Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew

​Writing anthropological and ethnographic research can be quite challenging. The experiences are so rich that one may not know where to begin and where to end. In "Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco" (2016), Lawrence Rosen provides an exemplary model for anyone grappling with these questions. To do so, he draws on experiences in Morocco over a period of nearly sixty years. The book weaves in a diverse set of literature, from history to political science and works of fiction. Many books are biographical in nature, and at first glance this book might appear to be the story of four lives, which is partly is. However, the author uses these stories to tell other stories (the first delves into Moroccan history, the second a sort of Moroccan cultural Islam 101, the third and fourth cover the lives and experiences of Berbers and Jews). For anyone interested in Morocco, this is an excellent book. And, for anyone interested in how good anthropological and ethnographic research can be made accessible to a broader readership, this is an important read.

What one "feels" as a reader, is Rosen's deep respect for the people with whom he interacts. It is not easy to convey this (although the contrary is easy). For example, he opens the book by stating: "Ordinary people have intellectual lives. They may never have written a book; they may never even have read one. But their lives are rich in ideas, constantly fashioned and revised, elaborated and rearranged." (xi) Small comments throughout give one the sense of the authors love, appreciation, and respect for the people of Morocco. This might be common amongst anthropologists, but difficult to convey in academic works such as this (published by a university press; it, however, lacked in-text references in a number of places, including for direct quotes, which was not expected of such a publication).

Rosen also speaks about, and back to the discipline of Anthropology, throughout. I found these additions quite insightful, and coming from a seasoned anthropologist, quite informative. For example: "Anthropologists, Levi-Strauss once quipped, are radicals at home and conservatives abroad. Whether as the perpetrators or the victims of functionalism - a theory that emphasizes the contribution of each element to the continued working of a whole society but that, as a result, has always had trouble with accounting for change - we anthropologists often have to make a real effort when we study others to note the alterations such theories may obscure. And, wary of appearing judgmental, we often avoid discussions of discontinuities unless we can imagine ourselves allied with the politically correct side in the equation of power. Morocco in particular may not seem to lend itself to a focus on discontinuity. Instead it seems to embrace the continuous - one king for decades, one dynasty for centuries, one religion for millennia. It sometimes becomes an exercise in pressing the limits of predilection and profession, then, to attend to change when neither the subject nor the theories are altogether hospitable to it." (p. 231)

I was recently listening to a Professor in Ethiopia, who explained that often we miss some of the socio-cultural aspects which limit or enable opportunities. In that case, that while opportunities might be granted to certain people, they may not be able to benefit by them is the broader society refuses to purchase from them. A few lines from Rosen also reflected some of this socio-cultural complexity. For example, in a "list of occupations practiced by Muslims and Jews in Sefrou in 1924 is instructive in this regard. Note that all of the tinsmiths and porters, for example, were Jews. This, older Muslims told me, was because the tinsmiths were also plumbers and had to enter a Muslim's house where they would see the women and belongings of the homeowner. But whereas the Muslims were not eager for fellow Muslims to see such things in their homes, the Jews could be expected to remain discreet and, since they were not potential martial partners or political allies, their knowledge of one's household situation was not going to bear on subsequent relationships." (p. 290)

Rural Development Options

​In 1990, Ethiopia was on the cusp of a major transition. The military government was on the way out and the EPRDF would come to power in the following year. It was in this year that "Ethiopia: Options for Rural Development" (1990), edited by Siegfried Pausewang, Fantu Cheru, Stefan Brune and Estetu Chole, was published. The writing was done during the late 1980s, but nonetheless provides an interesting window into how development researchers and practitioners felt about rural development - and what was prioritized - at that moment in history. The book has contributions from major scholars, in addition to the editors there are contributions from Dessalegn Rahmato, Alula Pankhurst, Helen Pankhurst, and a host of others. This is quite a rich book and I feel it offers insight for very similar questions being asked today. It was published by Zed books and is relatively available (compared to most books from the 80s and 90s on Ethiopia, which can be very difficult to find).

