In the context of development assistance, NGOs willingly lend their support to the “informal” sector. Analysing the micro-activities of the agro-food transformation in Ouagadougou, Roberta Rubino, Foundation research grantee, questions the strategy which aims to help traditional micro-activities at the expense of semi-industrial businesses. In her opinion, the choice of the survival economy is also the choice of the status quo. A status quo which maintains the state’s incapacity to act, which fixes society in a fantasised tradition and swallows up the hopes of young people, driven to resignation or exile. Roberta Rubino answers our questions.

Why did you choose the sector of agro-food transformation for your study?

Roberta Rubino – When you walk through a market in Ouagadougou, you can see a number of transformations on the packaging. Agro-food transformation is, in part, carried out in a family context, by small artisanal production units in people’s homes which just cover the basic needs of the families. This is the kind of survival activity which NGOs have decided to structure, support and encourage. This support is given at the expense of what I call real businesses: structures which create capital, general surplus value, hire employees in a purpose-built locale, and acquire the capacity to innovate. The sector of agro-food transformation therefore enabled me to analyse the impact of NGO action on the development of the economy, using concrete examples.


Your study casts a critical light on NGO actions, which you suggest contribute to trapping local actors of agro-food transformation in a survival economy. Can you explain this judgement?

RR – I especially deplore the lack of support for the development of real businesses. Without help, they cannot emerge. Even worse, they are penalised by competition from the informal sector and the “survival economy”, the costs of which are lower, and which has the benefit of aid. One of the most serious consequences of this “survival economy” is the fragmentation and atomisation of the market. The second consequence, which is no less important, is the complete disconnect between the price of products and their production costs. This leaves little room for the development of autonomous, semi-industrial businesses. Some therefore prefer to sign up to the NGO’s aid programmes.


Hence, by favouring the survival economy, the action of NGOs is hindering the development of businesses and perpetuating traditional social organisation. Today, agro-food transformation is a sector almost exclusively reserved for women, as a continuation of a tradition which sees men as producers or farmers.


And yet, many NGOs emphasise the work of women, and their “empowerment”, to make society evolve, and help children to go to school. Does aid for the informal sector not fit into this logic?

RR – That’s just rhetoric. There is no progress in actual rights. In fact, the exclusion of women from all forms of property and inheritance remains the real obstacle to female “empowerment”. Support for the survival economy only serves to reinforce the traditional system, since we cannot separate the economy from the rest of a social group’s socio-political relations. Would women gain in mobility? Mobility has always been a characteristic of the status of women. They are the ones who leave the village to get married. Does women’s work encourage school attendance? That’s far from clear. The type of traditional “savoir-faire”, the basis of survival activities, reinforces descending power, since it is transmitted by the elders. Conversely, school is a place where knowledge is projected towards the future, potentially capable of making things evolve, improving techniques, innovating. In fact, they are two opposing educational systems.  


The younger women that I met said that they went back to transformation, under the guidance of their aged mother-managers, following failures in their professional lives and in spite of a secondary education. It is a flaw in modernity rather than a desire for tradition which leads people to the survival economy. If you do not make space for the educated youth, if you do not build an environment which is able to give meaning to studying, you have done nothing…


In the context of the abolition of the historical partitioning between humanitarian aid and development and to better understand the role of actors in this phase of humanitarian transition, what alternative solutions do you propose?

RR – Aid modalities need to be diversified by not systematically favoring the traditional economy. We can not just support the informal sector and call it “development”. It would rather be a question of helping young people who come out of school, of supporting innovative project leaders, of supporting small businesses. I think the private sector has an important role to play in development. We can not continue to look at Africa with this community filter, built, moreover, on the basis of a very poor knowledge of the modes of operation of traditional societies.


More generally, NGOs must understand that the economy is not detached from the rest of society. We cannot support the traditional economy and aim to get children to go to school: it’s contradictory. Banking on the survival economy is also banking on an activity which pays no taxes. It’s institutionalising the informal sector, and therefore organising the powerlessness of the state. Finally, maintaining traditional social organisation amounts to fixing a system which generates a feeling of imprisonment and blocked destiny amongst young people. The direct consequence is emigration.


Are you not worried about being accused of promoting the Westernisation of Africa, at the expense of traditional values?

RR – The respect for tradition and the fear of uniformisation have become an obsession amongst NGOs, even though theories of “Westernisation” have been completely invalidated by field studies. They think that supporting the traditional economy automatically implies the reinforcement of mutual aid networks, and encourages the sharing of resources. Hence, the idea that is defended is that “community” Africa will not submit to the harmful capitalism which we have fallen into. But this vision is made up of prejudices, serious misunderstandings of traditional African societies, and ideological fantasy. We must break with the duality between a respectable traditional economy and a corrupt Western model. Culture is not a fixed heritage, it is created by men. Each time, men create their personal interpretation. There is no doubt that Africa will come up with its own way of moving forward in the context of modernity. And it will resemble nothing else. But the choice to fix the economy and culture in tradition leads us to an impasse.


©IRD – E. Tetaert – P. Houssin