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Socio-economic assessment of agricultural development projects in the Sudan

Heinz-Ulrich Thimm
Justus-Liebig University, Giessen, Federal Republic of Germany

A number of projects in arid and semi-arid regions of the Democratic Republic of Sudan have been plagued by serious problems. These are partly due to natural factors which people cannot change easily, but other factors are in part socio-economic, relating to the interaction of man with his environment. Some of them may need long periods of time to overcome; others can be controlled if project performance can be lifted to acceptable standards. Major findings from an evaluation study of eight agricultural development projects outside the Gezira Scheme during 1978 can be summarized as follows:

Mechanized rain-fed farming projects suffer mainly from irregular yields and vast difficulties of input supply and output marketing. Project structure and administrative procedures are not flexible enough to react to changing climatic and economic conditions. They carry a large risk of failure for the individual farmer. These projects consume a large share of imported capital goods (machinery, fuel, etc.) Of all the farming activities they represent the most serious threat to the environment in the Sudan, and desert encroachment is a real danger in some of these areas.

Irrigation projects have in general fulfilled the objective of tapping regional potential of land and water resources. The investment of large sums of capital has been justified mainly by the capacity to earn foreign exchange through exporting crops, and to settle and employ large numbers of people. The organizational solutions and the quality of the staff have not always matched the magnitude of the projected task. Problems of crop rotation, optimal water distribution, weed infestation, labour shortage, etc. could not be solved. Local participation has remained a problem.

Grazing schemes on postural lands received mixed interest among the local population. Whenever major land ownership disputes or tax-collecting problems were involved, projects broke down after an initial period of trial and error. Overgrazing as a consequence of the unchanged principle of common ownership of land and individual possession of livestock remained a problem. Substantial settlement of nomads did not materialize. Improved livestock marketing facilities are still needed.

Research requirements are apparent from the common problem areas of arid land projects. They include particularly the analysis of the determining factors for permanent cropping or grazing; for optimum land-use systems under given natural, economic, and human restrictions; for social acceptance; and for economic viability of projects in arid lands. Strengthened local research institutions, supported by international co-operation, can be major information sources.

Permanence of Cultivation

All mechanized rain-fed agricultural projects leave many doubts about whether permanence of cultivation has been secured. Permanence is defined as participants having a 25-year or longer perspective towards their use of land. Doubts are expressed in three ways:
(a) Does the environment allow continuous cropping?
(b) Does the administrative performance guarantee the final success of the projects?
(c) Are the local people motivated to continue the efforts started?

Most data analyzed show high rates of fluctuations of yields for a number of reasons. The major reason has certainly been the irregularity of rainfall and this points to the fact that the economic risk of such projects will always be high, so only people who are able to sustain this risk should be encouraged to continue. Besides rainfall, the tendency of most projects to show decreasing yields after initial high returns to their investments points to the adverse impact mechanized farming may have on the environment. Depletion of soil has apparently begun immediately after the first crop has been harvested. In some instances, the problem may be reduced by the introduction of more rigorous crop rotation, the application of fertilizer, the observation of more soilconserving techniques, etc., but in other instances the cultivation of the project area may have to be confined to certain years only, whenever favourable climatic conditions allow cultivation without an irreversible threat to the environment. But in general the question of the permanence of cultivation cannot be answered without more research based upon reliable longterm rainfall data and soil fertility studies.

The soils of all irrigated projects will have a better chance of being cultivated permanently as long as water remains available and minimum standards of soil preparation, crop rotation, and fertilization are observed. The major production problems seem to be lack of knowledge about the optimum combination of crops, incipient salinity, drainage needs, and weeds. In addition, human and administrative problems are dominant because of the lack of social research into the most suitable system of participation of the local population, and of the low standard of organizational performance at various levels of the central and regional institutions and at the projects themselves.

Organizational Shortcomings

Problems of organization emerged in all types of projects, and this was certainly not unexpected. Some were due simply to the remoteness of the projects, which makes it difficult to provide the necessary services and inputs at reasonable,costs and on time. The question to be asked is whether or not certain projects should have been started at all, if there was no infrastructure for transport, services, processing, etc,,to justify beginning. The factual knowledge about such links must be improved through training devices for those people who make decisions about project implementation. The common problems that inputs were always late or not available at all, that land preparation and seeding were seldom carried out on time, and that crops could not be harvested, point to major shortcomings in planning and implementing procedures. With currently available data the question of what would be the most suitable project organization for all projects cannot be answered, and probably also depends on the specific circumstances of each project. But it seems certain that acquiring qualified staff is a major bottleneck. If highly qualified staff cannot be attracted, the targets of a project have to be adjusted to the real level of performance which can reasonably be expected from less qualified staff.

A number of organizational problems could have been solved by better co-ordination among various government agencies, e.g. the Ministry of Irrigation and the boards of the different schemes. The lack of understanding of how different ministries and their regional representatives might be coordinated through a common plan of action shows that the psychological and organizational aspects of coordination have never prayed any decisive role in project design and implementation although they have already contributed to quite a number of failures. For example, inadequate recruiting procedures for hiring the necessary seasonal labour for harvesting cotton in the larger irrigation schemes has resulted in huge losses.