Advice that seems oft repeated (and slightly romantic): "The authors share the view that rural development is not just a question of choosing one or the other model, and that the "socialism" versus "capitalism" dichotomy has little relevance to Ethiopian rural society. Small peasants in rural communities have their own forms of organizing cooperation and equity. Instead of importing solutions from Western or Eastern models, it would be worth considering indigenous knowledge and experience, and building on local institutions with traditions of mutual aid and solidarity." (p. 4)

Pausewang's remarks on land remain useful: "There is hardly any field in which so much confusion persists so obstinately as that of land tenure in Ethiopian tradition. Even the word itself is misleading: rather than tenure, it would be more correct to speak about access to land. Land holding practice changed over time, and tremendous variations can be observed not only in different regions, but even within the same village and family. Most confusing of all is the social dimension of conceptions about rights to land: a nobleman may have conceptions of his rights to the land which are completely different from those of "his" peasants. Moreover, urban viewpoints on rights over land are often completely different from the rural viewpoint. Many misconceptions are still reproduced in public debate as well as in scientific literature and official documents. Misunderstandings are repeated time and time again. Many official statistics have been produced in such a confused and misguided fashion that the figures are not even guesses; they bear simply no relation to the reality of land holding. Nevertheless, they are quoted in scientific findings, and continue to mislead everybody." (p. 38).

Resettlement was practiced before the military government in Ethiopia, however it is interesting to note that one of the main pushes for resettlement in the country (which contributed to the loss of potentially hundreds of thousands of lives) was the World Bank: "The World Bank and US-AID proposed resettlement programmes to relieve certain areas of Tigray and Wollo. By 1979, under the supervision of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), some 20,000 ha were under cultivation in 84 resettlement sites." (p. 26)

Pausewang hints at questions of governance in the concluding chapter. However, given it was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, the lack of discussion about governance (not as policy, but as how governing occurs) is interesting. It reflects how we might be seeing the tree very clearly, but missing the forest. Makes one wonder what we are missing today, as we focus on a range of our own issues.

Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia

Dessalegn Rahmato is the leading scholar of land issues in Ethiopia, a subject he has been researching for decades. He has published a large number of works, including The Peasant and the State (2008). One of his earlier books, Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia (1985) covers the land reform of 1975, when Ethiopia made the most significant change to land tenure in its history. The book briefly covers the land tenure system before the reform, details the reform itself, and the peasant associations that were created and critical to the implementation of the reform. This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of land tenure in Ethiopia, and a particularly rich resource on the land reform of 1975.

Dessalegn Rahmato opens the book with the following: "In content and implementation, Ethiopia's agrarian reform can be considered as a thorough and radical one. It accomplished its purpose, namely the elimination of landlordism, quite speedily - a remarkable achievement considering that at the time the reform was promulgated the new government had not yet firmly established its presence in the countryside. The reform is undoubtedly the most important and the most far-reaching social measure of the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, and its impact on the fabric of rural society is far more profound than any of the reforms carried out since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. In brief, it provides for the distribution of land to peasant households, and abolishes peasant dependence on the landlord, along with the landlord himself. All rural land is under 'public ownership', and tenancy and the hiring of labour have been done away with." (p. 9)

The Khat Conundrum in Ethiopia

The growing, consumption and export of khat (a stimulant) in Ethiopia has rapidly increased in over the last two decades. There is an emerging set of literature that explores khat from a range of perspectives, although the literature has focused on the health impacts and consumption in university settings. The complexity of khat is that is contributes relatively high prices for smallholder farmers and revenues for taxes, while also presenting a range of negative impacts. The result is a complex policy challenge. One of the most important works addressing this topic is a book by Yeraswork Admassie, titled: The Khat Conundrum in Ethiopia: Socioeconomic impact and policy directions (2017). The publisher is the Forum of Social Studies, Ethiopia's foremost independent think tank.

This is an excellent resource for anyone interest in khat, and specifically those seeking to understand the complexity of policy and policy making regarding it. The book focuses upon two cities (Harar and Assosa), however the findings offer much insight that is useful beyond them. Am hopeful that publications such as these will bring further attention to an under-researched topic in Ethiopia.

