Jodi-Ann Hall, Contributor
THE CONCEPT of rural transformation has been a hot topic in Jamaica for the last 50 years.
As early as 1964, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in its publication Rural Development in Jamaica, identified rural transformation as a major issue for the country. The publication proceeded to identify the major issues hindering the development of rural Jamaica. These ranged from soil erosion to capital shortage and even encompassed the fact that these regions displayed a certain level of disconnect with local groups and Government.
One major issue which had tremendous ripple effects on the economy was that of the high birth rate. The publication suggested that the population and the labour force were growing at a rate which surpassed the rate at which the productive sector could absorb them. The high birth rate then resulted in high levels of unemployment and underemployment, low wages, and rapid rural-urban migration. Careful consideration will reveal the cyclical nature of the problem. These issues which have been labelled development retardants are also issues emerging because of the lack of rural development. I urge you to consider complete rural transformation as the solution to all the above-mentioned problems.
It is important, however, that we understand how rural Jamaica has been transformed thus far, specifically over the past 50 years. In 1960, only 26 per cent of the nation's population resided in the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA). This figure increased marginally to 30 per cent in 1970 and to 31 per cent in 2000. Conversely, the majority of the population continues to reside in rural areas. Fifty-seven per cent of the population resided in rural areas in 1989. While this figure declined to 52 per cent and to 49.6 per cent in 2000 and 2009, respectively, it is still clear that most of our households are situated in rural Jamaica. This only becomes cause for concern when we realise that in 1989, 74.6 per cent of our poorest lived in rural communities while only 4 per cent resided in the KMA. The situation worsens in 2000 when the Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions reports that 76.2 per cent of the nation's poor come from rural Jamaica. There is marginal improvement in 2009, with a figure of 70 per cent, but closer examination of the 20th century reveals that the proportion of the poor who reside in rural areas has been gradually decreasing, but not fast enough. This situation was compounded by the global economic crisis which affected the island between 2007 and 2008. A total of 4.3 per cent of rural citizens reported that the main breadwinner lost his or her job during this crisis. Another 2.5 per cent of the rural population was forced to close the doors of their businesses; 3.9 per cent stated that the financial contributor who lived abroad had also lost his or her job. The KMA reported lower figures in all these areas.
These statistics highlight the fact that, while there has been some level of improvement in the quality of life of our rural citizens, they remain vulnerable to exogenous shocks and in need of even greater assistance. In the 2009 Vision 2030 development plan, the Planning Institute of Jamaica acknowledged that there remained a strong correlation between rural poverty and a dependency on agriculture. Perhaps the key to Jamaica's rural transformation lies in agricultural reform. If rural transformation could be accomplished, we could stymie the rapid growth of urban centres and any associated problems.
In the past, agencies such as the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) made rural development a priority. RADA's mission includes making agriculture the catalyst of rural development via a myriad of avenues which include the continuous training of farmers, mobilisation of capital, and doing its part to promote the agro-industry trade. All these efforts have been geared towards improving the quality of life of rural farm families. These agencies have had some amount of success thus far. Aston Wood (2009) reported that, since the 1960s, agricultural yields have increased due to a change in farming practices and facilities. We have agencies such as RADA to thank for that. But why is it that these rural communities remain impoverished and unable to develop any further? I urge you to consider three words: vulnerability, sustainability, and dependency.
As stated before, there exists a relationship between rural poverty and agriculture, and the reason seems obvious. Rural communities, to a greater degree than other areas, tend to be negatively affected by shocks - hurricanes, drought - to the natural environment. These areas, which are dependent on agriculture as their means of transformation and sustainable development, will continue to take one step forward in periods of booming agricultural sales, and two steps back when they are forced to deal with the occurrence of these shocks. These communities remain vulnerable.
Pakistan also has a problem of rural poverty and underdevelopment. Jamaica could gain valuable insight from closely examining Pakistan's efforts at addressing these issues. In 1961, 77 per cent of Pakistan's population lived in rural communities. By 1978, there had been significant reduction to 68 per cent. But like Jamaica, that nation is characterised by a greater rural population. The country's first efforts at rural transformation are documented in their first five-year plan (1955-1960). The planning agency suggested that small industries corporations be established in rural communities. These agencies would provide not only technical assistance as is provided by RADA, but they would also give loans to rural businesses along with assistance with marketing their products. Of even greater interest is the fact that these agencies would also serve as "research institutes for the development of improved processes and designs for production".
If Jamaica were to adopt a decentralised approach such as this, there could be countless benefits. It really is impossible for the Ministry of Agriculture to perform all these functions for every rural community in Jamaica, but it could be quite feasible with smaller agencies. This would certainly assist in forging solid relationships among the rural communities and other local organisations and government agencies.
The Pakistani plan went one step further to suggest that the Government, in its truest neo-liberal role, establish "small industrial estates". These estates would simply be land provided by the Government for rural industries not being limited to agriculture. Roads, water, electricity, and other needed facilities would be set up and made accessible to budding rural entrepreneurs. The issue that quickly comes to mind is that of capital shortage.
That was, in fact, one of the development retardants listed by UNESCO for Jamaica in 1964, but the Pakistani administration foresaw this challenge and posited a solution. While Jamaica has been encouraging public-private partnerships, the Pakistani administration encouraged large-scale-small-scale relations.
I would like to suggest that Jamaica adopt a similar approach and even expand on it: create large-scale-small-scale partnerships. Many of the inputs from our manufactured products could be garnered from small industries within the island. Currently, these small industries are either unable to meet the required quota due to outdated production processes, or produce at a cost too high for large-scale producers to consider viable. If, however, larger firms would invest in these smaller firms, this could prove to be a profitable venture for all parties in the long run. Rural folk would see increased economic activity and larger firms would benefit from cheaper produce and lower transportation costs. Linkages such as these create increased food security for these communities and the nation at large, but primarily a more sustainable rural community.
A report done on the success of the Pakistani development plan suggests that these plans were not as successful as the planning agency would have hoped. Failure was attributed to the lack of a concerted effort to implement these plans by the government of the day. The report states that there was "little importance attached to them". Likewise, unless Jamaica makes rural transformation a priority, there will be little success in our efforts.
Once again, it is important to remember that these small-scale ventures need not be limited to agricultural products. In order to combat the problem of the lack of sustainability of the sector, the nation must begin to explore rural industrialisation more thoroughly. This may include our agro-processing industries - which could be funded by large-scale-small-scale partnerships or cooperatives - along with other industries whose raw materials are easily found in our rural communities. This diversification of produce would also help to increase the resilience of the rural communities while increasing their contribution to the country's GDP and reducing the levels of poverty which permeate our rural communities.
It is important that we remember that it is not simply "rural development" - trying to improve the quality of life of rural residents - but it is a complete trans-formation. This transformation would embody how these residents do business, the types of business, and the general attitude of policymakers towards the rural communities.
The next 50 years in our nation's development could be monumental for our rural communities if we, as a nation, make rural transformation a priority.
Jodi-Ann Hall is research assistant at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.