be reheated for dinner. In a good year, the Malian farmer should be able to harvest enough millet for his family to eat on 365 days. But even in a good year, the granary’s stores will be mostly depleted during the months leading up to the next year’s harvest; during this time which is known as “hungry season”, your typical Malian farmer’s family will reduce their consumption to one meal a day, they will even cut down on how much they themselves eat at that solitary meal as the granary depletes to almost nothing. And this is in a good year – in the year after a drought, “hungry season” begins months earlier and its privations become ever more severe.

The traditional Minianka economy contains some modest diversification which stabilizes the ravages of drought. Everybody raises cows, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea hens or some other animals which of course they can slaughter and eat themselves; though a side of mutton can only go around for a few days, hence it is far more economical to sell that sheep in market and use the proceeds to buy a few more weeks worth of millet. They farm market gardens and a few cash crops too, but in a year when the population is suffering from scarcity of millet – which is relatively drought-resistant, that year’s harvest of cash crops will be even more underwhelming. In a year of drought, a rural community like Sanadougou becomes desperate for outside sources of money in order to fill the family food bowl; trades become significantly more important, the young men of the village will be sent far and wide in search for work in order to send remittances back home. The problem is that in a year when a single province, the entire country or even all of Africa is hit by drought, the young men of every other village have the same idea – and after the harvest season there really aren’t any jobs to begin with.

The Commune of Sanadougou is inhabited by about 16,000 persons; 4,400 in the town of Sanadougou proper, the rest in a few dozen smaller villages like Wintigili and Kashienso which comprise of only 400 to 1,000 persons, and about a hundred isolated families as described above who decided to live alone in absolute autarky. The degree of each family’s respective self-sufficiency tends to be inversely related to the size of their village; in smaller villages of only a few hundred people, no family can provide their daily food needs through any occupation other than subsistence agriculture. Over time, enterprising individuals tend to find some sort of niche to fill in the local economy; one man who is particularly competent in the art of bicycle repair will develop such a reputation for his skills that he becomes the village’s go-to man for broken chains and punctured tires. Another man who buys a lot of cigarettes in the city might do the math and – instead of buying individual cigarettes for his own consumption – decides to buy whole packs of cigarettes and resell the individual cigarettes to his neighbors. In even the most basic societies it is only natural for individuals to differentiate their labor in some fashion which maximizes their own income and the efficiency of society as a whole. However, since so very few trades are lucrative enough to obviate farming for personal food consumption, any job specialization and commerce in goods or services is decidedly secondary to subsistence agriculture.

In this Commune of 16,000 persons about 12,000 are children, and even though children begin to provide vital labors in the house and in the fields at a young age, according to Western definitions of market economics they will be discounted from the labor force. So from a labor force of about 4,000 adults in this entire Commune, most have some sort of skill in addition to mere agriculture. Some men are handy enough with a sewing machine that they are known as tailors, a few men have practiced their woodworking skills to the extent that they are known as carpenters, and there is even one man in Sanadougou who has figured out how to build a small electric circuit attached to a light bulb and carve a small wooden casing that he is known as the torosidlala: “the flashlight builder”. But none of these men could live off of their trades alone. Even the Mayor, the directors of the schools and all of the teachers – all who enjoy generous government salaries – still farm millet, corn, rice and peanuts during the rainy season in order to feed their families.

As overwhelming as the poverty of Mali’s villages might be, it cannot compare to the concentrated desperation of Mali’s cities. In rural villages and towns like Sanadougou, people are poor because the bulk of their economic activity consists of farming their own food and they only barely participate in the market economy. Though there are no fields to farm in a densely populated city, so urban dwellers have to pay for all of their food – they have to participate in the market economy in order to live. Participating in the market economy is remarkably difficult in a country whose overall economy is all but defined by subsistence agriculture.

The rapid population growth of Mali’s cities is truly a bizarre phenomenon. In the demographic history of the world, urbanification of entire societies usually coincides with either the expansion of commerce or the rise of concentrated production, factories and industrialization. Yet in Mali there are only a handful of factories; there is the Comatex textile mill in Ségou, the CMDT mill in Koutiala, there is a fruit juice bottling plant in Bamako, etc. Even using a liberal definition of the term “factory”, there are less than two dozen factories in this entire country of 13 million people. What little industrialization that does exist here is very, very basic - the kind of extremely low-tech factories which are little more than a concentration of the cottage industries, the primordial species of industrialization which could have existed in England in the 1800s.

The establishment of these factories has been a great achievement in Mali’s dialectic of economic development, introducing this market to the world stage in a way beyond the extraction of raw materials. There are now multiple thousands of Malians who can truly be described as “industrial workers” – who get paid wages not just in the agricultural off-season, but as a full-time vocation – a revolution in personal finance. Though in macroeconomic terms, the population of industrial workers hardly registers – they are even dwarfed by the 5 to 10 percent of Malians who make their living as nomadic herders and traders.

The existence of a few thousand industrial jobs cannot justify the size of Mali’s obscenely overpopulated cities. The one-mill city of Koutiala has a population of 75,000, the economy of Ségou which is powered by another mill and a budding tourism industry has 90,000, the cotton capitol Sikasso is home to 114,000, the capitol of Bamako can boast over 1 million inhabitants.