The Collapse of Globalism

​For decades, globalization was promoted as a process to increase global prosperity. In 2005, John Ralston Saul published "The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World" to make the case that globalism was on the decline. Many have praised the book as seeing well beyond its time, particularly as the financial crises followed shortly thereafter and changed many perspectives.

To set the opening scene, he writes: "Globalization emerged in the 1970s as if form nowhere, fully grown, enrobed in an aura of inclusivity. Advocates and believers argued with audacity that, through the prism of a particular school of economics, societies around the world would be taken in new, interwoven and positive directions. The mission was converted into policy and law over twenty years – the 1980s and 90s – with the force of declared inevitability. Now, after three decades, we can see the results. These include some remarkable successes, some disturbing failures and a collection of what might be best called running sores. In other words, the outcome has had nothing to do with truth or inevitability and a great deal to do with an experimental economic theory presented as Darwinian fact. It was an experiment that attempted simultaneously to reshape economic, political and social landscapes." (p. 3)

The book traces the emergence of the idea, its establishment and diverse consequences, its fall, and then predictions (written in 2005) of the future. There are glimmers of hope from the past, where new ideas turned the fall into opportunity. However, it seems negative nationalism has filled much of the ideological vacuum. Saul characterizes negative nationalism as "often dependent on ethnic loyalty, an appropriation of God to one's side, a certain pride in ignorance, and a conviction that you have been permanently wounded - that is, an active mythology of having been irreparably wronged" (p. 246). He says, in 2005, that the "general atmosphere is one of false populism, which in turn feeds into negative nationalism." (p. 253)

When the author looked forward, again in 2005, some changes were well sighted: "It is hard for any society that slips into a vacuum to admit that it is no longer advancing in any particular direction. That is particularly difficult for those individuals who hold power. Their vocabulary, their image of themselves, even their skills have all be honed to fit the certainty of a direction that no longer prevails. The sign of mediocre leaders is that they believe things will continue as they have" (p. 217).

Professional Development Options (Online & Free)

For those interested to gain more skills that are relevant to development and humanitarian activities, this post will list free, online resources. Each includes a brief description. If you have other suggestions of free training options, send me an email and I will add them. I have recommended that you try to make this a habit - completing 2 to 3 courses every year. This will keep expanding your knowledge and skills and convey to potential employers that you are actively upgrading your knowledge and skills as a life-long learner.


​One of the largest collections of online short courses that I know. The courses largely revolve around health, but also include courses on monitoring and evaluation, communications and knowledge management. This project is funded by USAID. Certificates are issued after course completion, by MEASURE Evaluation and USAID. All are available on-demand (not run on specific dates / periods of time).

This course is ​only run periodically. There are two courses, each cover aspects of the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation approach. This course is longer and more engaged that a typical short course. Highly recommended.

A large listing of online courses. Certificates are not issued for these courses (with a few exceptions), but you could say that you completed these courses on your CV. There is a large listing of topics, many of which are highly relevant to working in the development and humanitarian field. This topics are very broad, from the SDG indicators to food safety and humanitarian coordination.

UNICEF offers a large set of online short-courses. The platform is not as user friendly as the Global Health Learning Center, but has a similarly large offering of short courses. ​

A number of evaluation-related courses are available ​via this platform. The courses are on-demand, you can take them any time. 

Ethics course, research focused, but generally useful and ought to be applied more in practice.

Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) course.

A single course on monitoring and evaluation in the context of rural development.​

A limited set of time-specific courses (set start and end dates). Excellent resources for those interested in understanding or using non-violent advocacy, social movements, citizen power. ​

These are courses that are often required before UN deployments. These courses technically are fee based. However, recently these courses were made available to members of CANADEM (https://canadem.ca/). Assuming that is still the case, you can register and then access these courses freely.

Courses relate to peace, peace making and conflict resolution. Not all are available online, and not all are free. However, there are some excellent free, online courses that can be taken here.

