Vanier Scholar and Doctoral Candidate

The Quest for Socialist Utopia

​Bahru Zewde's "The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974" (2014) is brilliant. It is detailed, and may be of interest to a narrow audience as a result. However, this exploration of the student movement – leading up to the overthrow of the Imperial Regime in 1974 – is extremely well done, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of contemporary issues in Ethiopia.

Bahru admirably accomplished his task of "present a more comprehensive and analytical narrative, placing the movement within first its global and then its national contexts. Taking into account both the external and internal components of the Ethiopian student movement" (p. 9). While, at the same time, the book does not set out to defend or vilify any specific group or person. Rather, Bahru argues, "the student movement, the Ethiopian included, has to be viewed not as a philosophical issue but as a historical phenomenon. As such, it has to be understood within the context of its time, not judged from the vantage point of the present" (p. 9.

What was the movement all about? Ending oppression: "There is general consensus that the driving force behind the Ethiopian student movement was rejection of oppression in all its forms. The protests and demonstrations that started to peak after 1965 were directed against one manifestation or another of that oppression. The 'Land to the Tiller' demonstration of 1965 had its objective economic and social equity in the exploitation of the country's most important social and economic asset – land. In 1966, students rose in defence of the poor who were herded in shelters that were considered sub-human. The 1967 demonstration was in protests against the curtailment of the freedom of expression and assembly. The nation-wide protests of 1969, under the slogan of 'Education for All' drew attention to the increasing constraints placed on the poor sectors of society in educating their children" (p. 187).

It was, given the circumstances, a highly influential and effective movement. "For about a decade and a half in the middle of the past century, Ethiopian students made a decisive and fateful intervention in the national affairs of their country", writes Bahru (p. 263). But, the author also wonders how ended up where it did: "there is general consensus that the seventeen-year tenure of the Darg was one of almost unmitigated gloom. The only redeeming feature of that tenure was the land reform proclamation of 1975, which could be said to have been a resounding response both to the passionate calls of the reforming intellectuals of the early twentieth century to alleviate the lot of the tribute-paying peasant (the gabbar) and the slogan of the 'Land to the Tiller' articulated by the students in 1965 (p. 263-264). The author does not only recount the events, but reflects upon them and their significance. For example, he suggests that the radical Marxist ideals with militant adherents were not new in form, but rather a "transmutation of the religious orthodoxy of the classical tradition" and the "Marxist-Leninist writings provided a ready-made justification for such militant opposition" (p. 138). On the future, this eminent Ethiopian scholar, writes: "The country has to come to grips with and move beyond this legacy if it is to have any hope of redemption. At the same time, however, we have to understand that the students did what they did in all genuineness and sincerity. They had not hidden agenda. They were driven by what has driven youth everywhere and throughout the ages – the quest for social justice and equitable development" (p. 280).

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The Great War of Africa

​"Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa" by Jason K. Stearns (2011) "tells the story of the conflict that resulted from these regional, national, and local dimensions and that has lasted from 1996 until today" (p. 8). The author not only has a depth of experience in the region, but also conveys a passion for the places, people, histories, experiences described. More than anything else, it is the way in which Stearns writes that is appeals. This is a story that needs to be read, and also an example of great story telling.

"This book tries to see the conflict through the eyes of its protagonists and understand why war made more sense than peace, why the regional political elites seem to be so rich in opportunism and so lacking in virtue" (p. 6). Stearns focuses upon "the perpetrators more than the victims, the politicians and the army commanders more than the refugees and rape survivors, although many of the protagonists oscillate between these categories. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the conflict, which is undeniable, I have chosen to grapple with the nature of the system that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced such chaos and suffering" (p. 8).

"Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars with wars. There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa. Teasing out the origins can be a tail-chasing exercise" (p. 69). That is also where Stearns concludes: "The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands - some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straighforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges" (p. 336).

In some narratives, the international community (i.e. a few powerful states), exerts its will upon the world. The Congolese wars are yet another example of how agency and power much more complex: "As both Museveni and Kagame had learned in their own insurgencies, the international community was inherently hostile to foreign invasions but turned a blind eye to domestic rebellions that called themselves liberation struggles. Go look for Congolese rebels, he told Kagame, who could act as a fig leaf for Rwandan involvement" (p. 53). Readers unfamiliar with the Congo will be shocked with how other nations, particularly Rwanda, played key roles in the Congolese wars.

