Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development

​If you are looking for an accessible introduction to research within thew broad umbrella of livelihoods that is well researched and provides a clear outline of what we have learned and what we need to know more about, this is it. Ian Scoones book "Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development" (2015) would do well for undergraduates or those from other disciplines seeking an overview. This is not a book for experts, but part of a series of short, informative books on selected topics related to Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies.

Measuring What Counts

In "Measuring What Counts: The Global Movement for Well-Being" (2019), Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Durand build upon the work that was conducted following a 2009 commission to re-think what measures are used to assess the health of the economy (particularly GDP). The financial crises forced reflections on how the vulnerabilities were not understood; to which these authors say that most "fundamentally, policy-makers ignored these warning signals because of the ideological blinders that prevented them (and their economic advisors) from seeing the dangers ahead" (p. 6). The 2009 work was led by Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Sen and the results were published in the book "Mismeasuring Our Lives" (2010). Nearly a decade later, this book broadens the areas of work, summarizes progress made, and highlights areas that require much more work / research.

On metrics: "That GDP didn't do all that was hoped of it shouldn't be a surprise: no single number can summarize anything as complex as the economy" (p. 9). Yet, there is a slippery slope in metrics, some are usefully contextualized, but then not globally relevant, or vice versa. "There is some tension, though, between the desire to have metrics that reflect the particular situation within a country and the need to have metrics that enable cross-country comparisons, i.e., to give a picture of how a country is doing relative to others. Both perspectives are important: we all want to know how well we are doing (in one dimension or another) relative to our past or relative to what is occurring everywhere" (p. 19). The authors conclude, on this tensions that "more needed to be done at the international level" (p. 19).

On inequality: First, we need to do a better job understanding the multiplication / layering of vulnerability, rather than as stand-alone metrics: "Many of these inequality indicators are correlated, with the same households or individuals experiencing disadvantage in many of these dimensions. The report argued that one should focus on the household (or even better, the individual) as the unit of analysis, looking at all the dimensions that affect well-being at the same time" (p. 67). Second, we do not have the data, nor even the definitions for the data, to provide a basis for these understandings: "Some of the criteria for comparing horizontal inequalities across countries also lack well-established statistical conventions and definitions. An example is provided by disability status where, despite decade-long discussions, no generally accepted definition applied across official surveys exists yet. In other cases, no statistical criteria exists simply because these types of horizontal inequalities (for example, those linked to sexual orientation) have only recently entered public discussions" (p. 83-84). Even more challenging, they are, is assessing inequality of opportunity, not only outcomes (p. 88). How to do that? The authors recommend that: "Data should be disaggregated by age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, education, and other markers of social status in order to describe group differences in well-being outcomes; and metrics to describe within-household inequalities, such as those related to asset ownership and the sharing of resources and financial decisions within the household, should be developed." (p. 156)

On trust: "If the measures we rely on are out of sync with how citizens experience their lives, a lack of trust in government will develop" (p. 9). Later, they continue, "trust is negatively correlated with income inequality. And rising income inequality has also been related to lower trust in institutions. High-trusting societies have lower levels of income inequality, measured by Gini coefficients, while low-trusting societies show typically higher levels of income inequality. Trust is undermined by things that run against people's sense of fairness. Since, at least in many countries, there is a general sense that income is inequitably distributed, it is not a surprise that economic equality is consistently identified as one of the strongest predictors of generalized trust, and that countries with highest levels of trust rank highest on economic equality (e.g. Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Canada; OECD, 2018a)." (p. 126)

Becoming Legal

​Ruth Gomberg-Munoz first book, Labor and Legality (2011), explores the lives of undocumented Mexicans living in Chicago. This book, Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families (2017), explores the experiences of seeking legal status. The chapters follow the process, rooted in ethnographic research. The book is accessible. I used this book in a first-year undergraduate course and the content was well suited, particularly alongside some more theoretical readings. Recommended reading for those seeking an introduction to the use of ethnography and legal anthropology. 

