Ten million young Africans enter the workforce each year, but only three million new job opportunities area created. This has African and European policy-makers quivering in their shiny shoes.

How might stakeholders in food systems respond to ‘a global imperative’ on future diets?
Could a stronger systems approach help?

What does being a champion for African agriculture mean? This is a key question for those of us heading to Africa’s premier annual forum for agriculture …

After a decade of hard work, the foundations are in place for substantive progress within African food systems. New tangible partnerships are emerging that combine focussed intent, long-term commitment and significant ambition. For anyone asking when African agriculture will deliver its long-touted potential, these partnerships offer the best hope for change at scale.

I live in Brighton, a wealthy, vibrant, liberal city; and yet I have dear friends who sometimes end the month without enough money to buy food. They have no assets to draw upon and, despite earning salaries around the national average, there seems little hope of this changing. Meanwhile, each year, I manage to get a little richer. I cannot easily explain or justify the scale of this divergence. We all work hard and purposefully. In the Monopoly game of life, in my 20s I was lucky enough to start accumulating capital whilst they never have. This arbitrary and seemingly inevitable inequality seems profoundly unfair and damaging.

In trying to understand why this disparity seems inevitable, I have concluded that rising inequality will emerge as a defining complex challenge of the 21st Century. Unless the global community acts intentionally to temper this long-term economic trend, then highly destructive social forces will emerge to do so. Wasafiri’s growing understanding of how to manage complex change offers important insights on how to turn the tide on extreme inequality.

Inequality is bad and rising

In developed economies, as much as poverty, it is strong inequality that drives social ills. In “The Spirit Level” Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson  present strong evidence that more unequal societies have worse health, crime and social cohesion. The stress and behaviours caused by people trying to keep up economically are bad for rich and poor alike. Less equal societies are also expensive for the public purse, as the state struggles to prop people up when housing and nutritious food are less affordable; crime is higher; and communities care for each other less. More equal societies, such as Denmark, are those in which citizens are happiest. Even environmental performance is worse in less equal countries, as consumption habits are driven by materialistic pressures to keep up; and people are less willing to support concessions in favour of long-term public goods.

Meanwhile, decade on decade, inequality is rising across the developed world. In his seminal text, “Capital in the 21st Century”, Thomas Picketty shows this empirically, and demonstrates that the simple mathematics of economic growth is inexorably shifting global wealth into the ownership of fewer and fewer people. In the USA, which is the most unequal developed economy, the top 10% earn close to half of total income. This compares to a third in the 1950s. Wealth inequality is even more eye-watering, with the bottom 50% owning almost no capital and the top 10% owning 75%. Whilst the USA is the most unequal major economy, all developed countries from Sweden to Australia are showing the same steady rise in inequality.

Most fundamentally, inequality is rising because the average rate of return from capital, which remains historically steady at about 5%, is greater than the rate of GDP growth achievable by developed economies over the long-term. Whilst incomes from labour are not keeping up with incomes from capital, those people who have capital will steadily accumulate more and more. This is exacerbated further by the very rich achieving higher rates of return than the merely wealthy; and inheritance ensures this wealth stays within the same families. Without significant compensatory measures in place, we have an economic system that is hard-wired to make an increasingly small elite richer, relative to the rest of the population.pay

This trend is also significant for developing economies. During their demographic and economic transition, the growth rates for population and GDP provide a countervailing trend so that inequality is more likely to reduce or remain steady; and reduction of extreme poverty will offer more significant social progress than a focus on reducing inequality. Nonetheless, the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included a goal to reduce inequality, citing evidence that income inequality increased by 11% in developing countries between 1990 and 2010 and that, beyond a certain threshold, inequality harms growth and poverty reduction, the quality of relations in the public and political spheres, and individuals’ sense of fulfilment and self-worth. All the development rhetoric, effort and investments regarding inclusive growth will only secure temporary gains, if, as economies mature, the inevitable historic outcome is extreme inequality.

If extreme inequality is both bad and inexorably rising, then we have a problem. One does not need to believe in the need for equality, to recognise that at some point extreme inequality becomes unjust and damaging.

In the USA and Western Europe, inequality last peaked in the early 20th Century, at which point it took the disruptive impact of two World Wars and the Great Depression to diminish the extreme capital accumulation and drive socially progressive reforms such as the welfare state, access to education, and labour rights. The rise of populist and divisive rhetoric from politicians like Donald Trump, Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage, has grim echoes from a century ago. Nonetheless their messages resonate with a mass of people who feel excluded from any economic recovery; hear of CEO bonuses and multinational tax bills with resentment; and feel threatened by the forces of globalisation. Arguably, a similar sense of exclusion is a contributing factor to the rise of violent extremism

Inequality is complex

Rising inequality presents a complex challenge on a scale matched only by climate change. It is an outcome of a highly-entrenched and interconnected set of dynamics within our economic system. The problems it creates are emergent and unpredictable. The whole system is the product of the daily norms and actions that underpin the economic life of billions of people. Power lies disproportionately with those actors who benefit from inequality the most; and many of us hold a worldview that justifies inequality as the rightful outcome of aspiration, hard work and talent.