Sphere offers online short courses related to humanitarian standards. Note: Not all listings on this page are courses, some are stand-alone videos. 

A selection of courses related to leadership and health.

Is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Topics range widely and expand on an on-going basis. Courses are offered by universities, and certificates (in the "verified" stream" can be offered - at a cost), otherwise you can complete the courses freely without one. Courses include sustainable development, leadership, theory of change, management et cetera.

This is similar to Edx, a platform of MOOCs. A larger offering than Edx. Similar model of being able to complete courses freely, or have them recognized through a relatively small fee. 


Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia

​"Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia: State Policy and Smallholder Farming" (2018) edited by Atakilte Beyene is an excellent book on diverse components of the agricultural sector. Given the importance of agriculture in Ethiopia, this is an important addition as there are few books that cover the sector comprehensively (several are available that cover specific components). The introduction by Atakilte is an excellent overview, and is well worth reading as a stand-alone chapter.

Many of the chapters were authored by faculty at Bahir Dar University, are well written and well researched. Some edited volumes are a collection of only lightly unrelated chapters, but this is a cohesive volume and highly recommended as a resource for readers interested in the topic. The chapters cover: input supply and marketing systems (Ch. 1), investment in agricultural sector (Ch. 2), large scale irrigation (Ch. 3), climate resilient practices (Ch. 4), sociocultural perspective (Ch. 5), a history of malaria (Ch. 6), gender and rights (Ch. 7) and rural transformation through land rights (Ch. 8). Many chapters rely upon CSA data, and could have been more critical of that.

Why Civil Resistance Works

Over the last year I have posted about a number of books related to civil resistance. In reading that literature, one of the works that gets frequently referred to is "Why Civil Resistance Works – The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict" by Chenoweth and Stephan (2011). Given that the field of study is a relatively niche one, the book is quite widely referenced (approaching 1,000 citations at the time of this posting). I had encountered presentations by Chenoweth as well as summaries of, and references to, this book elsewhere before reading it. The book is worth reading, as it provides a much more nuanced description of the methods and findings than what is presented elsewhere (even, I feel, by the authors). The simplified take away message has been: nonviolence is more successful than violence.

The book sets out to analyze civil action, largely comparing non-violence and violent campaigns. The authors "ask why nonviolent resistance has succeeded in some cases where violent resistance had failed in the same states, like the violent and nonviolent pro-independence campaigns in East Timor and regime-change campaigns in the Philippines. We can further ask why nonviolent resistance in some states fails during one period (such as the 1950s Defiance Campaign by antiapartheid activists in South Africa) and then succeeds decades later (such as the antiapartheid struggle in the early 1990s)" (p. 5). However, in this opening description, we start to encounter some of the challenges with quantitative assessments of complex movements. The authors have classified anti-apartheid activism in the 1990s as nonviolent. Reality was far more complex, while there were nonviolent tactics there was also violence as well as parallel violent movements. Attributing 'success' to the nonviolent components seems disingenuous. The authors say that if there was a 'significant amount of violence' (p. 13) it was not considered non-violent. However, this blurs the lines between nonviolence (in principle) versus movements who actively threaten violence (and may strategically use it in minor, demonstrative ways), both of which might be classified as nonviolent as the violence was not significant. What has not made it in the take away messages was this: "Characterizing a campaign as violent or nonviolent simplifies a complex constellation of resistance methods" (p. 12). This is important – and one of the nuances found in the book, but lost elsewhere. On methods, the identification of cases to include was not systematic (i.e. country by country), meaning that many are excluded. The authors reviewed the literature to find the cases, but many movements have not entered the academic literature. Other assessments might be complicated by the timeframe they are viewed in. For example, in the mid-2000s the violent Taliban movement might have rightly been classified as a 'failure' but that is far less clear on a longer timeframe.

