Dessalegn Rahmato on de Soto (Property Law)

A previous post covered the main arguments of Dessalegn Rahmato's "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), this highlights some interesting critiques ofDe Soto's influential book and argument:

"To begin with, by over-emphasizing the determinant role of property law and its legalization de Soto adopts a state-centric view of property rights and its guarantee for the poor. But, as we shall see later, formalization of the law by itself provides no robust guarantee, and where such guarantee has been achieved it has been the result of struggles of the poor themselves and non-state agents. Moreover, formal property law, he argues, and the conversion process in the law allows the poor to convert the assets into capital. Under capitalism, he states, the legal infrastructure is hidden in the property system, and the formal property system converts assets into value (pp. 45-46). But de Soto fails to recognize that the formal property system of capitalist societies is a product of a long historical process and the outcome of competing (often warring) economic interests, social classes, political parties or section groupings. Hidden in the formal property law of a capitalist country is a small slice of its social history. Where this kind of pluralist struggle is absent or weakly manifested, as is the case in many developing countries, property law comes to reflect the interests of one dominate group, or, as in Ethiopia, that of the state and its mandarins. Here property law is not inclusive but restrictive, prohibiting disadvantaged populations the freedom and opportunity to get the full value of their assets." (p. 187)

Dessalegn continues for another two pages, on the arguments made by de Soto, for those interested.

The Peasant and the State

Dessalegn Rahmato is one of Ethiopian social scientists, his ideas and publications have shifted public perceptions on issues of land and the rural smallholder farmers. This posts draws upon his work, "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), which is essential reading for anyone interesting in rural Ethiopia.

As a book that covers five decades, Dessalegn begins by setting the stage for how the change of governments was experienced by the rural farming majority: "Over this half century much has changed in the country but much also remains the same. Similarly, while the three political regimes differ radically in a number of significant respects, they also have many things in common, particularly in their relations to the peasantry, their quest for a strong presence in the countryside, and, in some respects, in their approach to development management" (p. 13). What is the same? "An enduring element of state peasant relations is the paternalist attitude towards peasants held by local officials and party activists. Indeed, paternalism permeates all levels of state officialdom, including authorities at the top, and this is reflected in some of the main rural policies of the government. The underlying assumption is that the peasantry needs strong leadership to guide it to the greater good of modernization, as well as to protect it from outsiders with evil intentions, or the foolishness of peasants themselves" (p. 261).

Regarding the shifts: "On the one hand, agrarian change has removed some of the forces of peasant domination, but on the other hand, it has enhanced the power of the state over the peasant and inhibited the agency of the rural producers" (p. 23). On the Derg, the land reform "abolished landlordism, and this, in my view, is its enduring legacy and its greatest achievement" (p. 139). On the current government and land certification: "peasant insecurity is more deep-rooted and cannot be removed merely by issuing user certificates. Peasants are dependant on local officials for interpreting the law and interpretation is frequently made to suit the given circumstances. This is one of the factors for peasant subordination, and insecurity cannot be cured without addressing the causes of subordination" (p. 205). Further, he adds the land certification is viewed by some as a success as is used low cost and local administration, but "this is a misunderstanding of the whole point of the program: title registration is meant to provide security and to minimize disputes, and this can only be possible if the program is credible in the eyes of the beneficiaries concerned" (p. 210, also see p. 240).

His focal argument in the book is that "the role played by the human agent and the institutional environment impacting on human agency is either ignored or given insufficient attention… the question of human agency, that is the agency of the men and women who are responsible for cultivating the land and managing the resources associated with it, and the institutions that have helped or hindered them in their endeavour, must be placed at the centre of the agrarian debate. My concept of the term human agency here is similar to Sen's idea of capability. By agency I mean the ability to make independent decisions and free choices to bring about a desired outcome, and to secure the benefits free of imposition or coercion. It means the ability to have a voice, and to be an active force even if in a small way… a major determining factor is the nature of the rules of governance, particularly rights, freedoms and obligations embodied either in social values and norms or formal political institutions" (p. 21). He concludes the book in arguing that "human agency is an indispensable factor in accelerating change and invigorating the economy. As we have seen already, the agrarian systems we have dealt with stifled, in one way or another, the agency of the rural producer with dire consequences of which some have been discussed at length in the preceding pages. A fundamental rethink of this issue, which I believe is overdue, will have wider implications in terms of political institutions, power relations, attitudinal and management approaches" (p. 350).

