The Parable of the Pauper

"Imagine a pauper who turns to two finance gurus for advice. Not only is he broke, this pauper is poorly educated and lives in a rough neighborhood. The first guru urges, "Earn your first paycheck. Once you start making money, your circumstances will improve, and you will eventually escape poverty." The second guru counsels differently: "Start by doing as my rich clients do: attend college, move to a safe town, and buy health insurance. You can only escape poverty by first creating the prerequisites for wealth." The two gurus mean well, but the advice of both clearly falls short. The first guru provides no clue as to how the pauper might earn his first paycheck, much less how to sustain a stable income. Conversely, the second guru ignores the realities of poverty. If the pauper could afford to, he would have obtained the prerequisites for a better life long ago. Attaining such prerequisites is not the solution to poverty, the difficulty of attaining them is itself the problem. The parable of the pauper and two gurus reflects a fundamental problem of development in the real world." (p. 1)

  • "no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17)
  • "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

- Yuen Yuen Ang (2016) How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

Slaves into Workers

For those interested in the history of slavery in contexts other than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ahmad Alawad Sikainga's "Slaves into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan" (1996) provides a detailed account of the rise and demise of slavery within the Sudan. "In the broadest sense", Ahmad writes, "this book examines slave emancipation and the development of wage labor in the Sudan under British colonial rule. At the specific level, the study focuses on the fate of ex-slaves and other dislocated people in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and on the attempt of the colonial state to transform them into wage laborers" (p. xi).

This historical study shows how changes in the pre-colonial period transformed slavery from being limited to the elite to a common practice. The shifts included changes related to "taxation, commerce, military recruitment, and land tenure" (p. 35), throughout showing that there was "a strong link between slave emancipation, ethnicity, and labor" (p. 185) during the pre-colonial and colonial periods. With colonization, the "colonial economy guaranteed the continuation of slavery" (p. 39) through the types of projects its prioritized and funded, particularly in the agriculture sector. The international community would later put pressure on the colonial government to address slavery, including "continuous pressure from the League of Nations and the Anti-Slavery Society" (p. 102) resulting in moves to "suppress rampant slave trading and arms smuggling" (p. 103) toward the end of the 1920s.

"Although institutionalized servitude existed in the Sudan since antiquity, the widespread use of slaves did not occur until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century when Turco-Egyptian encroachment was set in motion. These changes included commercial contact with the outside world, the rise of a middle class, and the development of a new ideology that justified domination and enslavement" (p. 184).

On the gendered nature of slavery, this book provides a wealth of insight. During the colonial regime, the author writes that while "male slaves had to grapple with the antipathy of the government officials and the resistance of their owners [to emancipation], slave women faced even greater obstacles to emancipation… According to official estimates, they [females] constituted three-fourths of the slave population in the Sudan at the beginning of this century. Moreover, acquisition of female slaves continued during the first twenty years of this century. As male slaves began to leave, the labor of slave women became even more vital and owners made every possible effort to prevent their manumission." (p. 54)

The book is quite formulaic in style, but offers a depth of historical research that makes it an excellent reference on the topic.

Imagining Ethiopia – Identity in the Horn

John Sorenson's "Imagining Ethiopia: Struggles for History and Identity in the Horn of Africa" (1993) presents portrayals of Ethiopia – domestic and foreign, historical and present – and in some ways is similar to "Famine and Foreigners" (2010) by Gill. The book is partially about identity, but more about portrayals and perceptions of Ethiopia, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Oromos. The book meanders from an interesting foundation of identity formation to famine in Ethiopia, and then portrayals of Ethiopia in international discourse and by specific personalities. Until the conclusion (which provides a concise summary of the book) the linkages between the arguments are not always clear.

Particularly if you are looking for media sources on portrayals and uses of Ethiopia by foreign media and personalities, this book offered detailed research. There are also some useful early references to the rise of Oromo nationalism, at a time when many academics felt the Oromo movement would not succeed or gain momentum as the Eritrean struggle did. "The Oromo movement, although it has attracted little attention in comparison with the Eritrean situation, may be decisive for the future of Ethiopia" is one telling statement, given the events of 2016 to 2018.