Social Acceptance

All projects show various problems of acceptance by the local population. A wide range of attitudes was observed, from outright rejection of the whole project to very active involvement. A number of problems had arisen from landownership disputes, especially between settlers and nomads. Experience from such projects shows clearly that land rights have to be settled before the project starts, or many efforts will be in vain. Failure to take into account the legitimate interest of livestock-owning nomads when starting a settlement scheme in their area has been the reason for many troubles. In addition, neglect of local leaders and of their role in tribal conflicts has accounted for a number of both expected and unexpected events which, to say the least, reduced the speed with which the project moved ahead.

Social acceptance became a particular problem in irrigation projects where nomads were expected to be available for scheduled work in their fields at times which apparently clashed with their livestock-herding interests. The nomads opposed projects in which livestock had to be restricted to certain specified areas where pasture was insufficient. The nomads always gave priority to their livestock interests, not to the objective of the project. Furthermore, connecting livestockdisease control measures with tax revenue collection for the government often reduces their chances of success because many owners come forward with only parts of their herds, resulting in animal health problems for the whole region.

Social acceptance of development proposals has apparently much to do with available opportunities for the target groups to participate effectively in project planning. Consequently, quite a number of failures are due to the lack of institutions which allow for proper participation. Moreover, the involvement of non-government organizations (NGO's) in project implementation has seldom been tried, but this may be the key to a greater interest of the local population in becoming actively involved.

Economic Viability

The economic results of many projects may be acceptable from the private point of view of the farmer, but not for the public. This is because all projects are heavily subsidized by the government, mostly from external sources, and none would be able to continue without further official support. This is true not only of capital investments but, in a number of cases, of the recurrent budgets too. Calculation of the social profitability of projects has to include inputs and outputs at real prices for labour, capital, and foreign exchange, which reflect the true opportunity costs of these resources. The problem is that many benefits and costs are in the form of indirect social or environmental effects, whose positive or negative contribution to the national income cannot be directly assessed.

The internal economic problems of projects stem mainly from budgetary constraints, high costs of maintenance and fuel, low standards of infrastructure with resulting heavy expenses for transport and communication, as well as from a lack of management flexibility. But the main cause for concern lies in the fact that physical yields are not sufficient to justify the existing structure and costs. Further efforts to raise private and social profitability must primarily be directed towards increasing yields and stabilizing productivity. In addition, other job opportunities outside the projects are needed to ease seasonal unemployment problems.

One particular economic problem of irrigation schemes arises from the fact that yields are reduced for lack of water during the late irrigation season. While quite frequently the first crop gets more than enough water during the rainy season, the second crop suffers because of a low water storage capacity. Sometimes it does not pay to harvest a second crop at all.

Credit to smallholders plays a major role in most project plans, but reports show low rates of repayment for various reasons. The management usually tries to recover credit by subtracting all costs from the return of the one cash crop only, which in turn reduces the interest of farmers in producing such a crop, as the residual return has lost its incentive effect. The system must be changed to allow the repayment of credit from various sources throughout the year, not just from the only cash crop produced.

A further concern is the rapid turnover of staff. Losses occurring because of staff members being transferred too frequently cannot easily be calculated but must be of great magnitude judging from the low performance of the total system in which qualified staff plays such a decisive role.

Performance Matrices

It is clear from the above discussions that the problems of permanence of cultivation, organizational shortcomings, social acceptance, and economic viability are of different magnitude in the various projects, but it seems that all projects, despite differing designs and sizes of operation, have some common problems which could be tackled successfully with the same kind of strategy. This is certainly true for permanence of cultivation and shortcomings of organization.

The third common problem, social acceptance, has a mixed rating. This is due to the special Sudanese situation, where vast areas of land are still available for cultivation and projects need not necessarily clash with other vested interests in those regions. Projects could, therefore, be designed to fit the expectations and resources of particular groups of people, such as immigrants, local small holders, tenants, absentee farmers, hired labour, and nomads. Each group has a unified social background, and project organization could be adjusted to their specific needs. On the other hand, every time heterogeneous groups had to be included into one project, serious problems of acceptance could be observed. This was especially true with nomads and their integration into settlement schemes. This points to the need for data collection about the opinions of the local population on project plans before their implementation. Wherever possible, plans must be prepared with the people, not for them!

The fourth common problem, economic viability, ranges between serious and light for most projects. None of the projects can be called economically sound from both the private and the public point of view. The results, of course, depend heavily upon the evaluation methods used and the definition of social costs. It is difficult to calculate all the social benefits when evaluating a project. Sufficient economic viability was reached in those projects where alternative project designs had been developed and where there could be selection between alternatives. This led to better organizational structure and to some flexibility in management decisions in order to improve economic performance.