Cooking Data

More attention is being paid to data. In the context of the SDGs, it is the lack of data. In the broader conversation, it is about the quality of data. From these conversations, there is an emerging literature that might might classify as an ethnography of data. A recent addition to this set of literature is is Crystal Biruk's "Cooking Data: Culture & Politics in an African Research World" (2018). The book focuses on heath data in Malawi, but offers insight well beyond. The following are some key points that stood out:

  • "While we tend to think of data as abstract and intangible, these vivid descriptors draw attention to to their materiality and life course. Numbers, of course, come from somewhere. A careful consideration of the social lives of numbers, rather than viewing them as stable and objective measures of reality, provides crucial context for interpreting quantitative evidence that we often deem too big or too technical to wrap our heads around. As an ethnography of the production of quantitative data, this book encourages its readers to be a little bit less in awe of numbers by understanding them as "creatures that threaten to become corrupted, lost, or meaningless if not properly cared for" (Ribes and Jackson, 2013, 147). It also considers how the activities of data collection not only produce numbers but shape personhood, sociality, and truth claims." (p. 3-4)
  • "Along the way, I learned, as well, that my critical gaze was shared by the people I was studying: some demographers , too, are well aware of the shortcomings of their numbers, but keep making for the sake of policy, journal articles, and a faint sense that they might somehow improve the lives of rural Malawians." (p. 17)
  • "Rather than dismissing numbers as simply false, socially constructed, or inaccurate, the book aims to critically examine the criteria and metrics that help numbers attain their legitimacy and authority by presenting a fine-grained account of data's life course and handling by many diverse actors." (p. 26)
  • "In Malawi at the time of my research, the National Health Sciences Research Council (NHSRC) and the College of Medicine Research and Ethics Committee (COMREC) —both local ethics boards discussed in further detail in chapter 3—mandated that research proposals submitted for local review by foreign researchers list a Malawian coprincipal investigator and include a detailed letter of affiliation to a local institution. Research guidelines also provided clear instructions to guide coauthorship of articles produced by research. The contract for collaboration between foreign and Malawian researchers has a wider sweep whereby benefits or resources also flow to the institution where the latter is based. The acting head of the National Research Council of Malawi explained that national review boards were increasingly vigilant about ensuring that proposals submitted by foreign projects put in place solid plans for genuine collaboration; for example, Dr. Jones described how MAYP's initial proposal did not pass review because NHSRC claimed that the institutional collaboration between the American team and a Malawian university was "not meaningful."" (p. 39)
  • "expectations that people should participate in research altruistically or for the public good are in tension with research fatigue, a legacy of exploitation and unfulfilled promises at the hands of global projects, and therapeutic misconception, in which research participants mistakenly attribute therapeutic intent to research procedures...Rather than the cog in the assembly-line machinery of research that demographers imagine soap to be, then, this ethical gift unravels normative ethics and highlights how collecting high-quality data is less a clean assembly-line process than a messy and unpredictable life course."  (101-102)
  • "Research participants employed the metaphor of hunger to accuse Malawian fieldworkers of "eating [their] money": "They come here and instead of fetching food for the children, we sit here wasting time kucheza [talking].... They go home and eat good food, rice, meat.... They leave me hungry and make money as they do so."" (p. 116)
  • ""We can't add a code without messing up things in terms of the past, data we have already collected. We must keep the phrasing and translation of the questions consistent, even if they aren't the most accurate. It's too late-In order to measure change, we have to ask things in the same exact way. We have to have the same codes every wave even if they're not correct. So, just fit those responses [i.e., those mentioned above] into the existing categories." (p. 144)
  • "thirty years after Justice (1980) provided anthropologists concrete suggestions for presenting their findings more effectively to planners, we continue to fail by others' and our own standards: our work has not really revolutionized medicine, global health, or development. In fact, by these metrics, the critical development studies and medical anthropology literature—much of which has, since the 1990s, documented how grand projects fail—is also an archive of anthropologists' own continued failure to be useful in the strong sense we may aspire to." (p. 210)​

The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia

​James C. McCann has produced some excellent works of history, and specifically on Ethiopia. This includes From Poverty to Famine (1987) and People of the Plow (1990), as well as The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia (2014). The most recent of these books brings readers into a complex story of malaria over the centuries and decades. The book also brings together McCann's work over these decades in helping to put together some of the puzzle pieces in the bigger malaria story.  

Why a history of malaria and ecology, and not a contemporary public health perspective? McCann starts with that question: "Medical science is a necessary but not sufficient lens from which to understand the disease. The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia aims to display the human ecology of the disease with an appreciation of the science of landscape change and the dynamics of a vector-borne infectious disease that has been an enduring element of human history" (p. 2). These short posts are not full reviews, but highlights that I find particularly interesting. For example:

On local knowledge: "Richard Burton, intrepid traveler in the 1850s, reported that Somalis in the southeast of the Horn of Africa actually believed that mosquitoes were the cause of the "fever." He dismissed that local belief as absurd." (p. 14). In this opening chapter, McCann walks us through the theories of the cause of malaria; apparently local Somali knowledge ought to have been taken more seriously, as it was decades later that mosquitoes were identified as the vector. 