What do we know about delivering change in complex systems that might help?

  1. Set a target:

The climate change response has benefitted enormously from the target of limiting temperature rises to 2%. Similarly, partners have collaborated to transform African agriculture because of an AU target to achieve 6% growth in the sector. A target becomes a rallying call to interested parties. It simply defines a compelling common ambition without people and institutions having to agree on the best way to respond. It starts the debate and holds everyone to account.

If each G8 country set a high-profile target cap for inequality, it would positively drive public discourse and inspire policy reform. Imagine that a UK Government committed that the top 20% should not earn more than ten times more than the bottom 20%. No future government would ever dare raise the target cap, and more likely they would feel compelled to lower it. At some point, as extreme inequality rose toward the target, political pressure would mount for the government to lead policy reforms that would have systemic consequence.

Tantalisingly, the SDGs have set a globally agreed target that by 2030 each country should “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”. There are two problems with this target though. Firstly, it is a weak target because it only addresses the bottom end of rising inequality, so it could be achieved whilst the top 1% continue to accumulate ever greater wealth. Secondly, whilst unlike their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are meant to apply globally and they are largely being ignored by developed countries. Government committees in the UK, USA, Germany and elsewhere have considered their role in achieving the SDGs; but seem to assume the goals are irrelevant domestically, or will be easily achieved through existing policy measures. Nonetheless, the SDG target could offer a starting point around which to create a movement for change and hold governments to account.

  1. Create an inclusive movement:

Extreme inequality is ultimately bad for everyone. Higher crime, poorer health and less cohesive communities impact all –  and cost more to manage. Arguably, the 2008 economic crisis was precipitated by vast accumulated capital seeking returns from lending to people who did not have the incomes needed to pay for their debt. At some level of inequality, the political and economic elite cannot sustain their position without risking calamity. Tackling extreme inequality will also require leadership from them. The historical alternative is revolution. If Marie Antoinette had understood this, then perhaps she could have kept her head.

Hence building an inclusive movement is vital. Participation and leadership from across the political, economic and social spectrum will be needed. Fairness Commissions offer an interesting model that could be replicated at national level. These cross-sector leadership bodies have been formed by progressive councils in the UK and USA to identify the drivers of inequality in their areas and identify interventions that can address the worst problems. They include leaders from across the private sector, public sector, voluntary bodies and religious groups. Together they bring enough different perspectives to understand their city’s economic and social dynamics, propose solutions and provide a mandate for action.

  1. Experiment:

From across the ideological spectrum, people champion very varied interventions to tackle rising inequality, for example investing in education to drive social mobility; a citizens’ income; land value tax; capping the ratio between top and bottom salaries within companies; and a global wealth tax. Sweden has comparatively low inequality because of higher taxation, whereas Japan has comparatively low inequality because of cultural norms on pay scales.

Work on complex change tells us that silver bullets are rare, and we must experiment and iterate to discover the interventions that work in any given time and place. Compelled by national targets to act, supported by a growing and inclusive movement advocating change, countries will need to learn what works and take interventions to scale at a pace that allows economic and social norms to adjust incrementally. The alternative is traumatic shocks such as economic depression, or even war, as inherent tensions build to the point where the economic system violently leaps from one state to a new more balanced one.

  1. Seize the moment:

The existing status quo in any system will resist change. However, there is always flux and every so often a window of opportunity opens up, during which change becomes more possible. British Eurosceptics have been shouting in the wind for decades, but the combination of Cameron’s promise of a referendum, the immigration crisis, and an empty economic recovery, all aligned for the nation to choose Brexit. Similarly, political windows of opportunity will fleetingly emerge, in which historic progress can be made to reverse the tide on rising inequality. If targets exist, if an inclusive movement has formed, and experimentation is underway, then we will be ready to seize those moments when they come.

 

Have hope. Be ready. My friends need not always worry about affording food in the days before pay day.

Ian Randall

September, 2016

https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level

Grow Africa releases its latest discussion paper, Fertilizer Subsidy Reform Revives Nigeria’s Agriculture, as part of its series of case studies in support of transformative change in African agriculture.

Grow Africa’s executive director, Arne Cartridge, comments: “Opinions about the role of fertilizer subsidies in agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa have fluctuated significantly over the past decades. Many experts believe that fertilizer subsidies represent an essential method for achieving long-term food security in the region, while providing social support to Africa’s poorest subsistence farmers…. We hope this discussion paper can stimulate discussion and the development of new solutions across the continent, and that Grow Africa can continue to a learning environment where best practices can support speed and scale in execution.”

Wasafiri’s own Karen Tibbo, an expert consultant in agriculture, food security and nutrition, researched and developed the technical report for the paper. She consulted with the wide range of stakeholders responsible for the reform programme, including the then Minister of Agriculture, Akin Adesina.