There are numerous side notes I found interesting, such as reflections on non-violent action (p. 9), intentional false indoctrination (p. 16), psychology of fear (p. 36), the role of economics and poverty in conflict and hatred (p. 95), the long-term societal impacts of conflict (p. 261). The author was seeking to understand the system, and about this, he concludes: "A central reason, therefore, for the lack of visionary leadership in the Congo is because its political system rewards ruthless behaviour and marginalizes scrupulous leaders. It privileges loyalty over competence, wealth and power over moral character" (p. 331).

What lessons can be learned? "This state of affairs should force foreign donors to think more carefully about contributing billions of dollars to development in the Congo without pondering the long-term repercussions… By taking the financing of most public services, donors take pressure off the Congolese government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Ultimately, the rule of law will not be created through a capacity building project in the ministry of finance but through a power struggle between government, local elites, and business circles. Donors need to figure out how to most responsibly insert themselves in this dynamic and not just pave roads, build hospitals, and reform fiscal systems" (p. 332). However, there "are no easy solutions for the Congo, no silver bullets to produce accountable government and peace. The ultimate fate of the country rests with the Congolese people themselves.Westerners also have a role to play, in part because of our historical debt to the country, in part because it is the right thing to do. This does not mean imposing a foreign vision on the country or simply sending food and money. It means understanding it and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then doing our part in providing the environment conducive to growth and stability" (p. 337).

My only (minor) recommendation to the author would be to reduce points of repetition. Some stories and facts are returned at different parts of the book. This may have been purposeful, for a readership unfamiliar with the details, but at times gave it a slightly unpolished feel.

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Indigenous Research Methodologies

​A number of past posts presented books on decolonization - Fanon on struggles, Ngugi on language, and Smith on methodologies. How might a grounding in decolonization shape research? Margaret Kovach addresses this question in "Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts" (2009). 

In seeking to understand how Indigenous methodologies have been utilized in research, Kovach presents reflections of Indigenous scholars. Their "stories, interwoven with my own reflections, explore how Indigenous researchers have integrated Indigenous cultural knowledges into their research frameworks and the challenges of doing so within academia" (p. 14). Foundational to what makes Indigenous approaches different is a grounding in decolonization: "introducing Indigenous knowledges into any form of academic discourse (research or otherwise) must ethically include the influence of the colonial relationships, thereby introducing a decolonizing perspective into a critical paradigm" (p. 30). This is key because knowledge is "neither acultural nor apolitical" (p. 30).

The author outlines how what constitutes knowledge is a key question, and one that creates challenges in integrating Indigenous methodologies into academia. "Ancient knowledge is still alive in Cree communities. The most sacred form comes through dreams, fasts, sweats, vision quests, and during sacred ceremonies" (p. 66, see also p. 140). But, "Sacred knowledge is not really accepted in Western research, other than in a peripheral, anthropological, exotic kind of way. This can create a difficulty for the Indigenous researcher, for if one chooses to embrace Plains Cree knowledges one must honour all that they are" (p. 67). This includes committing "to its values and demands" (p. 133).

Kovach's books is one step into the direction of broadening what is considered acceptable and accepted within academia. "Creating methodological choice for Indigenous researchers is but one element of decolonizing research, a process that requires depth, breadth, and attention to various aspects of research" (p. 175). "There are also political motivations. Given the assimilative tendency of Western culture, highlighting the tribal-knowledge basis of an Indigenous research framework rather than identifying it as a more generic relational, holistic epistemology, lessens the risk of a qualitative research community assimilating it" (p. 177).

One of the traits Kovach highlights is the relational nature of research and the need for reflexivity. The book does not simply describe these as traits, but exemplifies these traits throughout, as the author explores her own situatedness and journey with Indigenous methodologies. This book is unique - in its style and content - and it is well worth reading.

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Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?

​An article in the New York Times in 2015 provoked Michael Truscello and Ajamu Nangwaya to bring together the volume: "Why Don't the Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance" (2017). This book is divided into two sections, one on the Global North and another on the Global South, and is an "anthology of radical perspectives on contemporary struggles" (p. 2). The book is a counter narrative to the idea suggested in the New York Times that the poor are not rising up. "The title is both challenging and provocative, in the sense that it is at once a question and an assumption. But is it true that the poor do not rise up? Or do we simply not recognize their resistance and rebellion?" (p. 1). In documenting stories of resistance, the authors seek to address an apparent gap: "We do not have enough knowledge and information on the diverse struggles waged around the world, the wealth of experiences gained, and the lessons learnt from them and numerous victories achieved. Consequently, we do not celebrate them nor gain inspiration from them to wage new struggles. The first-hand experiences and contributions shared in this collection serve as a radical attempt to reverse this trend" (p. 3).

