(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 23 January 2017)
I try at the beginning of each year, during my break from office life, to pull off at least one lasting “capital infrastructure” project at home or at the farm. I do this because I’ve seen that a change of work routine is much more refreshing to me than “vegging out” on the couch. For the last few years I have been focusing on farm projects rather than home projects. A few hundred metres of fence, replacing the rusted roof on the old cottage or installing solar panels for off grid electricity. I insist to be “hands on” with these projects, so I spend the time physically working, lifting, hauling and digging.
It’s a kind of a therapy I suppose. This year I spent time running the heavy duty electrical cables that bring the municipal electrical supply from the roadside to the cottage. You make ask, “What do you need and electrical supply for when your previous project was installing your solar panels for off grid power?” A good question; and one with a very unfortunate answer. The panels were stolen (twice in fact) causing me painful financial loss and even more painful self-flagellation for allowing this to happen. But I don’t want to talk about going off grid today; I don’t want to talk about crime today. I rather want to talk about what goes through my head as I haul cable, as I dig trenches or as I cool down under the tree by the dam.
I’ve spent a good part of my professional life working on capital projects that provide infrastructure to those of use trapped in poverty. I am really grateful that we live in a country where we are able to attempt to provide infrastructure that addresses basic needs. I am grateful that our system is able to build RDP houses, roads, electrical supply and sanitation. I am glad that the less tangible “infrastructure” of birth registration, identity documents and title deeds is in place and working reasonably well. My concern is that while this infrastructure makes the urban poor a little more comfortable (and maybe relieves the middle class of a little guilt) it does not make the poor any less poor. The infrastructure does not offer any real improvement of the prospects of the urban poor of entering the economy which doggedly continues to exclude them.
I know it’s completely different, but what I see in my holiday farm infrastructure projects, is that every little investment of time and cash dramatically increases my potential to support revenue generating projects. When I install fences, I am able to keep cattle that will give me beef and milk. When I install electricity, I can brood my day-old chicks that will become free-range drumsticks and chicken fillets. When I install pipes to pump water from the spring I can irrigate my Pecan Nut trees in the dry months and generate revenue from a nut harvest. When I spend time and cash on replacing the windows on doors on the derelict farmstall, I can generate revenue by selling, pecan pie with fresh cream, free-range eggs and chicken soup. What I have come to see is that investment in basic rural infrastructure has the ability to give a much greater “bang for the buck”, especially if we measure that “bang” in terms of its ability to continue to provide regular revenue. This is especially true if we consider that the infrastructure that is currently being provided for the urban poor has all kinds of revenue generating potential, if only it were installed in a rural location where it could unlock the ability to enter the agricultural economy, if even on a micro scale. I’m talking about giving individual title to well located, small acreages with basic water supply, basic fencing and electricity. Just the essentials to allow people that would otherwise be stuck in poverty to at very least provide some of their own food, but with very little extra effort be able to produce a modest surplus. It’s not rocket science, especially when we live in a confusing reality where millions of us are unemployed yet millions of us eat chicken everyday imported from the Brazil and the USA. Perhaps it’s time that we get out of the mind-set where we believe that the only route out of poverty is 12 years of formal schooling and a 4 year degree. The truth is that many “unemployable” urban dwellers actually possess motivation and skillset that can be geared into real income and wellbeing in a reimagined agricultural economy on the periphery of our towns and cities. Let’s give thought to providing infrastructure in locations where our people can be productive in the agricultural economy. We must give this thought because our metro and every other municipality in our province includes much more rural land than urban land. We must give this more thought because our democratic process is skewed in such a way as to allow urban dwellers to direct public spending, through the IDP process, to the urban areas where they currently live and effectively away from any future possible improved rural existence perhaps just 10 or 20 km away. We must give this thought because it is foolish delusion to think the city is separate from its rural hinterland, or that “they” are not separate from” us”, or that you are separate from me.