Dessalegn argues that "Famine is a measure of the vulnerability of the peasant world as well as of its resilience, a reflection of the nature of class relations as well as of the relations between the state and peasantry. Famines do not occur if [the] peasant economy is robust, if the popular classes in the rural areas have a tradition of social assertiveness and resistance, or if the state is in some manner accountable to the people" (p. 43). And, that "Ethiopian peasants have not enjoyed this kind of freedom [to choose one's leaders, to justice, to freedom of speech], and I believe this has been responsible to a large extent for the failure of agrarian progress in this country" (p. 22). He later concludes: "Rural poverty cannot be solved through the instrumentality of the state alone, but requires the active engagement of the poor themselves. Democratizations, property rights that are inclusive of the poor, enabling citizens' groups, including poor people's organizations: these, individually or in ensemble, help to expand human agency, the agency of the poor in particular" (p. 276-277)

Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia

Bahru Zewde has written an excellent book on the history of the student movement in Ethiopia, this book goes back further, to the late 1800s and early 1900s, exploring the activities and impact of the intellectuals of that time period. The book, "Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century" (2002) by Bahru Zewde, is very well researched and is an excellent addition for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of the modern Ethiopian state.

Bahru argues that "the Ethiopian educated elite have played a preponderant role in the political history of the country, a role clearly incommensurate with their number. It is thus difficult to understand the genesis and course of the 1974 revolution without a proper appraisal of the Ethiopian student movement, which could said to have started to follow a revolutionary course in the mid-1960s. In a number of ways, notably in the articulation and resolution of what has been characterized as 'the national question', the legacy of that movement is still with us. And yet the intellectual protagonists of the second half of the twentieth century had their predecessors in the first half. The revolutionary option was preceded by the reformist one" (p. xi). The means through which the educated elite engaged with each other and exerted influence was primary through newspaper articles (p. 188).

The book presents detailed histories of the individuals, I draw from the chapter that attempts to present commonalities, and readers with interest in specifics can turn to the text. Bahru writes that "there is no doubt that the intellectuals' interest in provincial and municipal administration and in fiscal centralization were secondary to their overriding concern for social justice, and particularly for the alleviation of the condition of the peasantry" (p. 120). But this is not an idealized call, for example, the "enormity of the institution of slavery and the slave trade was such that few of the educated elite could fail to be moved into strong denunciation of them. When it came to the less brazen form of oppression and exploitation of the southern peoples, however, many failed to overcome the dominant cultural milieu in which they had grown up" (p. 130).

One challenge faced by all contemporary governments in Ethiopia – including a pressing issue of the day – is that of how the nations within a nation come together. For many of the educate elite of the early 1990s, assimilation was the answer: "Coming to the practical ways by which the policy of assimilation could be implemented, Tedla points to education and the army as the two most important vehicles of assimilation. Tedla goes back to classical Rome to demonstrate how the army has always been a factor for assimilation, be it through the intermarriage of garrison troops with local women or the recruitment of subject peoples into the imperial army. Likewise, all other facets of government policy – administration, justice, economic organization – should be regulated by the policy of assimilation. Provincial boundaries need to be redrawn to facilitate the policy. Oromo numerical predominance in the southern provinces should be tempered by a policy of Amhara settlement" (p. 132-133). I will refrain from commentary, and leave this historical point of reference for discussion elsewhere.