There are eighteen examples, well beyond summary in a brief post. In general, I had hoped the book would have delved deeper. Many of the chapters are brief descriptive summaries of challenges faced and responses. Readers familiar with this literature might be left wanting. However, for those who do wonder 'why the poor do not rise up', this is a collection worth reading. Two thought provoking quotes:

From Praba Pilar and Alex Wilson: "An early example of these confining constructs was the "Inter Caetera," a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 that laid out the justification for the Doctrine of Discovery. It established that Christian nations had a divine right (based on the bible) to grant themselves legal ownerships of any "unoccupied" lands (where unoccupied was defined as the absence of Christian people) and dominion over any people on those lands. A current example of these confining constructs is the salvation narrative unconsciously reproduced by many in the white Left when approach Indigenous and other non-European communities as allies but present solutions that have been developed in isolation, are paternalistic, and/or are inappropriate to the context. Salvation narratives are often seen as benign, but they are not. hey reflect and perpetuate the early justification for colonization, i.e., that "God had directed [Europeans] to bring civilized ways and education and religion to Indigenous Peoples and to exercise paternalism and guardianship powers over them'" (p. 35)

From Gussai Sheikheldin: "States and markets normalize the exploitation and oppression of many in society through the pretext of order and justice… becoming aware of a phenomenon does not automatically imply that one will care to transform it, so understanding structural sources of oppression in society does not necessarily mean that one will seek to combat them. That is objectively true, but we should also be mindful that any genuine care is unlikely to happen without understanding. Then there's the difference between understanding on the one hand, and 'consciousness' (understanding and caring) on the other." (p. 233-235).

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False Start in Africa (1962)

Rene Dumont's "False Start in Africa" (1962) is arguably one of the most influential and widely read texts on agriculture in Africa. The book is more of a conversation, than it is an academic text. However, Dumont was a pioneering voice for identifying key issues such as soil erosion, micronutrient deficiencies, soil type and quality in agricultural planning, (a degree of) participation and ownership, and of the value of local procurement. Readers might not come across many "new" ideas, but it is certainly worthwhile reading (if nothing else to see what was being said 55+ years ago in agricultural development). 

Dumont recommends irrigation, fertilizer, erosion prevention, affordable energy and livestock as keys to agricultural development (p. 32). At the same time, he outlines many failures of large and inappropriate projects (in these same recommended areas). The book offers specifics as what Dumont feels is appropriate and worthwhile. The author suggests that machinery and equipment are essential - along with a reduction of luxury goods (p. 44) - but similarly outlines that the European model should not be blindly followed. Rather, a new path needs to be made by, and for, African nations (p. 58). In many ways, the book offers nuanced critiques and options for moving forward with positive examples (Dumont criticizes academics for their sole focus on failure, without recognizing success). 

Given that the book was written in 1962, Dumont offers some unique perspectives. He says that "Economic progress requires an exodus from rural areas" (p. 195). He also calls for a radical shift in education - one more focused on technical skills, and not the copying of more academic oriented European models unsuitable to the needs of the nation (p. 202). Dumont promoted African and regional unity, economic unions, and continent-wide coordination (p. 264). He also argued that Europeans should not dictate to Africa (note that the author was a former colonial employee), and says "before giving lessons on socialism to Africa, let us set our own houses in order" (p. 280). 

Amidst these interesting discussions, Dumont also offers his fair share of derogatory comments and bad ideas. For example, agricultural credit, he argues, should be given out by the local peasant leader to 'reinforce his authority' (p. 213). That authority, however, can act to entrench marginalization and exploitation. Although the language has changed, Dumont appears to favor the 'developmental state' model of a single party state to push development forward - at the expense of broad and inclusive participation (p. 240). While it is worthwhile recognizing the useful ideas of this book, we should also criticize it (as it is indeed well worth criticism). 

From one perspective, Dumont appears to contradict himself in different parts of the text. However, as mentioned above, the book reads more like a conversation than a structured flow of ideas. So, irrigation infrastructure failures are pointed out, alongside broad opposition to large projects of this nature, while irrigation is also recommended. In my reading, these are general critiques with specific exceptions, rather than contradictions. Another example of this is land tenure. Dumont argues that tenure security is key (p. 128) but also that the land should be communally or state owned, and land should be taken from farmers in some instances (p. 129). While apparently contradictory, it appears that the general rule advocated is tenure security while revoking that security is the exception. Others more versed in Dumont's opinions, or the rest of his works, may have a better understanding - it is nonetheless worth noting for potential readers that the book is one more akin to hearing stories and getting advice from an experienced grandfather, than it is a systematic research work with clearly stated positions / recommendations.

As a side note: Amongst his advice, Dumont recommends African students to read Frantz Fanon (p. 251).