On constructions of history and identity, John writes: "The past is contested terrain. Selectively remembered, conveniently forgotten, or sometimes invented, it may be used to justify and legitimize actions in the present and to provide the model for a future which is to be created in accordance with certain traditions. Not simply a sequence of completed events, the past is a creation of the present, with traditions invented to serve particular needs" (p. 38).

Further on: "Nationalist movements create their own mythologies, organizing symbols and key incidents, real or invented, into narrative forms that evoke emotional resonance. In general, the narrative of Eritrean nationalism has a different, more recent historical emphasis than that of Ethiopian nationalism, with its emphasis on ancient history and its idea of a state that has existed for thousands of years. As noted, Eritrean identity is regarded as a product of the shared experience of colonial occupation" (p. 49).

The book was published in 1993, and it is challenging to understand what was known at the time, however this book is colored by two shades. First, the research was conducted with refugee and immigrant communities, not in-country study. Second, the author was working with an Eritrean organization during its struggle for independence, and their narratives are quite strong in the work. I believe that if Sorenson had done in-country study some of the arguments would have shifted – Ethiopians all have multiple identities, each with their own imagined communities, overlapping and contradictory, and sometimes the generalizations in this book over simplify. For example, the Amhara dominance and hegemony that is repeated throughout the book would be countered by other nations, nationalities and peoples who have long expressed resisted that imposition, even asserted their own cultural dominance over others or have been dominated by other ethnicities (not Amhara). Orthodox and Muslim; Wolaita and Dawuro; Agaw and Amhara; national and regional state dynamics (e.g. a regional majority and a national minority); male and female; rural and urban; 'indigenous' or resettled; formerly enslaved families and elite families within ethnic groups; pastoralist and agriculturalist; youth and elders; various political affiliations people differently hold within ethnic groups and their access to power over time; layers upon layers. The experience is far more complicated.

New Publications (2018, Jan-Mar)

A Decade of Ethiopia: Politics, Economy and Society

As appears in Progress in Development Studies 18(2): 147-14. DOI: ​

Abbink, Jon. 2017: A Decade of Ethiopia: Politics, Economy and Society 2004-2016. Leiden: Brill. 253 pp. $24.00. ISBN: 9789004345881.

Ethiopia is a country of contradictions. There have been sustained, high rates of macro-economic growth and progress on development indicators, with persistently high levels of poverty and food insecurity. The government has strong international relations and partnerships, hosts the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, but severely restricts civil society within its borders. There is new infrastructure, improved healthcare and advances in access to education, amid growing discontent and mass anti-government protests. Regular elections occur, deemed by some to be credible, while opposition politicians and journalists are accused of genocide, treason and supporting terrorism. Building on several decades of research, in this new publication Jon Abbink guides readers through the complexity of this dynamic and diverse country.

The book focuses upon political, economic and societal issues of the nation, and is structured chronologically, with each chapter covering one of the years during the 2004 to 2016 period. This format allows readers to engage with events as they occurred in time, but also poses some limitations. With the exception of an introductory chapter on the 'Developmental State', many of the themes presented are not synthesized, resulting in readers having to identify trends over time and figure out what it all means. Covering chapters by year means grappling with a limited set of key issues, such as listing incidents of violence and dignitary visits throughout each year. In so doing, some important changes and cumulative shifts were only addressed in passing or not covered at all. For example, Africa's largest safety net, the Productive Safety Net Program, is mentioned in passing. This was also the case for the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange and its outreach to farmers, the rapid expansion of healthcare coverage and service provision, and the experimentation and leadership of Ethiopian actors to develop weather-indexed crop insurance. These are not headline events, but are transforming emergency response, the marketplace, and available opportunities, particularly for the smallholder farmer majority.