Despite the recent nascence of a few full-fledged factories, Mali is not an industrial economy. In a country where 80 percent of the work force is involved in agriculture, it makes sense that the vast majority of all commerce consists of trade in raw agricultural goods. Just as the majority of rural monetary income comes from farmers coming into the cities to sell their cereals, fruits, vegetables and livestock, about half of the urban economy consists of women who buy that produce and resell it to urban consumers. There is very little value-added in the urban economy; most foodstuffs are sold in urban markets exactly as they were picked, the level of urban value-added consists on the level of a woman who buys rural firewood for 200 francs, shea oil for 500 francs and sweet potatoes for 1,000 francs, she lights a fire, chops the sweet potatoes and over the course of a day sells a batch of sweet potato fries for 2,000 francs of revenue and 300 francs profit. As simple as it is, such a modest means of production is advanced in comparison to the bulk of urban trade.

With only modest industrialization and hardly any value-added, Malian cities are essentially communities of middlemen who buy rural produce and sell it to the government officials and industrial workers, who buy imported cell phones, cassette players, knock-off watches, counterfeit medicine and Goodwill clothing to sell to the country farmers, and of course they make most of their money selling their bootleg merchandise to each other. Even the merchant class suffers from a devastating lack of diversification; every butigi sells exactly the same brands of tea, cigarettes, chicken boullion and canned sardines; every street vendor walking around with trays of the same knock-off watches buys their merchandise from the same central wholesaler. The only way for merchants to profit in this bazaar economy is to drive a hard bargain, the only way for the mercantile class to get rich is to exploit the monopsonistic market and pay the illiterate, innumerate country farmers pennies for their cotton, and then dupe those same ignorant customers to pay the wholesale price for imported luxuries many times over.

What industrial jobs the urban economy could rationally justify have already been taken with waiting lists hundreds of names long, those few successful commercial niches have been emulated and replicated dozens of times more than their merchandise could ever demand, and yet the urban population continues to swell. Part of urban population growth is organic – industrial workers and merchants reproduce too, but the population growth owed to the fertility rate is overshadowed by young men from country villages who are enticed by the allure of the good life promised in hip hop music videos, disillusioned by the prospects of a future in millet cultivation, and flee to the cities to “find money” and make it big in the modern commercial economy. There are no job openings awaiting them, so the young rural exodus tends to make their own employment; the most common schtick is to buy a sheet of 12 phone cards for 11,800 francs and sit on the street waving their cards in passerbys’ faces to hawk them for 1,000 each; others buy 100 francs of tea, 75 francs of sugar and 50 francs of charcoal, and they cook up a pot by the bus station to sell 12 individual shot-glasses of tea for 50 francs each. If they can make friends with the right people, a strong young man can rent a handcart so that he can ferry heavy merchandise from the trucks to the shops and vice versa – the pooshpooshtigi is a perfect personification of the bazaar economy, for he contributes no value to any products, he profits by simply moving goods from one place to another.

The unemployment rate in this country stands at 30 percent, but since every self-employed country farmer is unclassifiable for the purpose of market economy labor statistics that means that the unemployment rate only defines the urban economy, that means that 1 in 3 Malian urbanites has no job to justify their residence in the city. When you look at what counts as “employment” – any sort of income generating activity at all – the official unemployment figures are truly astounding. A lady who sets up a little street stand selling fried dough balls counts as “employed”; the youth who go around with their portable shoe-shine stations are “employed”; the men who buy sheets of 12 phone cards for 11,800 francs and resell them for 1,000 francs each count are also “employed”. An official 30 percent unemployment rate translates into an urban population of roughly 600,000 adults who cannot even buy a six-pack of Kleenex to resell, a lumpenproletariat class of 600,000 men and women who serve no purpose in a capitalist economy but to leech off of economically-productive family members, take advantage of religious charities, and ultimately drive down wages for those who are productive members of the work force.

When in a Malian city, it’s not very difficult to spot these economically extraneous members of the lumpenproletariat; they are the hoards of men congregate around the television to watch soccer matches all Monday morning and afternoon, they are the dozens of men who sit around at the hardware store which only employs one or two, who spend all day sitting around sipping tea, making small talk and adjusting their iPhone ring tones. And of course, the reserve armies of the unemployed also consist of the blind, disabled, schizophrenic and just plain lazy who sit on the street all day imploring pedestrians "to be pious Muslims".

The expansion of the urban population and its bazaar economy does count toward economic growth, for the more people who break away from subsistence agriculture means more people who have to purchase food, who have to sell something in order to live. Economic activity goes up. More people earning and spending pecuniary wealth means a greater total value of final goods and services purchased in a market economy: a higher GDP – the statistic which all but defines economic development to most businessmen and government officials. According to the methodology used by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and USAID, the exodus of the Malian country’s youth to its overcrowded cities is considered progress towards a modern market economy.

However, the increase in the monetary incomes of young Malian men does not necessarily translate into a higher standard of living. A wise urban-dweller could save his money to buy shoes, mosquito nets and medicine for all of his children, he could invest in a new well, fencing, seeds and farm tools so that his family in the village could plant a market garden – or he could blow it all on an iPhone. Judging by the facts that every young man who sojourns to the city to find work returns to Sanadougou with a brand new cell phone, and that their families are suffering from illiteracy, malnutrition, giardia and malaria at the same rates as those families whose men stay in village, it would be difficult to say that this economy receives any real benefit from the demographic exodus to the cities. But no one needs to worry about grinding poverty so long as they can distract themselves with the opiate of Akon music videos…

What is worse, the growth of Mali’s urban population to the detriment of rural development renders the entire economy more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism. A man who works in the fields and grows what he eats might not earn a lot of money, but at least he will have millet in his granary; even the poorest of farmers with not a franc to their name can at least work enough to eat. There is no such guarantee in the city – an urban-dweller has to have money to buy food, and in an economy with 30 percent employment there is a great paucity of opportunity for monetary income. The lumpenproletariat is faced with the choice of resorting to theft to eat or starving to death – or moving back to the country.

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