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Глобальный форум по продовольственной безопасности и питанию
• Форум FSN

Re: Urbanization, Rural Transformation and Implications for Food Security - Online consultation on the background document to the CFS Forum

Peter Steele
Peter SteeleFAOItaly

Importance of building sustainable livelihoods in cities


My contribution focuses upon ‘infrastructure & services’; and generally promotes the role of the private sector in establishing the viability of urban communities. Herein is the importance of developing sustainable livelihoods that people in cities are able to live within the prevailing economic models. This links – broadly – with section #14 of the background paper – ‘infrastructure & services’. Priorities for ‘nutrition’ are down-graded.

First some background and a rhetorical question or two.

Narrow debate

With such a wide selection of subject choice – urban development in all its complexity – what is surprising with the current debate are the few contributions incoming; this is a great subject - the future for people worldwide in a few words. Perhaps those making up the food nutrition network may have been intimidated given the dominance of many other issues within the urban-rural dynamics – and particularly the secondary or tertiary nature of nutrition within the viability of the urban model, the provision of infrastructure and services, the invisibility of agriculture/food production to people in cities and, implicitly, the dominance of the supermarket as a provider of foods in most city neighbourhoods.

As a rule modern cities are unable to feed themselves from their own resources – people, land, etc. and depend upon an extensive catchment area away from the city in which to secure supplies of foods (and everything else) and then to transport, store and distribute it. Thus the importance of infrastructure & services to food security.

Sure, the fresh food markets remain available whilst there are large sectors of poor urban people but, eventually, neighbourhood trading centres in cities everywhere from Brisbane to Brussels are anchored by supermarkets. And, if that example is too OECD, then consider ‘Dar es Salaam to Delhi’. Not for nothing has the Shoprite supermarket raced up the African continent since majority rule in South Africa, or Westfield spread its model shopping malls from Australia to the world.

One other easy-to-make comment may be the limited number of people sharing the debate who are not nutritionists or pro-nutrition – the urban planners, engineers, city managers, economists and others. The reality of life for most people in cities is security of income – and this depends upon the education of those people and the ability of city managers to attract sufficient investment from the private sector – in employment creating ventures (including provision of urban services). In a word this means ‘livelihoods’. There is a sense in the debate that government is all powerful and that government will/should provide. This is rarely the case.

People are required to make good choices

The words that make up the title of this particular debate say it all – urbanization is the future for the majority people worldwide; with food production and most other issues of food security likely to be relegated to the rural (i.e. non-urban) environment wherein there will be smallholder and/or high value commercial production adjacent to cities (as there always has been) and, increasingly, distant production of the main staples most of which will be mechanized. Recognition of value chains and how to exploit them for profit is essential.

I appreciate that behind forecasts of this kind are a whole battery of assumptions that are easy to challenge. But you only have to look back to the recent past – to 1950, for example, when the world population was not want to be farmers (or, at least, they make every effort to discourage their children into farming).

Key issues behind the need for higher and more efficient production (all crops/livestock for food, industries & energy) are those concerned with access to sufficient land/soils in which to produce the materials required. This will mean guarding/allocating existing resources required for national and, for best, regional production. The countries of the East African Community are a case in point wherein high population growth in and adjacent to the main cities is as damaging to agricultural production as the desertification of the northern lands and the destructive lattice network of timber/charcoal production that is clearing the trees and eroding the quality of soils alongside roads adjacent to major cities across the region (and ‘adjacent’ in this context means >200 km radius – typical of commercial trucking/haulage distances).

Importance of livelihoods

Implicit to discussions of this kind are the practicalities of providing security of food and employment today and, long-term, the need to invest in education and livelihoods. Security of the community follows when the young in particular are provided with the resources that will enable them to develop their own families. But resources are requirement for all people – not just the young.

Take this example from Senegal. Some time back I was part of a mission responsible for evaluating a food for work programme in a handful of towns and cities across the country. The agency had distributed foods in exchange for the work available from mainly young people who were employed in different WASH activities. This was all labour-intensive – people working mainly with hand-tools and wheelbarrows. Activities included clearing informal (but tenacious) rubbish dumps in the city – on waste lands, creek banks, open areas and similar – constructing more latrines and stand-pipes and rehabilitating previously defunct grey water/sewage disposal systems. Infrastructure was my responsibility.

In one elegant ex-colonial neighbourhood of Dakar there were young men and women working in what had previously been enclosed channels below the road paving in the streets – but which were completed blocked from floor to roof - literally mining the hard-packed organic deposits to re-open the channels to water flow. This was hard and dirty work. It turned out that the majority workers in the subterranean tunnels were university students working out-of-term-time; a scheme designed mainly for unemployed city youth had attracted that most privileged of national resources – the highly educated young.

Such was the lack of informal employment available in the city at that time that university students were prepared to undertake this most menial and physically demanding work in exchange for some basic foodstuffs. Whatever their training/education, these students had done the best they could in a strictly limited market when searching for jobs. The cost to local society with under-used resources of this kind has remained with me for many years.

It also puts into context the inability of city management to undertake work of this kind within routine maintenance systems. How many years had this neighbourhood been without this waste water system? Why dependence upon the small-scale social investment of an international agency? Where was oversight and supervision of city waste systems?

Food at cost plus

It may be – as described in his thoughtful analysis of rural-urban migration with all the contradictions involved with migrants exchanging rural poverty for urban poverty – that Lala Manavado of the University of Oslo is correct in his ascertain that ‘agriculture’ requires greater prestige in society (and there may well have been others making similar comment), but his conclusion to provide free and/or subsidised foods cannot be supported. Neither national nor city governments have the resources to support systems that provide basic goods and services long-term; and those programmes that do begin – for all the best of reasons (but usually for political expediency and/or natural disaster) – are difficult to stop once started.

For example, check the performance of the Egyptian government with food and energy programmes introduced since 1970; reforms remains in the pipeline, but are traditionally held in check by violent street demonstrations. Meanwhile, subsidies for bread alone cost the economy an estimated US$3.5 billion annually. Egypt is caught in that all-too-common situation of limited FDI inflow that has followed from the turmoil of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010, and thus few choices with which to make a difference. Meanwhile, an estimated 750,000 new university graduates enter the job market each year.

Government clearly cannot provide; employment and livelihoods come from private investors exploiting market economies that offer stability and reliable returns.

Nutrition is personal

And, whilst sensible nutrition is good for people everywhere, this is not something that can easily be imposed – high quality recommendations (propaganda even) and access to suitable foods is essential but, ultimately, it is the people themselves that make choices – and particularly the people in cities who are not constrained by the traditions and/or isolation of rural communities. You only have to explore issues of eating for pleasure to realise that people are fickle where choice is available – eating what they like and in excessive quantities. Why should 63% of people in Australia – one of the world’s richest and best informed countries - be overweight and/or obese? And, if that sounds like a disaster in the happening, this thing about larger people also affects 73% women and 69% men in Egypt. Rich country – poor country, the models are much the same.

More food for thought then. 

Peter Steele
Agricultural Engineer
Melbourne Australia
09 April 2016