May
07

From Poverty to Famine in Ethiopia

Rural live in Ethiopian history is largely absent in the historical record – historians are able to work with a wealth of material from the long written record in the country, but these tends to only reflect a small segment of society. James McCann's "From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History 1900-1935" (1987) provide important insight into the everyday lives of rural people, as well as the conditions and changes that pushed people living in poverty into famine. A unique contribution made by the author is the role of the state – not its absence per se, but its presence in over taxing rural residents.

The book begins with a series of questions: "What accounts for Ethiopia's vulnerability to famine when it boasts one of Africa's most efficient agricultural systems who technology has sustained sophisticated state systems for millennia? To what extent did northern Ethiopian patterns of property, marriage, and ideology resist or contribute to the overall impoverishment of the rural economy? Did crises in the rural economy as a whole affect the distribution of labor and productive resources between classes or within households?" (p. 5-6) Through a series of short, readable chapters, McCann grapples with answering these questions amidst sparse available data.

On daily life: "Farmers in northern Wallo who daily shouldered their plows and drove their oxen to the field or collected fuel for cook fires regularly faced a labyrinth of decisions with determined the success of their farm expertise. The obstacles in the form of a shrinking resource base, a capricious environment, and obligations to feed a ubiquitous aristocracy have already been outlined. Yet the resilience of their way of life and the expansion of their agricultural system suggest that as workers and consumers highland men and women were effective managers of the resources at their disposal." (p. 68)

On gender: "Given the preference for virilocal residence and frequency of divorce, a pattern of vulnerability for women becomes clear. On divorce many women in peasant households retained few if any resources. Older women or those with young children had fewer prospects because they were liabilities unless they owned livestock. Whether they or their husbands initiated divorce, women almost always left the homestead because the land belonged to the husband. Women could retain rights to land their genealogical claims had brought to a marriage, but those rights were meaningless without oxen and mature male labor to cultivate the land" (p.54)

On taxation: "Over the course of the next two decades [from the 1920s], competition over rural revenues between the state and local elites intensified and caught peasant households in much of northern Ethiopia in a precarious squeeze that likely threatened the margin of surplus needed for social and physical reproduction or rural society and subtly shifted political and social relations between classes. I believe that these pressures, combined with difficult environmental conditions, spurred the frequent rebellions in the north and cemented a cycle of economic decline." (p. 134)

On resistance: "What was the root cause of such widespread resistance? Close examination of the patterns and timing of resistance suggests that environmental factors provided an important, and possible casual, backdrop to political events. The 1917-18 period was one of extreme environmental dislocation in Tigray and Lasta. Generalized conditions of drought, insect invasions, and influenza created severe economic strains locally well into 1920. These conditions threatened peasant subsistence and increased the willingness to resort to violence to provide the means for the survival of the household" (p. 120-121) Again: "Peasants were willing to take up arms and challenge state or local authority out of a sense of desperation" (p. 142).

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Nov
09

Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry

I enjoy reading books in the international development sphere than are dated. Sometimes it is encouraging to see how far the sector has come, and at other times it is depressing how little has changed. These books are often sources of inspiration for ideas, while at the same time provide a better grounding on where ideas come from – we often see a recent citation about a particular concept, when in fact it has much deeper, unacknowledged roots. Thus, I dug into Michael Watts nearly 700 page tome: "Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry in Northern Nigeria" (1983). The book was written the same year as another essential reading, "Rural Development" by Chambers (1983).

Watts sets out the key research questions at the outset: "Why has this crisis arisen [1980s], what are its historic origins, and why do food systems periodically break down completely? Why, in other words, do famines occurs and how have their genesis and effects changed through time?" (p. xxi). The author takes readers on a journey in this book exploring these questions in the context of northern Nigeria, and more specifically the area of the former Sokoto Caliphate. In addressing these questions, the author focuses on "the social dimensions of drought and, as a corollary, on the social production of famine" (p. xxii) as opposed to the environmental or biological foci that were common in the 1980s (and in some places, such as in the IPCC, maintain this focus.

This detailed study integrates geography, history and anthropology in unique ways. The data sources were not always plentiful and Watts is exceedingly open about the problems with data, his methods and the potential for biases. For example, in describing the work, he states "what emerges is a small, patchy and perhaps unrepresentative picture; yet to report to large-scale sampling on such sensitive subject matters would, in my opinion, magnify the error factor to a wholly intolerable degree" (p. 35).

The context of the book is time bound – as Watts engages leading thinkers of the moment (Scott and Popkin, in particular), however the debates continue in various manifestations, such as the economic systems wherein the poorest and most vulnerable benefit: "Although the relationships between colonialism and household security in Northern Nigeria were often ambiguous, it would nonetheless be wrongheaded in my opinion to conclude, as Popkin (1979, p. 33) does, based on his Asian experience, that the "expansion of markets is of particular benefit to poorer peasants"; or indeed that "peasants clearly benefit from the growth of law and order … and wider systems of trade, credit and communications… [which] helped keep [them] alive during local famines" (p. 81).