On politics and power: "The MES also had a GR (geographic reconnaissance) scheme that offered the broad brushstrokes of a national map divided into zones, which they set in priority as A, B, C, and D (see fig 4.5), a template for planning their pre-eradication strategy. In effect, this map was a set of plans for malaria eradication, but is was also a map of plans for a modern political ecology and economic potential for the modern nation. The MES and its allies chose to concentrate its resources on Area A, an area of the highlands and part of its periphery that was, in effect, historical Abyssinia (i.e. the Christian highlands and areas they dominated in the Haile Sellassie era). But is also included strategic areas for economic development in the Awash Valley (cotton, sugar, citrus); northwest borderlands (sorghum and sesame oil and seeds); and the Rift Valley (red pepper, sugar, haricot beans, soybeans, commercial fruits) that made up much of Ethiopia's potential global agricultural exports." (p. 80-82).

On ecology and agricultural transformation: "Maize does not cause malaria, but it can and does intensify its spatial distribution and the periodic intensity of epidemic human suffering. That study of malarial landscapes at the local level also revealed an astonishing complexity of ecological elements. The historical record demonstrates that periods of malaria quiescence and epidemic outbreaks are persistent patterns, if not predictable, and are affected by rapid agroecological change. New elements of ecological change at work in Ethiopia's dynamic human and economic setting can and will affect malaria's future." (p. 136)

People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent

​In 2019, Joseph Stiglitz published "People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent." The book covers a wide range of topics, largely on contemporary American policy while also highlighting their histories - and is overtly political (Trump comes up frequently, throughout). The author provides an analysis of the challenges as well as potential pathways for the future. Some of the policies that are recommended include new regulations, such as regulating corporate business and money in politics. Other recommendations include introducing new services in the areas of social protection and safety nets as well as ensuring full employment, equality of opportunity and greater investment in education and research. Many of the recommendations will be common to readers familiar with economic arguments on the left-of-centre political spectrum. Very few, with the exception potentially of a universal basic income scheme, are radical or new. Nonetheless, this is worth a read, or at least the scan, to understand the economic arguments behind these recommendations. 

Some context on why regulations are called for and the barriers to change:

"Adam Smith's invisible hand (the notion that the pursuit of self-interest leads as if by an invisible hand to the well-being of society) is perhaps the single most important idea in modern economics, and yet even Smith recognized be limited power of markets and the need for government action. Modern economic research - both theory and experience -has enhanced our understanding of government's fundamental role in a market economy. It is needed both to do what markets won't and can't do as well as make sure that markets act as they are supposed to." (p. 24)

"The truly greedy and short-sighted in the 1 percent have come to understand that globalization, financialization, and other elements of the current economic rulebook are not supported by the vast majority of Americans, and understandably so. For these, this has one deeply disturbing implication: if we let democracy run its course, and if we believe in a modicum of rationality on the part of voters, they will choose an alternative course. In their pursuit of their naked self-interest, these super-rich have thus formulated a three-part strategy: deception, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment. Deception: they tell others that policies like the 2017 tax bill to further and enrich the rich will actually help ordinary Americans, or that a trade war with China will somehow reverse deindustrialization. Disenfranchisement: they work hard to make sure that those who might vote for more progressive policies can't or don't, either by making it hard for them to register, or by making it difficult for them to vote. And finally, disempowerment: they put sufficient constraints on government so that, if all else fails and a more progressive government were elected, it couldn't do what is needed to reform our politics and economy. One example: the constraints imposed by an increasingly stacked and ideological Supreme Court." (p. 27)

"A particularly invidious example of market power is the oligopoly in academic publishing. Chapter 1 highlighted the central role of knowledge in increases in our well-being. Advances in knowledge, in turn, require the dissemination of ideas. But in our market-based economy, this has been entrusted largely to the market, and the form that has taken is a highly concentrated and highly profitable oligopoly, with some five publishers accounting for more than half of all papers published, and for 70 percent of those in the social sciences. The irony is that the publishers get the articles for free (in some cases, they even get paid to publish them), the research reported is typically funded by the government, the publishers get academics to do most of the editorial work (the review of the articles) for free, and educational institutions and libraries (largely government-funded) then pay the publishers. Their high prices and excess profits, of course, mean that there is less money to fund research." (p. 76)