Challenges aside, this is an interesting book. Beyond correlations, the authors explore processes, which I found quite insightful. For example, they write "large-scale and diverse participation may afford a resistance campaign a strategic advantage, which, in turn, increases the pressure points and enhances the leverage that the resistance achieves vis-à-vis its state adversary. The ability of nonviolent campaigns to more easily exploit these advantages of broad-based mobilization, and the high costs of prolonged disobedience and noncooperation has been so much more effective than violent resistance" (p. 41). Later, they write that the "results suggest that when regimes crack down violently, reliance on a nonviolent strategy increases the probability of campaign success by about 22 percent. Among the campaigns we explore here, backfiring may be an important mechanism through which nonviolent campaigns achieve success" (p. 51).

On long-term pathways, the authors find: "Insurgents, deposed elites, and emerging elites may perceive that violence is an effective means of expressing political preferences and gaining political power. For the losers in the conflict, who see the conflict in zero-sum terms, violence is therefore likely to remain the tactical method of choice. In other words, the constant threat of violence from all sides of the previous conflict exacerbates uncertainty rather than reducing it, thereby undermining Bernhard and Karakoc's essential element of democracy. Under such conditions, reaching mutually agreeable power-sharing arrangements and building democratic institutions are highly problematic." (p. 212)

Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development

​Cochrane, L. (2019) Review: Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development. Progress in Development Studies 19: 84-86.

Starting in the 1980s, there have been regular publications of books that invite critical self-reflection in development study and practice: Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983), Challenging the Professions (1993), Whose Reality Counts? (1997), Participatory Workshops (2002), Ideas for Development (2005), Revolutions in Development Inquiry (2008) and Provocations for Development (2012). Robert Chambers, critical champion of participatory development, yet again reminds and challenges donors, development practitioners and academics in Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development (2017). This book focuses upon knowledge – what, why and how we know, and how this impacts decision making and is a reflection of power.

The book is structured in typical Chambers style, in chapters that could be read as thematic stand-alone contributions (with abstracts and a concluding 'agenda for reflection and action'). The book challenges, but also engages, offering avenues for new ways forward. The six chapters respectively cover: (1) error and myth, (2) biases and blind spots, (3) lenses and lock-ins, (4) rigour for complexity, (5) power, participation, and knowledge: knowing better together, and (6) knowing for a better future. The first half is the critical foundation. In it, Chambers makes the case for why we need to know better: preventing the damage being done and ending the misallocation of resources. The examples of poor, uninformed or failed policies, programmes and professional beliefs that Chambers provides in the opening chapters are largely from decades past, and one wishes that Chambers would have guided readers to see the errors in the present and challenge new us to move in new directions (hindsight is always clearer). The latter half of the book is the 'more positive and forward looking' that is 'infused with an optimism which negative academics may find naïve and those embedded in bureaucracies difficult to put into practice' (p. xiii). It is call both for learning and unlearning better.

For anyone engaged in development – from the community-based practitioner to the researcher and donor – the biases that Chambers points out (spatial, project, person, seasonal, diplomatic, professional, security, urban slum) help everyone reflect on the ways in which we need to know better, and the processes through which these biases can be confronted. This is particularly important for those based away from project areas, the 'uppers' often working in offices in capital cities. Chambers believes we have made progress on some blind spots (water, sanitation and hygiene, gender, harmful traditional practices, unpaid care, masculinities and men, sexuality, child sex abuse) but others remain 'backwaters' (corruption, entomophagy, neglected tropical diseases, cookstove air pollution, climate change and ocean ecology) (p. 31-36).

Much has been said about random control trials in recent years. Chambers makes his position very clear, and argues that the reality people experience has become distorted, limited, and narrow as mechanical and reductionist approaches of research have become the standard (e.g. randomized control trials and systematic reviews). These types of research, he argues, have been entrenched by funding requirements that require these methodologies when demanding evidence and best practices. The alternatives Chambers advocates for are participatory, contextual, qualitative, inclusive, and collaborative approaches. It might have served the book well had the case for technical, expert-driven processes also been explored. For example, the design of electrical and telecommunication systems, drinking water contamination standards and regulations, and currency and exchange policy, to name a few, require specific technical information and expert knowledge. These are also development challenges. The argument for radical transformation may have transcended the echo chamber had it been made with slightly more nuance on the contexts and questions for which inclusive and participatory approaches are necessary, and when alternatives may be considered.