Karen explains: “He [Adesina] was clear that the main driver for reform was to hold government accountable for their use of public funds. He put a system in place to ensure the poor, who are supposed to benefit from these funds, actually received them. One of the most striking achievements was to replace the old, ineffective system of government distribution of fertilizer and, in its place, incentivise the private sector to build an agro-dealer network. This has increased access by farmers to high quality inputs more broadly, leading to higher national productivity.”

Ian Randall, Wasafiri’s practice lead for agriculture adds: “The previous fertilizer subsidies were structured in a way that perpetuated corruption and had minimal impact on inclusive agricultural growth. Akin Adesina and his team were able to embrace technology so as to dramatically reconfigure the system. It practically demonstrates how innovation and committed leadership can drive positive change in complex systems – even where entrenched, vested interests need to be overcome.”

The paper covers the agricultural transformation agenda; the reform of the national input sector; the growth enhancement support programme; targeting subsidies through farmer registration; progress around fertilizer delivery to farmers; and the broader impact of the Growth Enhancement Support (GES) programme. In addition, the study looks at pertinent lessens learned, such as:

  • A national fertilizer subsidy programme can substantially increase crop yields and improve food security for smallholder farmers.
  • It is possible to break the cycle of wide-scale corruption and inefficiency in national fertilizer subsidy programmes.
  • Entrenched systems that paralyse productivity cannot be dismantled without high-level commitment and political goodwill.
  • Investment confidence grows in an operating environment conducive to business and free of government interference.
  • A demonstrable reduction in risk and transaction costs yields dramatic changes to commercial lending to agriculture.
  • The delivery system is key to the effective implementation of the GES and enables government to account for the expenditure of public funds on inputs for farmers.
  • Transparency and accountability are underpinned with cutting-edge technology.
  • The ability to have a flexible and adaptive response to challenges in programme design makes for early and rapid success.

Download the full report, fertilizer-subsidy-reform-web, to learn more about the facts, figures and how these valuable lessons were learned.

 

Complex, interconnected challenges demand new forms of collaboration and innovation between diverse partners. And yet, the many meetings and conferences that are supposed to create this collaboration continue to be managed in didactic formats, with a few dominant voices holding court whilst everyone else though present in body, is absent in mind,  awaiting the short coffee break to have the conversations that they really need to have. New ways of working need to turn this on its head. We need to create spaces that accelerate the number of connections and conversations, and get people energised, aligned and committed to action.

In October I participated in the World Economic Forum’s “Transformation Leaders Workshop” for leaders working on the challenge of boosting agricultural production around the world. This event was bold and innovative about creating the context for transformational leadership. The video below captures the spirit of these highly productive few days. Key ingredients included:

  • Inviting diverse people, united by a common overall challenge and a spirit of entrepreneurial hunger to make change happen.
  • Never, ever, having a keynote speech, formal presentation, or even a stage.
  • Creating as many conversations as possible, but each with a level of clarity and focus about the topic, and with participants free to chose which conversations to participate in.
  • Fostering community by making the event fun, playful even, with dancing and creative construction activities.
  • Focussing minds on what actions they will undertake upon leaving.

Refreshments were always available, and we never took any scheduled breaks, because essentially the event was the ultimate coffee break – two days packed full of people and conversations that were inspiring and pioneering.

How do you create a culture of innovation, be it in a business, an institution or a country? This was one of the big questions that came up at our recent Change Lab in Kigali – and something I have been pondering on. So here is a short ‘Food for Thought Playlist’ of interesting ideas and unusual people innovating in unconventional spaces.

We would love to hear your thoughts and any ‘food for thought’ examples you have.

Arunachalam Muruganantham – Saw a problem, imagined a solution, built a machine, failed (a lot), ignored some feedback, listened to other feedback, engineered a business model,  ignored old ideas that didn’t work and has created a significant change in the health, education and economic prospects  of rural women in India with health , education and economic impacts. Here is a link to the article:

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26260978

Charles Leadbeater- Suggests that ‘the question we ask will shape the answer we get.’ He looks to Kenya, India and Brazil and into some unconventional places for some innovative ideas in how to deliver education, not just in the developing worlds – but everywhere. So our top tip when searching for innovation is to look not to what’s working ‘now’ but to where change is happening ‘now’. Here is the link to his presentation:

Myriam Sidibe – hasn’t invented anything new, but she argues for a new way to use an old solution to solve a big, global problem – but to do this takes innovative thinking and innovative relationships. Take a look at her amazing presentation here:

Steve Chapman – If innovation is a lovely big cake then it needs some ingredients – here Steve adds in the creativity and imagination which on their own aren’t a great meal but altogether make rocket fuel. Read his blog post here:

http://canscorpionssmoke.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/cpr-for-the-imagination/

And finally – this is an old short favorite of mine. Innovation and a culture of innovation is not just about having ideas, it’s about people adopting and getting excited by one another’s ideas – so how do you create a culture where people will adopt, try and follow each others ideas? Take 4 minutes to look at this priceless way to start a movement.