TABLE 1. Common Problems of Selected Projects, Sudan 1978

Project Type Permanence
of cultivation
Simsim Area rain-fed XXX X XX XX
Khashm el-Girba irrigated XX XXX XX XX
Sag el-Na'am irrigated X XX X XXX
Babanusa Area livestock X XXX XX X
Nuba Mountains rain-fed XXX XX X X
Gerih el-Sarha livestock XX XXX XXX X
Agadi State Farm rain-fed XXX X X XX
Damazin Area rain-fed XXX X XX XX

Note: XXX = very serious problems, XX = serious problems, X = light problems.

For further analysis, certain socio-economic indicators have been calculated. They show the capacity of projects for generation of private and public income. Employment creation has also been included to emphasize the fact that income generation through economic growth is feasible as long as larger numbers of people can find productive employment. If economic growth has been accomplished without increasing the labour input in regions where labour has been in surplus, project planning must be changed to organizational types where employment creation plays a more decisive role.

Finally, the problem of the involvement of the local people indicates the degree of "bottom-up" planning and implementation. These difficulties are well-known; the question is whether planners have always tried hard enough to get a local involvement process started.


Training needs for project staff are apparent. They arise directly from the common problems discussed above. The author assumes that a post-graduate training programme in arid lands management should primarily try to contribute successfully towards solving these problems. The objective of the programme should, therefore, be to provide an advanced and specialized course which will enable project officers and administrators to solve problems of permanent use of arid lands for agricultural production, promote optimal organization of development projects, and improve the social acceptance of centrally planned activities and the economic viability of projects implemented in arid lands.

A training programme of this type would best be located in a faculty of agriculture at a university in a developing country, where biological, environmental, technical, and socioeconomic disciplines are already established and can contribute jointly to an "integrated" arid lands management programme. Students and lecturers should come not only from agriculture but also from other fields, such as geology, geography, engineering, and business administration, as long as they agree to follow an integrated approach.

Such courses would benefit from a thorough mixture of theoretical and practical training, and from a provision that each participant present his knowledge and thoughts about a particular subject in the form of a written thesis.

These considerations lead to the proposal to organize this training as an M.Sc. programme of 18 months' duration. A formal degree programme seems absolutely necessary for a number of reasons connected with the academic and administrative structures of a university on the one hand, and the motivation and career aspects of the participants on the other. Additional advantages include the attraction of highly qualified staff and international funding, recognition of graduates for national and multinational services, etc.

Programme structure

When we examine the common problems of the projects analysed, the following points concerning the programme emerge:
(a) The project staff and the majority of the project planners need more understanding of the specific natural and socio-economic forces operating in the area of an arid land project. Otherwise, they may not be able to develop the area's production potential without endangering its long-term viability. The training needs to provide the necessary course-work in the natural and social sciences and in the production techniques most suitable for arid areas. The time for course-work should not exceed 10 months, including a one-month vacation.
(b) The project staff needs training to organize a project in such a way that the expected targets can be reached, flexible responses to changing conditions are possible, integration with the overall regional development is achieved, and the risk of the project's remaining an exclusive "government project" is avoided. The training should include practical experience in carrying out administrative, advisory, and evaluation tasks on particular projects. The time for this practical work should not exceed four months.
(c) The project staff needs training in writing documents from observation and data collection on the projects. Such reports, in addition to their training value, should interest and motivate the responsible administrators and politicians, as well as the scientists, to look into the particular needs of arid lands management. The training programme should require the presentation of a thesis on a theme connected with practical experience on a project. The time for this work should not exceed four months.

The selection of themes for the thesis and the organization of a practical project for the students will depend upon a number of administrative and personal factors. They must be covered in more detail by relevant academic regulations for M.Sc. degrees to be approved by the university in charge of the programme. But it is hoped that these aspects will be taken care of in close collaboration with the institutions responsible for project implementation.

Course content, on the other hand, can be developed by matching existing syllabuses of relevant degree courses with the practical work on projects described above. The proposals in Appendix H should be suitable for at least the Sudanese situation, but it is hoped that they will also have wider application.

Course- work

From all the reports, it is evident that studies on permanence of cultivation must have priority in all teaching activities. Project organization, social acceptance, and economic viability come next. If ten months are available for course-work, this period should be divided into three terms of three months each, allowing one month for vacation. Half the time should be devoted to the permanence of cultivation studies and the rest to the remaining three fields.

This proposal may differ from conventional approaches in developing training programmes and syllabuses. The assumption is that a post-graduate course in arid lands management does not need all possible components from relevant science disciplines, but should concentrate on the major common problem areas which have been observed over the past decades. Hence, the proposed programme assumes that the participants have enough insight from their previous training and experience to concentrate upon the specific issues of project performance in arid lands. In reading through the course descriptions given in Appendix H. the reader may ask himself whether a traditional lecture and seminar approach would be more appropriate for adult and experienced learners. The author believes that the introduction of participatory techniques through teamwork and project work would improve the motivation of students and the quality of studies, as well as the ability of lecturers to guide and co-ordinate such an interdisciplinary programme. To facilitate the engagement of visiting lecturers who cannot stay for long periods, a block teaching system could also be used. The introduction of case studies as a teaching device should be promoted wherever possible.

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