Politically, the chapters outline the brief rise and rapid fall of the 'democratization process' the ruling party outlined when it came to power in 1991. The height of political opposition representation in parliament occurred in the 2005 election (with 174 members of 547 seats), which steadily declined. By the 2015 election, not a single opposition member was in parliament. The 2004 to 2016 period witnessed shifts of power: one ethnic-based party (the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front) shifted to a coalition of regional ethnic-based parties (all affiliated with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front), relations with European nations wavered while those with China strengthened, and rural-urban divides became apparent with opposition parties winning most urban areas in 2005. The final year covered in the book, 2016, saw the emergence of mass protest movements, followed by the initiation of the state of emergency with an assortment of repressive laws and heavy punishments. Abbink describes the shift toward an all-dominant, authoritarian and monolithic bureaucracy that became increasingly oppressive, enabled by international assistance. The political assessment is critical and negative, but where Ethiopia can claim progress is not in the political sphere.

Abbink outlines how the heavy-hand of the state in the economy offers some reasons for optimism: Ethiopia's economy has grown remarkably, poverty has been reduced, significant foreign direct investment was attracted, and the country had one of the most competent bureaucracies in Africa. Infrastructure has been a key area of public investment, from universities to railways and dams. The book outlines rising debt, population increases, and the environment as critical challenges to sustaining growth. A few issues that gained prominence as the years progressed, such as the dam on the Blue Nile, shifted in their presentation. For example, in the Introduction the Blue Nile is described as providing 59% of downstream flow (pp. 10), while in the 2004, 2005 and 2010 chapters, respectively, 86%, 85% and 82% of Nile flows come from Ethiopian sources (pp. 25, 45, 130). Particularly at points such as these, the book would have benefited from references, unfortunately none are provided (with the exception of some footnotes in the Introduction).

The author does not grapple with the difficult position any government in Ethiopia would face: insufficient resources, financing and capacity, combined with significant population, health, education, infrastructural, and environmental challenges. For example, Abbink criticizes the rapid rate of deforestation (wood being a primary source of fuel), high costs of expensive hydrocarbon imports, and the contested hydro-electric dams, but it is unclear what viable alternatives are suggested to meet the energy needs of the nation. Even the author shifts positions: in 2005 flower exports were a promising development (pp. 46), by 2008 viewed as causing environmental harm (pp. 104) and in 2010 their long-term disadvantages were evident (pp. 139). The government has few 'good' options or ideal choices; finding fault seems the easiest task.

In the book, societal change is largely viewed through the lens of politics. For example, ethnic and religious identity is spoken of in light of ethnic-clashes and potential divisions within society. Civil society and independent media are presented in relation to the increasing restrictions and state control, particularly following the regulations of 2009. Notably missing were social shifts related to linguistic choices, and the education of a generation (in parts of the nation) who are unable to communicate in the federal language nor with those outside their ethno-linguistic group. This is not only an issue related to education and administration of regional states, but also of primary language of instruction at local levels, as some students do not extend their education beyond that point. Given that the nation is home to more than eighty languages, one would expect a greater level of engagement with language issues, in addition to those of ethno-religious identity.

For undergraduate and graduate students with an interest in Ethiopia, Abbink's book provides an accessible account of the 2004 to 2016 period. The year-by-year account provides a consistent format and readers are given an opportunity to experience the events as they occurred. In focusing largely on the political sphere, the book centers around the most negative and problematic issues, at times at the expense of exploring significant progress the country has made in other domains. Nonetheless, Abbink brings depth of knowledge and experience; this book is recommended as an essential resource for anyone interested in Ethiopia. 

The Black Man's Burden

The role of institutions in development has becoming increasingly important, most notably in the recent works "Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy" (2006) and "Why Nations Fail" (2012). Before these books, Basil Davidson wrote "The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State" (1992), which places a large emphasis on the role of institutions, their legacy, structure and formation. In is also a work that he writes offers the "conclusions of a lifetime" of experiences and study. Davidson writes "in this book I present in summary and perspective whatever wisdom I have gathered in these forty-odd years of African study" (p. 8).

