Land, Landlessness and Poverty in Ethiopia

Emerging out of a 2016 workshop organized by the Forum for Social Studies in Addis Ababa (also the publisher of the book), the 2018 publication "Land, Landlessness and Poverty in Ethiopia" presents cases / chapters from four regions in Ethiopia (SNNP, Amhara, Oromia, Tigray). The book is edited by Dessalegn Rahmato, and covers a topic he has been alerting our attention to for several years - landlessness. The full book is available for download here. Notes from the Introduction by Dessalegn:

"Landlessness is an important subject for close examination because it is an overarching problem with implications for poverty, social stability and the environment. Despite this, however, it has not attracted serious investigation and there are not many in-depth analyses of the subject and its ramifications. The problem is in large measure a product of demographic pressure, land scarcity and the insufficiency of access to non-farm employment in the rural areas. Landlessness is now growing to be a significant problem, and, in some of the densely settled communities, it has reached crisis levels, causing serious concern among kebelle and woreda authorities. The problem is an indicator of poverty, and no program of poverty reduction can succeed without addressing it in a meaningful way. There is a generational factor at work here: the tenure regime in place disadvantages young peasants who, by law, should have been provided farm plots by the kebelles concerned but are not because there is no arable land to distribute. This generational divide has the potential to erode social stability and cohesion. As is discussed by all the researchers in their work, the response of the young to landlessness has been varied but of particular significance has been the phenomenon of out-migration from the rural areas. Such migration may be to bigger urban centers in search of employment (this is evident in Addis Ababa), but the migration that has drawn public attention because of the dangers involved is the illegal migration to foreign countries such as the Middle East and South Africa and the victimization of would-be migrants by people smugglers and the human tragedy it has caused." (p. 4)

"Landlessness is a serious and growing problem in all rural areas, and yet it has not been given the attention it deserves by local authorities. For the purposes of the study, the following definition of landlessness was adopted by the research teams: any individual living in a rural community who has no rights to land registered in his or her name is considered landless. Having temporary access to land under a rental arrangement does not disqualify the person in question from being described as landless. In many cases, a landless person has no access to land of any kind, no employment and no income. The first point to bear in mind is that landlessness is at the heart of the generational fault-line facing rural society. Invariably, those suffering from the misfortune of having no rights to land are the young, and young males appear in the picture more prominently than young females. The major factors that were found to be responsible for rising landlessness included demographic change and consequent land shortage; large-scale investments in commercial agriculture, manufacturing and infrastructure; land degradation; and the paucity of non-farm (or off-farm) employment opportunities." (p. 6) 

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Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam

Adam Sabra's historical work "Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250-1517" (2000) is a unique contribution of historical studies (shifting the gaze to everyday life). The book covers ideas regarding poverty (in contrast with forms of asceticism), an assessment of poverty of the era, forms of charitable giving (and the jurisprudence thereof), and a chapter on endowments (Ch 4). I was most interested in the content on endowments, although this aspect was relatively brief in the context of the book. A few notes:

"The establishment of hospitals to provide free medical care to the public required the endowment of huge amounts of property, perhaps due to the fact that these hospitals were surprisingly few in number and were expected to provide care to a large number of patients. Indeed, the waqfs established to benefit hospitals, invariably established by rulers, constituted some of the largest endowments made in medieval Cairo. The best example of this phenomenon was the hospital established by Sultan al-Manşūr Qalāwūn in 1284, as part of a larger waqf complex. This hospital was not only one of the largest endowments, it was also one of the most long lasting. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was in considerable disrepair, but was put to new use by Mehmed 'Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century. After several attempts at reconstruction, it was finally demolished in the early twentieth century." (p. 73)

"Much has been written about the importance of waqfs in funding Islamic education in Mamluk Egypt, and in the Islamic Middle Period in general. For the most part, this literature has focused on the madrasa and the khanqah. While many of the students who studied in these institutions of higher learning were no doubt dependent on their stipends for the continuance of their study, the madrasa was not primarily intended to serve the poor. The endowment deeds of these madrasas did not stipulate that the student be poor... In the case of Qur'an school, however, orphaned and poor boys were specifically targeted by founders to receive a free education. While many children received home schooling, and others attended private Qur'an schools (maktab, pl. makatib), at least forty-six waqfs were established between 1300 and 1517 in Cairo to provide a basic education to boys whose families could not be expected to pay for it themselves. Many of these waqfs stipulated that these lessons should be given at an existing or newly created institution such as a mosque, but by the late ninth/fifteenth century maktabs were being built independent of other wafq institutions. Typically, they took the form of a maktab build over a cistern (sabil) which provided water to the public." (p. 80-81) 

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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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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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