"Right now, on balance, our economy needs more regulations, at least in certain key arenas. Our economy has been changing fast, and our regulations need to keep pace. Twenty years ago, for instance, we didn't realize the dangers posed by carbon emissions; we now do, and we need regulations to reflect that. Twenty years ago, obesity was not the problem it is today. Now, we need to protect our children from the sweet and salty foods, designed to be addictive, that are contributing to this epidemic. Twenty years ago we didn't have the opioid crisis that has in part been manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry. Twenty years ago we didn't have a rash of for-profit educational institutions exploiting their students and the government loans for which they qualify. The conflict over net neutrality provides a vivid example of the need for regulation and the ways in which corporate interest manipulate the system for their own advantage." (p. 146)

Labor and Legality

​I spent much of the summer looking for good ethnographies that would be suitable for first year undergraduate students - essentially a book that is not written for anthropologists, not heavy with theory, while still presenting the value that ethnography can offer. Gomberg-Munoz's Labor and Legality (2011) fit that well. The book also provides insight into a contemporary issues, which we encounter in our social media feeds and on the daily news, making it a book that can be quite engaging. If you are looking for an accessible ethnography on the topic of migration to the US (specifically, undocumented migration from Mexico), this is book well worth picking up. It is also quite useful as a book for teaching. Many of the ethnographies I read were more appropriate for graduate students and experts. Labor and Legality works well for a broader audience.

Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine

​de Waal, Alex. 2018: Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Cambridge: Polity Press. 264 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 9781509524679

As available: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1464993419836552

Readers with an interest in the topic of famine will have frequently come across the name Alex de Waal throughout the past three decades. As a researcher, practitioner and advocate, de Waal has been at the forefront of integrating issues of power and politics into our collective understanding and engagement with famine. Along these lines, his most recent book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, highlights the role of politics and power in causing (and preventing) famine while also challenging an overemphasis regarding concerns of population growth and extreme climatic events (as well as climate change generally). The book does not seeks to answer why famine occurs, but rather why mass famine events have become so rare. The book's 11 chapters are divided into three sections that deal with the history of famine, processes that nearly led to the elimination of famine, and factors that may perpetuate famine in the future.

Given the topic of the book, readers might not expect it to be a positive story. However, it largely is. This is doubly surprising given the tendency to focus on those in immediate need in the present while insufficiently recognizing the progress made in reducing the frequency and severity of famine around the world in the longer term. Alex de Waal describes the change as remarkable, and indeed it has been. In contemporary history, an average of 10 million people died each decade due to famine-related causes; however, after the 1970s, this declined substantially—which occurred alongside significant increases in global population. This is contrary to the frequently referenced Malthusian theory, which, despite being repeatedly proven incorrect, returns as a 'zombie' theory in popular discourse (as the author describes it, drawing on Ulrich Beck), refusing to be put to rest. This is a point de Waal returns to later in the book, when exploring potential new causes of famine.

The progress made toward eliminating famine, de Waal argues, is a combination of changes. Primary amongst these, he cites the decline of war and forced migration, the decline in dictatorship, and the rise of democratization and freedoms. Secondary changes outlined in the book include improvements in public health, more robust humanitarian response (excepting humanitarian intervention), demographic changes, advances in agricultural production, greater coverage of markets, economic growth and declines of poverty. As with efforts to understand the causes of famine, these steps made in eliminating famine are not explained by a single factor, but often the confluence of multiple changes. A case study of Ethiopia's progress demonstrates that eliminating famine can be done.

The future looked promising to Alex De Waal. Until 2017, when the spread of a form of political engagement he terms 'transactional politics' (re)emerged, a form of international engagement wherein power and politics have taken a confrontational approach, rather than a collective one. In the process, the 'logic of political power – ultimately, power over who is entitled to live and who doesn't enjoy that right' has fostered famines in places such as Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen (p. ix). Humanitarian activity that helped reduce the occurrence and severity of famine has experienced a shift. More political actors are using humanitarian activities as tactics to achieve other aims, not as initiatives that ought to be pursued in and of themselves. Recent examples of this include the lack of action of the food blockade of Yemen, and starvation as an instrument of conflict in Syria. These are the result of political choices, occurring with our collective knowledge. Famines of the present, and of the future, the author predicts, will not be due to drought, but will primarily be political. de Waal terms the broader shift of international norms 'counter-humanitarianism' that 'legitimizes political and military conduct that is indifferent to human life or subordinates human life to other ends' (p. 196). While much of this book brings together de Waal's decades of experience, the forward-looking components may be its strongest new contribution.