The following offers some quotes that summarize his key arguments, but this is essential reading in full:

"Africa's crisis of society derives from many upsets and conflicts, but the root of the problem is different from these: different and more difficult to analyze. The more one ponders this matter the more clearly is it seen to arise from the social and political institutions within which decolonized Africans have lived and tried to survive. Primary, this is a crisis of institutions. Which institutions? To this the answer is easier. We have to be concerned here with the nationalism which produced the nation-states of newly independent Africa after the colonial period: with the nationalism that became nation-statism. This nation-statism looked like liberation, and really began as one. But it did not continue as a liberation. In practice, it was not a restoration of Africa to Africa's own history, but the onset of a new period of indirect subjection to the history of Europe. The fifty or so state of the colonial partition, each formed and governed as though their peoples possessed no history of their own, became fifty or so nation-states formed and governed on European models" (p. 10).

"The contrast with Japan after 1867 could really not be more accurate. Japan was able to accept "Westernization" on its own terms, at its own speed, and with its own reservations, ensuring as far as possible that new technology and organization were assimilated by Japanese thinkers and teachers without dishonor to ancestral shrines and gods. Japanese self-confidence would be salvaged. Such an outcome was impossible in dispossessed Africa. In retrospect, the whole great European project in Africa, stretching over more than a hundred years, can only seem a vast obstacle thrust across every reasonable avenue of African progress" (p. 42). In essence, the post-colonial efforts, by in large Davidson argues, faced and embraced an environment wherein the 'traditional' was ignored, considered backward and stagnant.

"At the outset of independence there had been a narrow gap in trust and confidence between the bulk of the population and the beneficiaries or leaders of anticolonial nationalism. The social aspects of the anticolonial struggle still retained primacy of influence over all those aspects concerned with nation-statist self-identification… Now, after ten or twenty years the gap has widened to an abyss: on one side, a great mass of resentful and impoverished rural people and, one the other, a small minority with quantities of wealth. Into that abyss there had plunged, more or less helplessly, the legitimacy and credit of the state which had allowed this gap to yawn." (p. 214-215). 

The ‘Nelson Mandela’ You Have Probably Not Heard About

​Robert Sobukwe (1924-1978). Leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in South Africa, a focal leader in the struggle against apartheid, Sobukwe was so feared by the apartheid government that after he led a mass non-violence protests to break unjust laws, he was jailed indefinitely for fear of what he might do. A law was created, called the 'Sobukwe clause' (as it was created for him, and only used against him), that would allow for his imprisonment not for what he has done (that time had been served), but what he was capable to do.

"How Can Man Die Better" (original 1990) by Benjamin Pogrund is one of the few books available on Robert Sobukwe, but one wishes more was available. As much as readers may come to appreciate the author, this book is probably better described as two biographies (one of Robert Sobukwe and one of Benjamin Pogrund, the author), and in that regard the book is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, given the lack of detailed resources on Robert Sobukwe, this book is well worth reading.

Robert Sobukwe was a force in his opposition to unjust laws. He stated that we "have been accused of bloodthirstiness because we preach 'non-collaboration'. I wish to state here tonight that that is the only course open to us. History has taught us that a group in power has never voluntarily relinquished its position. It has always been forced to do so" (p. 37). Yet, in his forcing of change, he was a staunch advocate of non-violence means.

"I know, of course, that because I express these sentiments I will be accused of indecency and will be branded an agitator. That was the reaction to my speech last year. People do not like to see the even tenor of their lives disturbed. They do not like to be made to feel guilty. They do not like to be told that what they have always believed was right is wrong. And above all they resent encroachment on what they regard as their special province. But I make no apologies. It is meet that we speak truth before we die." (p. 35)

The original arrest of Sobukwe was in relation to a mass movement he led to break the unjust 'pass laws' requiring people of color to carry passes everywhere they went, and face arrest if in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. "Sobukwe began to plan the campaign: workers were to be urged to leave their passes at home and report to the nearest police station on their way to work. They would, he anticipated, be arrested and prosecuted for not carrying a pass; this would have the twin effect of putting pressure on the government through clogging police stations, courts and jails, and on employers to intervene because they would be without labour" (p. 111).