A letter of 1887 advising governor Ras Alula, from an immigrant (Petros Giyorgis, or 'Petros the Ethiopian'), warns (in Amharic): "You may not have read history. But the faranj [i.e. European] are like an earworm. Earworm is the smallest of worms. But it will eat up and destroy the largest of trees. Likewise, the faranj first come in the name of trade; gradually, they end up taking over the country. So, hit them now, wipe them out, or else your country is lost… You can move a sapling with your toe; but once it is grown, it will require many axes and saws" (p. 18). Notably, in 1896 the Ethiopian army defeated the nearly 20,000-troop Italian army, attempting at colonizing the country. On this, Bahru argues that "Adwa set the modality for Ethiopia's modern relationship with Europe in particular and the West in general. Ethiopia joined the ranks of the handful of African and Asian countries which remained politically independent but were under the shadow of the overwhelming European presence that had engulfed the two continents" (p. 208-209).

Bahru concludes: "what a long way things appear to have come from the time in the early twentieth century, when intellectuals relied on gentle persuasion rather than violent confrontation, when they sought royal patronage rather than the overthrow of the monarchy, when they advocated gradual reform rather than the revolutionary transformation of society" (p. 211).

Peasant Households and their Resource Base

​A previous post highlighted a publication from Ethiopia, which tend to be lesser known (and harder to find). This post highlights an old publication, similarly challenging to locate copies of, but may prove quite useful for those looking for historical data points for comparability: "Competition and Co-operation: North Ethiopian Peasant Households and their Resource Base" (1993) by Harald Aspen. The publication is more of a long manuscript than a book, and the author states that "by publishing the present work it is made available both to my colleagues in the PPDR programme, and to anyone else who may have some interest of the subjects treated here. Basically, this paper is a data report, but efforts have been made to comment and to suggest interpretations and means of analysis which can not necessarily always be directly read out of the empirical data presented" (p. 3).

Throughout, the book presents a variety of data sets on different aspects of smallholder lives and livelihoods. Since data is sparse for past periods, I found works such as these quite useful to explore what has changed, and also what has not. In this case, the data comes from the end of the Derg period. I highlight notes from Aspen's text, on marriage and debt:

"There are various means of getting a spouse, varying from contractual agreements involving a marriage feast and a written contract to elopement or (for males) abduction and 'raping' (t'alafa, probably most often with the consent of the prospective girl, i.e. a form of elopement). Between these extremes are cohabitation (sometimes as a preliminary to a formal marriage) as well as the occasional practice of 'hiring wives' for a limited period, where the 'wife' gets an annual amount of clothes and/or money from her 'husband' in return for sexual and domestic services. In the latter case the payment may be viewed as a compensation for the woman's renouncing of other assets belonging to the man in case of his death or if he decide to cancel the relationship. It is also not unusual for women not to remember much of their first encounter with a husband; several female informants have told that their first marriage was very short-lived: as young girls their parents had arranged their marriage and they took the first opportunity to escape from their husband, sometimes after a couple of probably unpleasant days" (p. 20)

"Key informants in Ganat reported that prior to the revolution, loans were accessible from professional moneylenders who usually charged an interest rate of 10% per month. After the revolution, credit in the form of cash has been less available, but whenever loans are given, they are interest free. The 1989 survey contained a small section on currently unsettled personal debt, and of the 210 household heads, only 29 (13.8%) reported to be indebted, of whom one was a woman. At the time of the survey, the tax obligations, when all 'special contributions' were included, were felt to be a heavy burden by most PA [Peasant Associations, now Kelebes] members in Ganat" (p. 81). Research in southern Ethiopia presented a much different picture on debt, as of 2015.