In addition to the worrisome trend of counter-humanitarianism, the author explores other potential processes that may see a resurgence of famine. The most apparent of these, based upon case studies from the past two decades, is the role of conflict and failed states, as well as the risks of globalized markets, such as in the form of commodity price spikes. In the process of analysing potential new causes of famine, de Waal challenges some of the alarmist discourse about looming famines, such as that often presented in climate change narratives. An unintended outcome of the unjustified fear of 'impending global scarcity' may be inappropriate and/or harmful responses that 'can make matters worse' (p. 176). The author concludes with a sobering note that while we have witnessed great progress, 'there are multiple pathways to famine, each of them intrinsically unlikely, but growing less so' (p. 196). Throughout the book, de Waal stresses the need for continued work of 'codifying and prosecuting' (p. 202) famine crimes as one of the critical mechanisms that need to be instituted in our collective effort to eliminate famine.

Alex de Waal aimed to advance our understanding of famine with this work. He has aptly done so. Some critics may question the data points in the book, which the author was at pains to explain are at best approximations, and in the process miss the point of the book. This should be on the essential reading list of anyone seeking to understand famine and all who seek to eliminate it from the human experience. Students and scholars alike will find this an important book, and it should become standard reading in courses dealing with famine in Anthropology, Development Studies, International Relations, Political Science and beyond. The book is clearly written and is accessible to a broad audience. It also infuses de Waal's practical engagement and activism with his research and the available evidence, making it an enjoyable and informative read.

Ethiopia Engraved

When European travellers and writers came to Ethiopia before the age of photography, the made engravings of what they saw. Richard Pankhurst and Leila Ingrams collected these engravings, from 1540 to 1900, and published them in "Ethiopia Engraved: An Illustrated Catalogue of Engravings by Foreign Travellers from 1681 to 1900" (1988). The period following this time period also has a collection, "Ethiopia Photographed".

This book is divided into sections of location (Aksumite Origins and Christian Churches; Gondar; Adwa, Dabra Tabor and Other Towns of the North and North-West; Shawa and its Towns; Harar; Massawa and the Gulf of Aden Ports; Eritrea) people (Tewodros; Yohannes; Menilek and Taytu) and some categories (Scenery of the North; Wildlife of Ethiopia; the Travellers and the Artists; Ethnography, Geography and History; Birds, Butterflies, Fauna, Fish, Flora and Reptiles). The book provides glimpses into the past. It also highlights how engravings are also artistic renditions, in this case of European views of Ethiopia. Romanticized and idealized or exaggerated. In other cases, the engravings look much like things can see today, such a scenery portraits and buildings.

An excellent collection for those interested in Ethiopian history.

Knowledge and Global Power

When I picked up "Knowledge and Global Power: Making New Sciences in the South" (2019), by Collyer, Connell, Maia and Morrell, I had high expectations. We need more in-depth analyses of how knowledge is produced, disseminated, validated and valued, particularly from the perspective of the Global South. It begins: "The former imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the rich countries of Europe and North America that we collectively call the global North, are still central in the knowledge economy. In this book we examine how their influence persists. But our focus is on the knowledge work of the system's periphery, the majority of the world, the global South." (p. xv)

The book covers three research thematics (HIV, climate change, gender). The "South" in this case was geographic (Australia, Brazil and South Africa), not necessarily the 'Global South' as it is normally used. In this sense, some questions that might be asked, such as in a place like Malawi or Burundi, were not asked. I also felt the methodology (qualitative, interviews) might have be better as a mixed-methods (one chapter used Web of Science, for some analytics) to show how the issues raised are experienced or how they manifest in a broader way. Given the large number of identifiers, it was not clear why anonymity was used – seems highly likely these individuals could be identified, if one wanted. Acknowledging their expert knowledge might give credit to these voices of the south.

One interesting reflecting on the changing landscape of knowledge work: "Surprisingly, scholars in our Southern tier countries (who published indexed by WoS between 2011 and 2016) almost unanimously completed their PhDs in their own countries… The high level of local PhDs in our three Southern tier countries suggests that while previous generations of scholars were forced to travel overseas to complete PhDs due to the lack of training facilities in their own countries; current scholars have access to satisfactory programs and are able to complete their education locally" (p. 118). While this is a positive indication of capacity in the south, it was certainly influenced by the countries selected (Australia, Brazil and South Africa).

Powered by EasyBlog for Joomla!