Alternatively, and contrary to the popular narrative outside South Africa, "Mandela acknowledged that he had planned sabotage [i.e. adopted violent means]. He had decided it was unrealistic for black leaders to keep up the African National Congress' traditional policy of non-violence when the government frequently used violence to crush opposition, he told the court. 'Africans had either to accept inferiority or fight against it by violence. We chose the latter'" Mandela stated (p. 212).

Robert Sobukwe was released after years of imprisonment, and after six extensions of the 'Sobukwe clause' to imprison him for what he might do, rather than anything he had done. His physical health was in poor condition (he would later die of lung cancer), and his mental health challenged, after years of severe solitary confinement. Once released, he was severely monitored and restricted, effectively under permanent house arrest until his death.

Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa

The Arab Spring caught everyone by surprise, but was quickly explained as an expected, inevitable event. How can these largely contradictory narratives be brought together? This is part of the task undertaken in "Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa" (2017) by Frederic Volpi. The author writes that the "book strives to retain the implications of meaning-making in the construction of the causality and understandings of the 2011 Arab uprisings in North Africa. The argument is not merely that the idiosyncrasies introduced by multiple actors undermined the structural unfolding of revolution and transition in the region, but also that the protest episodes themselves were crucial elements in the formation of new political identities and processes. The task therefore is to generate better linkages between actor-based processes and the institutional-based dynamics of regime change and political reform… rather than compare and contrast the situations of those Arab countries that experienced regime change in 2011, I map the processes of change and of resilience that followed protest episodes in two countries that witnessed dramatic political transformation (Tunisia, Libya) and in two countries that experienced only mild institutional reform (Algeria, Morocco)" (p. 4-5).

The author takes a unique approach by combining theories – avoiding both the imposition of logic post-protest, and focusing solely on actors or institutions, but rather the unique and complex interactions between multiple factors. "The analysis I propose presents the dynamics of the Arab uprisings in terms of evolving interactions between actors in particular arenas of contestations" (p. 17). However, such individuals are not pre-determined to do anything: "people do not actually 'know' if or when they would engage in anti-regime protests until the protest was upon them. In this perspective, protest 'thresholds' cannot be estimated in advance because they are not only based on pre-existing preferences, but on new preferences generated as the protests unfold and as people reinterpret what is happening around them and to them" (p. 23).

Change is far more complex and unpredictable: "Had the provincial governor been aware of the risk of local riots in the central provinces being a catalyst for a national revolt, he might have dealt with the initial unrest in Sidi Bouzid differently. The inability to understand the transformative potential of such protest events is not simply a failure to predict accurately what might happen. It also reflects a particular mastery of techniques of authoritarian governance which are known to be effective, but to that moment. From a regime's perspective, cognitive failure is therefore not simply a lack of anticipation; it is also the result of having too much experience of a particular kind" (p. 76).

Volpi offers detailed insight into the North African uprisings, challenging many of the common assumptions about the Arab Spring, as well as social movements and how change happens. The book is an excellent resource, but would be challenging reading for undergraduate students – the readership of this book is likely academics and graduate students.

Interesting side note:

"The economic liberalism promoted by organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were called upon by regimes to help resolve their financial difficulties, directly contributed to the rolling back of the welfare state in the region. The privatization of social services led to the growth of of the welfare provision of Islamist organizations, which stepped in to replace state provisions" (p. 46).

Stranglehold on Africa

​In 1962 Rene Dumont wrote False Start in Africa, which offered unique perspectives for the time period, many of which continue to be relevant. I picked up "Stranglehold on Africa" by Rene Dumont and Marie-France Mottin (1983) hoping to find an equally interesting ideas. I did not find it as good as the earlier work. It is highly critical, but has far fewer positive examples (or reasonable recommendations), as the earlier work offered. One can sense Dumont's frustration.