Throughout the book, and likely one of the reasons I enjoyed this book, is a prominent role of, and reflection about, politics. For example: "All of this is not to lessen the burden and the suffering of the famine or to delegitimize Sahelian poverty. But it is now clear that answers to many critical questions that pertain to conditions in the early 1970s are political and many more ultimately unknowable." (p. 374) Watts returns to this conclusion later as well (p. 464-465). There are also political responses, in addition to decisions of politicians: "The whole arena of labor control was characterized by constant struggle and peasant resistance, if not revolt, against explicit coercions by the state, taxes, or the voracious appetites of the buying agents. The evidence suggests that localized opposition, withdrawal, tax evasions, flight, desertion, sabotage, robbery, and religiously inspired revolt were a vital chapter in the history of the Hausa peasantry." (p. 364) While much has changed in the three decades since publication, thinking and acting politically remains one of the conversations that has continued, as limited progress has been made in putting it into practice.


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Oct
28

Poverty & the MDGs

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were widely touted as having broad positive impact, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continue the general, expanded, trajectory. With these high level, long-term agendas it is important to, on occasion, take ten steps back and reflect. Critical reflection may identify design challenges and structural flaws that can better inform, or entirely change, what is done in international development. Cimadamore, Koehler and Pogge (2016) offer such a space in their edited volume "Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals: A Critical Look Forward." This is not a typical critique of all that is 'development,' and the contributing authors include some engaged and widely respected individuals. As an edited volume, it is hard to review, but in particular I recommend Chapters 1, 2 and 6. Quotes from these chapters are included below, and identified as such.

The editors argue that a "critical assessment of the MGDs is necessary and we could have reached a moment in history conducive to producing the meaningful changes required to fulfil the commitment to eradicating extreme poverty and achieving human development and a better life for all. This volume intends to provide that kind of assessment, combined with a look ahead at the new development agenda" (p. 4, Chapter 1). However, the "trends suggest that, at the country level, income redistribution policies need to accompany poverty alleviation or eradication strategies. This has not been the case; neither in neoliberally oriented economies nor in the developmental states" (p. 12, Chapter 1). Furthermore, good intentions, and even good programs, only go so far. It "must be recognized that poverty, as well as its eradication and prevention, is a manifestly political issue… Policies that do not analyse the impact of power relations on the creation and re-creation of poverty can have only limited and superficial success" (p. 13, Chapter 1). Some of the explicit, political recommendations are repeated by others: "Promotion of participation, inclusion and voice of poor people is crucial to overcoming some of the political and structural determinants of poverty and its perpetuation" (p. 42, Chapter 2).

Chapter 2, a unique contribution from Sundaram, makes a compelling case for the flawed methodological system that determines "success" in the MDGs. Consider: "If one starts from the original poverty definition of $1/day (in 1985 dollars) used for drafting MDG1, and then corrects for US inflation in the 1985-2005 period, one gets an equivalent poverty line of $1.815/day (in 2005 dollars), or $55.18/month, which is clearly much higher than the $1.25/day for 2005 used by the World Bank. The number of poor would then be 2,698.42 million in 1990 and 2,146.68 million in 2010 – for a mere 20.5 percent reduction over twenty years, nowhere near the enough to halve the proportion, let alone the number, of poor in developing countries" (p. 32, Chapter 2).

There are also important reflections from the MDGs on the potential of reaching the SGDs: "Available evidence on poverty trends and our policy analyses suggest that continuing with the same set of policies and measures will not suffice to eradicate extreme poverty, or even to achieve a substantial reduction in acute and other forms of poverty by 2030" (p. 14, Chapter 1). Chapter 3 continues "People feel they have been bypassed by new economic opportunities. Access to markets and/or links to higher levels of society are hindered by their powerlessness and lack of resources for fair participation" (p. 48, Chapter 3). Chapter 6 attempts to re-focus the failures away from domestic decision making to "the treacherous features of the international system whose structure serves mainly the economic and political interests of powerful factions in donor countries" (p. 127) whose power is reinforced by voting weights in global governance structures.

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Oct
22

Post-doc: Power, Poverty & Politics

The International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam the Netherlands is seeking to fill three full-time (100%) vacancies for the position of Post-Doctoral Researcher for a two year period from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018. We welcome applications from prospective postdoc researchers who are interested in doing operational research on gender, governance and development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The researchers will be part of the research project 'Power, Poverty and Politics (PPP) in DRC', a subproject of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium led by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. The project is financed by UK Aid for the UK Government. It comprises a network of partners and research under the project is set up as close collaborations between international and Congolese universities and research institutes. 

This two-year research program (1 January 2017- 31 December 2018) aims to deepen existing research on governance, service delivery and economic growth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to examine the details of policy implementation from national to local levels, to generate lessons from what works in promoting positive change and how to measure change. The PPP will do this by tackling a range of sector specific topics that link closely to Department for International Development (DfID) programs and policies and are thus chosen for their potential to contribute practical operational knowledge.

  1. Women, power and society. This project concerns the question of how the changing roles of women in DRC affect their power relations, with a particular focus on social accountability and decision making. It will be based on case studies of development programmes that incorporate social accountability mechanisms (including community scorecards and local community committees), and seek to assess the broader impact of these programmes on gender relations. 
  2. Everyday politics and practices of family planning in DRC. Promoting and protecting women's reproductive rights and health is key to women's empowerment and gender equality. This proposal concerns current policies and practices of family planning; debates on policy and perceptions of people regarding family planning and the role of societal stakeholders. It takes a 360 degrees, mixed methods look at family planning services. 
  3. Mining reforms and the changing roles of women in mining communities. The artisanal mining sector constitutes a vital source of income for many poor women and men - a substantial part of the population in DRC. In the course of the past decade,several attempts have been made to promote good governance in the mining sector. This study will focus on the gendered implications of ongoing reforms for the women and communities involved in artisanal mining in (Eastern) DRC.

More details.

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