Hunting Causes and Using Them

We frequently read and use claims based on claims of causation. Yet, infrequently do we explore if the claims are well founded, or if the methods are well suited to the claims being made. Nancy Cartwright's "Hunting Causes and Using Them: Approaches in Philosophy and Economics" (2007) is a valuable resource to better engage with causation. The book, a collection of essays, "is for philosophers, economists and social scientists or for anyone who wants to understand what causality is, how to find out about it and what it is good for" (p. 1). Cartwright argues: "Our philosophical treatment of causation must make clear why the methods we use for testing causal claims provide good warrant for the uses to which we put those claims" (p. 2). 

The chapters cover a range of different topics and approaches to causation, however in general the book provides arguments for caution:

  • "What causes should be expected to do and how they do it - really, what causes are - can vary from one kind of system of causal relations to another and from case to case. Correlatively, so too will the methods for finding them... The important thing is that there is no single interesting characterizing feature of causation; hence no off-the-shelf or one-size-fits-all method for finding out about it, no 'gold standard' for judging causal relations" (p. 2). 
  • "Just as there is an untold variety of quantities that can be involved in laws, so too there is an untold variety of causal relations. Nature is rife with very specific causal relations involving these causal relations, laws that we represent most immediately using content-rich causal verbs: the pistons compress the air in the carbine chamber, the sun attracts the planets, the loss of skills among long-term unemployed workers discourages firms from opening new jobs... These are genuine facts, but more concrete than those reported in claims that use only the abstract vocabulary of 'cause' and 'prevent'. If we overlook this, we will lose a vast amount of information that we otherwise possess, important, useful information that can help us with crucial questions of design and control" (p. 19-20).​
  • "There may be good evidence for the effectiveness of a policy conceived, as it usually is, in the abstract, but the actual outcomes may depend crucially on the find tuning of the method of implementation... Or consider poverty measures. Policy may set whether a poverty line should be relative or absolute and if relative, in what way (for instance, two-thirds of the median income). But the results - for instance, the poverty ranking among European countries - depend crucially on dozens and dozens of details of implementation (how to deal with individuals versus families, wealth or welfare benefits versus earned income, etc.), details where it seems that very different decisions can be equally motivated by the ranking will come out very differently depending on how these decisions are taken. The more the details matter, the more the problems of evidence multiply." (p. 41).​
  • "I can summarize my view by comparing an economic model to a certain kind of ideal experiment in physics: criticizing economic models for using unrealistic assumptions is like criticizing Galileo's rolling ball experiments for using a plane honed to be as frictionless as possible. The defence of economic modelling has a bite, however. On the one hand, it makes clear why some kinds of unrealistic assumptions will do; but on the other, it highlights how totally misleading other kinds can be - and these other kinds of assumptions are ones that may be hard to avoid given the nature of contemporary economic theory." (p. 217)

Even if parts may be challenging for social scientists who are unfamiliar with economics and equations, the book is well worth reading.

Top Posts of 2017

​The most read blog posts of 2017:

1. List of Ethiopian Academic Journals

2. Conducting Research in Ethiopia

3. Essential Development Studies Books

4. Whose Reality Counts?

5. PhD Reality Check

Looking forward to more in 2018, with a continued focus on book reviews / commentaries (despite the fact that four of the five most read of 2017 were not book reviews, but resources). 

Blueprint for Revolution

Want to know how to use rice pudding, lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanize communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world? If so, that is the sub-title or Popovic's "Blueprint for Revolution" (2015). For those familiar with this literature, many of Popovic's tactics are of the Alinsky type. The book provides a wealth of examples and motivation. It is also problematic. It offers straw man arguments (p. 86-87). The author wants to support more inclusive societies, but calls groups of people "hobbits" (p. 71, 127) and offers stereotypical assumptions about Arabs being irrational and lazy throughout (e.g. 80, 88; see Said on this). The author suggests this is comedic, but clearly at the expense of others.

Problematic parts aside, the book offers some valuable insight into non-violent action.