The book would be a welcome source of quotes for those in opposition of international assistance: "It is development that has brought about the worst destruction in the history of the world, on an even more lunatic scale than during the two world wars" (p. xi); "Those who agree to wear the golden chains of aid are soon locked into a vicious circle of increasing dependence" (p. 20); "the looters in the West aren't going to give up without a fight – too many interests are at stake, and the economic machinery has been running smoothly for too long. They scarcely give a thought to the long term and to the future of our planet" (p. 248).

Further: "we urge our readers to remember that we, the developed nations, form the bulk of the privileged beings busily exploiting the planet. The prime responsibility for world famine therefore rests with us. We are the real hypocrites" (p. xii); "We must never forget the genocide perpetrated against the people of Africa, millions of whom were transported as slaves to the plantations of North America; or the wars of conquest that disseminated the slave economy and the system of trading valuable raw materials in exchange for the rejects of our own industrial production; or the colonial economies which were run solely in the interests of the parent state" (p. 1); "the European countries would like to present a picture of themselves as generous, and sympathetic to the interests of the nations they have exploited for so long and on such a large scale, and whom they are now starving. They hope in this way to wipe out the very memory of the original sins of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, of slavery and colonization, but in fact they are merely repeating them" (p. 7).

The book is also self-critical: "Rereading the book in 1980 I realized that the historical and, more important, the sociological data on which it was based were inadequate. It gives off a strong whiff of Eurocentrism in its approach to the realities of life in Africa" (p. 2). Yet, it still offers critiques of all fields for a myriad of countries, and heavily remains a book about what "we" ought to be doing for "them".

Dumont offers some interesting comments about China, and its comparisons: "In China the peasants would have taken the initiative and dug the channels themselves, but then China, which receives no aid in the way of foodstuffs, relies first and foremost on its own resources" (p. 167). "Tanzania's peasant population haven't inherited the tradition of hard work familiar to their counterparts in China. Circumstances have never forced them into working hard, with the exception of the immigrant workers on the sisal plantations" (p. 168).

Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy

Few can tell the story of the Syrian revolution better than Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, who has been engaged in political activism in Syria for decades (spending sixteen years in jail for that, and now living in exile). "The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Revolution" (2017) is Yassin's first book in English, but he is a prolific writer in Arabic, penning hundreds of articles since the onset of the revolution.

The book is a compilation of ten of Yassin's articles, which provides a unique look at the changing circumstances and ideas over the years (2011 to 2015). However, it also has downsides. As these articles were not written as book chapters, there is repetition and the book does not have the connected nature that a purpose written book typically does. For clarity, this is not the book that tells the Syrian story from beginning to present, rather the author writes that "this book does not tell the story of the Syrian revolution: it is rather an attempt to trace and chronicle some of its paths" (p. 24). In many ways, the essays describe failing systems: the failing revolution, the failing state, the failing international community (e.g. p. 19 on the US and Russia).

For this post, I share some quotes that relate to the mass uprising of people:

  • "As the survival instinct kicks in, the more abstract demands for democracy and self-determination will be seen as unnecessary luxuries. And while the revolution identified itself with goals that were civic-minded and public in spirit during its early stages, today these are barely discernible within what has become an extremely desperate struggle against a brutal power" (p. 65-66)
  • "I believe that the role delineated for the military component helped the peaceful revolution. Contrary to widespread belief, those who took up arms did not replace the peaceful revolution but rather contributed to its expansion and resilience. An approach limited to peaceful protesting would have weakened the revolution in confrontations with the regime, whatever the unquestionable moral superiority of a purely peaceful protest" (p. 87)​
  • "A powerful, unscrupulous offender, against whom a weak defender will not embrace high-minded principles that compromise the capacity for self-defence – under such conditions, conscience is a luxury, and so are culture and politics. It is a fateful situation, predisposed toward destruction" (p. 73)​
  • "We are locked in a vicious cycle. The long-standing violence of the regime provokes strong emotions among the abused, causing them to act violently and unjustly when they have the opportunity, while society seems to be continually surprised by what is happening and unable to either to organize itself against violations at the hands of the new aggressors or to influence their behaviour" (p. 183). 
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