While Chambers spoke about the disincentives in research and academic publishing, an additional blind spot not covered in detail in this work is human resources and the incentives within the development industry that can result in less than ideal environments for enabling the kind of transformation Chambers is calling for. In many countries, jobs within international agencies and NGOs are often amongst the most well paid, attracting highly skilled individuals from a range of private and public sectors. The salary incentive is not one that necessarily attracts the values, passion, love, courage, commitment, reflectivity, and openness for new ways of knowing that Chambers argues are so critical for knowing better (p. 161-162). Rather, it is for many the best paying job on the block. This is one reason for the continued disconnect between the proposal and the implementation (e.g. the on-going struggle for changed practice using 'do no harm' and 'gender transformative' approaches). The way forward is unclear, but this challenge cannot be underestimated when seeking to understand why the myths, biases, lock-ins, misconceptions and lenses continue.

Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development is not a final word, but a call for continuous renewal: 'there will forever be new constellations of being wrong and new ways of being right, of being in touch, up to date, and realistic. We will always need to go on learning how to know better, and through knowing better, doing better' (p. xiv). Chambers calls for humility, passion and self-reflection, and provokes readers to re-consider their own values as donors, practitioners and academics engaging with development. This is a book that should be widely read, and should be essential reading for all students in development studies as well as those planning to engage in the practice of development.

Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement

Priscilla Claeys's "Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control" (2015) had some high level support and praise (Jun Borras, Olivier De Schutter, etc). The beginning of the abstract reads: "Our global food system is undergoing rapid change. Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a range of new issues have come to public attention, such as land grabbing, food prices volatility, agrofuels and climate change. Peasant social movements are trying to respond to these challenges by organizing from the local to the global to demand food sovereignty. As the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina celebrates its 20th anniversary, this book takes stock of the movement's achievements and reflects on challenges for the future. It provides an in-depth analysis of the movement's vision and strategies, and shows how it has contributed not only to the emergence of an alternative development paradigm but also of an alternative conception of human rights."

For those interested in La Via Campesina and the emergence of legal approaches (via human rights), this is a useful resource. With regard to international legal advocacy, Claey offers some interesting experiences (namely the role of: critical junctures, networks and allies, framing and re-problematizing):

  • "Very few 'new rights' that emerge from the grassroots find their way onto the international human rights agenda (Bob 2010b). How did peasant organizations succeed in getting support for a process of negotiation of a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at the UN? Three success factors are worth highlighting here. First, the global food crisis of 207-8 put the spotlight on smallholder farmers and gave peasant activities unprecedented access to international arenas to advance their demands." (p. 60)
  • "Second, Via Campesina's demand for a new instrument was endorsed by a number of key actors who helped identify the 'legal opportunities' (Israel 2003) that could be seized at the HRC. The close ties, shared diagnosis and trust built between Via Campesina activists and human rights experts over the years played a central role in enabling them to move swiftly, and strategically. Without that endorsement, peasant activists would not have been able to advance their claims at the HRC." (p. 60)
  • "Third, Indonesian peasant activists succeeded in framing their claims as human rights abuses, and in bringing their claims to the attention of peasant organizations in other countries, first in South-East Asia, then the world over. Most importantly, they chose not to depict their grievances as abuses of well-accepted human rights." (p. 61)

On the latter point, the author elaborates later in the text, one quote from that:

  • ​"Diagnostic work is crucial because it enables 'system attributions' (McAdam et al. 1996, 9); it allows (potential) movement constituents to attribute everyday problems to global and structural mechanisms, and to overcome the 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency of people to explain their situation as a function of individual deficiencies rather than features of the system (Ross 1977). In the case of Via Campesina, diagnostic work has involved identifying injustices (appropriation of natural resources, forced rural migration, broken families and traditions, hunger, poverty and despair), victims (people of the land) and culprits (large financial institutions, neoliberal states, agribusiness and other transnational corporations)." (p. 82)
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