  • "A big part of a movement's success will be determined by the battles it chooses to fight, and a lot of that has to do with how well it understands its opponent" (p. 37)
  • "If you recall Gandhi's salt march, you'll remember that he worked in incremental steps and declared all his little victories along the way. That's because he understands the game of nonviolence instinctively" (p. 230)
  • "Laughter and fun are no longer marginal to a movement's strategy. In many cases, they are the strategy. Today's nonviolent activists are launching a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage toward a more powerful form of activism rooted in fun. And, surprisingly, all of this works even better the harder dictators crack down on it" (p. 123)
  • "Making oppression backfire is a skill, sort of like jujitsu, that's all about playing your opponents' strongest card against them" (p. 129)

Lessons to learn:

  • "the Syrians, like the leaders of the Occupy movement in the United States, were deceived by the apparent simplicity of the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere. What people didn't realize was that the group of Egypt revolutionaries trained by CANVAS in Belgrade had spent two years winning small victories, building coalitions, and branding their movement before they undertook their Tahrir Square action. Proper revolutions are not cataclysmic explosions; they are long, controlled burns" (p. 80)
  • "A group identity is necessary for any movement, whether its aim is to bring down a dictator or to promote organic farming" (p. 161)
  • "unity, in the end, is about much more than having everybody lined up behind a particular candidate or issue. It's about creating a sense of community, building the elements of group identity, having a cohesive organization, leaving none of your men or women behind, and sticking to your values. It's about doing plenty of things that make others feel as if your struggle is theirs as well" (p. 171-172)
  • "luck matters. The principles detailed in this book, from the grand strategies to the minute tactics, are tried and true, but we are all human beings, and being human means that something completely random and crazy and unpredictable can come along and either catapult you to glory or make all of your well-laid plans obsolete" (p. 256)

New Publication: Average Crop Yield (2001–2017) in Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. and Yeshtila W. B. (2018) Average Crop Yield (2002-2017) in Ethiopia: Trends at National, Regional and Zonal Levels. Data in Brief.

Abstract: This article presents average agricultural yield data per hectare for key cereal, legume and root crops from 2001 until 2017. Data was obtained from the annual Agricultural Sample Surveys of the Central Statistics Agency (CSA) of Ethiopia. We present data at national, regional (SNNPRS) and zonal (Wolaita) levels. The data shows that average yields for all crops, at all levels, show increasing trends during the time period. Data for the main cereal crops is consistent and aligns with literature relatively well, however we raise questions about the root crop data in an effort to encourage greater critical reflection of components of data from the CSA.

From journal, and on this site.

Civil Society and the Aid Industry

Civil society is said to provide "the agents of change that will cure a range of social and economic ills left by failures of government and the marketplace: autocracy, poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, social malaise. Cornucopian expectations for social change have been heaped on this idea and, indeed, for some Northern donors in particular (both official and non-governmental), the 'discovery' of civil society has promised a solution to the enduring problems of development and democratic change" (p. 1). With the rise of 'civil society' in research and practice in the 1990s, there was a great need to critically engage the questions being raised. An important book that arose to do just that was "Civil Society and the Aid Industry" (1998), edited by Alison Van Rooy. The book "chronicles one part of the story and highlights some of the promises and dangers that the language of civil society brings with it" (p.1).

The origin of 'civil society' thinking is deep: "there are two phases in the family history of civil society theory. The first, dating from the Romans, grappled with why and how humankind should be governed and under what conditions. From the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, however, we see a line drawn starkly between the governed and the governors: all of a sudden, there is a State that needs to be defended against, and a civil society that harbours the citizenry and trains them to keep the State at bay" (p. 7). Due to 'civil society' being commonly used but rarely defined explicitly, there is "mix-and-matching from the centuries old debate on civil society" with the authors identifying six key perspectives utilized: civil society "as values and norms, as a collective noun, as a space for action, as a historical moment, as an anti-hegemonic movement, and as an antidote to the State" (p. 11-12).

While there are challenges, the contributors view civil society positively: "civil society is a good thing: many of the groups that interest us form to compensate for the failures of the State, the market or other parts of society to fulfill their aspirations. The idea assumes that a third sector is necessary to guarantee a just society" (p. 30). But, this is not a simplistic promotion of civil society. For example, they argue that "much of the literature frequently overlooks the ways in which the larger conflicts in political society are reproduced in civil society. The orthodox belief that civil society is an arena for negotiating interests, itself a touchstone of democratic deepening, masks the point that civil society can and often does feed into and aggravate existing social and political cleavages" (p. 136). As Ndegwa (1996) wrote about the 'two faces' of NGOs, the authors also outline the multiple faces of civil society: "Civil society has to be seen as an ad hoc melting pot and battleground of diverse interests and actors. This public arena is never homogenous; constituting itself as a permanent regrouping and renegotiating process. Its complex fabric and interwoven interdependencies are built on the voluntary will of individuals taking part in social and political affairs" (p. 76).

Fortunately, the authors provide not only assessment and criticism, but also suggestions for the way forward. This includes "broadening as well as deepening knowledge of African civil society; in particular understanding what might sap or energize it" (p. 166). It also means exploring indirect engagements by donors to "resume its role as an encouragement to existing movements for change, not the strong arm that sets them rolling" (p. 207). Along these lines, the book concludes that "if any project of social and political change is to be enduring it must come from the voices of local people" (p. 217). Other recommendations include understanding enabling environments, including the right to associate, the rule of law, a free press and other basic rights (p. 215). Importantly, it is being more explicit, open, reflexive and cognizant of the political nature of engaging with civil society: "The question is not whether politics can be avoided, but whether one's particular choice of political stance and partnerships can be justified and, if so, to whom" (p. 211). 

The Ethiopian Borderlands

Historians of Ethiopia have rich sets of materials to work with from the empires of the highlands, however the relative abundance of literature from the highlands results in comparatively limited literature on the the other areas (that would become part) of Ethiopia. Pankhurst writes: "Historical studies of Ethiopia, like those of other countries, often tend to concentrate on events at or near the centre of political power, and devote far too little attention to other areas" (p. ix). Richard Pankhurst, a prolific and leading historian of Ethiopia, wrote "The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century" (1997) to address some of these knowledge gaps. 

The book follows Pankhurst's typical, time-structured way of writing. At times this makes for jumpy reading; chapters based on regions over time might offer more of a readable book than all regions within time periods. Nonetheless, this is an excellent resource that should be read by all interested in Ethiopian history. The book emphasizes the interrelationship between centre and peripheries, the importance of the peripheries, and many changes of power within the centre and peripheries. He concludes with these remarks:

"The borderlands and central core, for all their differences of geography, tradition and culture, were thus economically linked. They were heavily dependent on each other, and the prosperity, and paramountcy, of any area was often determined not so much by local events as by ones in distant parts of the region. Commerce was based very largely on long distance caravans, which travelled regularly between the periphery and the interior, as well as on numerous markets, great and small, at which peoples of different areas exchanged their wares, and doubtless shared some of their experiences good and bad" (p. 432-433)

"The peoples of the periphery were involved moreover in most, if not all, of the great migrations, as well as the major political and religious conflicts of the time. Many inhabitants of the borderlands as of the central core travelled widely, in peace or war, as soldiers on campaign or garrison duty, itinerant merchants, officers of state, tax-collectors, refugees, petitioners, prisoners, priests, monks, wandering students, pilgrims or slaves. Innumerable social, linguistic, and cultural differences between the various peoples of the region of course remained, but there were also important points of contact, both peaceful and warlike. These resulted in a vast amount of assimilation of populations, both slave and free, very considerable adoption of languages, innumerable conversions from one faith to another (and often back again!), and extensive inter-marriage, often, but by no means only for dynastic reasons. The borderlands therefore deserve a major place in the history of the region as a whole" (p. 443).

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