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Citizen Action and National Policy Reform

"Citizen Action and National Policy Reform: Making Change Happen" (2010), edited by Gaventa and McGee, presents a series of case studies of citizen movements and advocacy for national policy change. The book fits well within the "How Change Happens" space. Cases are presented from: South Africa, Philippines, Mexico, Chile, India, Brazil, Morocco and Turkey. The cases represent "emerging or existing democracies characterized by functioning states and at least some democratic space" (p. 4), even if that was not the intended objective of the volume. However, these effective cases suggested to the editors that it was "precisely because these are the kinds of settings where we can most expect collective citizen action on national policy to emerge" (p. 4).

Give the difficulty of summarizing the diversity of the cases, this review will share the key lessons learned about citizen action for policy change, as outlined by the editors in a series of propositions:

  • Proposition 1: Political opportunities are opened and closed through historic, dynamic and iterative processes. While political opportunities create possibilities for collective action for policy change, these openings themselves may have been created by prior mobilization.
  • Proposition 2: Civil society engagement in policy processes is not enough by itself to make change happen. Competition for formal political power is also central, creating new impetus for reform and bringing key allies into positions of influence, often in synergy with collective action from below.
  • Proposition 3: While international allies, covenants and norms of state behaviour can strengthen domestic openings for reform, they can also be the subject of fierce domestic opposition. Successful reform campaigns depend on careful navigation to link international pressures with differing and constantly changing local and national contexts.
  • Proposition 4: Successful policy change occurs not through professional advocacy alone, but involves complex and highly developed mobilizing structures which link national reformers to local and faith-based groups, the media and repositories of expertise. Such structures are built over time, deeply grounded in the societies where they are found, and linked to the biographies of those who lead them.
  • Proposition 5: Alliances between social actors and champions of change inside the state are critical to make policy change happen. Social mobilization structures provide opportunities for state-based reformers to generate change from within, just as political opportunity structures provide spaces for social actors to do so from without.
  • Proposition 6: Policy change on contentious issues requires contentious forms of mobilization. Contentiousness is a dynamic and contingent concept. Successful collective action must also be dynamic, with the ability to frame issues carefully, adjust to changing circumstances and audiences, and draw upon a wide repertoire of strategies.
  • Proposition 7: 'Success' can be understood in many different ways, especially among the different actors in a broad-based campaign or social movement. In general, robust and sustainable changes require campaigns which link the national to the local and which pay attention to the processes of empowering citizens and deepening democratic governance as well as to effecting policy change itself.

This book is a great resource. One note of caution, although the book was published in 2010, it appears most of the case studies were written around 2004-2006, and largely reflective of activities from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic

As other reviewers of this book have mentioned, there is probably few who are better suited to write this book than Paul Richards, with such a depth of knowledge and experience of the areas where the epidemic occurred. In "Ebola: How a People's Science Helped End an Epidemic" (2016) the author argues that faced "with the realities of the disease the common folk learnt to think like epidemiologists. As interestingly, epidemiologists began to think like the common folk. Merged understanding was crucial to epidemic control" (p. 4). Throughout, the author makes a case that 'citizen science' enabled individuals and communities to respond effectively, in difficult and resource-constrained situation, to help end the Ebola epidemic.

At least in my reading, the case for a people's science helping to end the Ebola epidemic was not convincingly made. Unless, one considers all forms of responses (i.e. requesting protective materials, finding alternatives when materials were in short supply, practicing quarantine) as 'citizen science'. There may be more to Richard's story of citizen science (alluded in the Kailahun District example of declining infections before any major international response, but the book focuses upon the actions of a medically-trained individual leader, less on citizen science). I suppose the definition of citizen science is my main divergence with the author's argument – as my own experience and understanding of 'citizen science' is somewhat different. Examples (from the 'global South') of participatory budgetary monitoring to ensure accountability and community-based counter mapping to advocate for land rights come to mind. Enforcing quarantine is a form of thinking like an epidemiologist, but this also assumes a low level of pre-existing knowledge – one might alternatively view this as an expected response to an epidemic based on historical experience with different diseases.

What I thought this book did well, on the other hand, was make a case for the importance of detailed, ethnographic research. He writes:

"Social mobilization was needed to create an environment in which biosafety control measure would be accepted and enhanced. Was there expertise to address these kind of social challenges? The social sciences are less strongly supported relative to other areas of scientific knowledge formation globally, but especially in Africa, where sometimes politicians equate social investigation with political opposition. Much necessary social knowledge is locked up in the heads and practices of people in communities, and remains largely undocumented. Perhaps nowhere was this more true (as pointed out above) than in the case of burial. How, then, given the dearth of documented, evidence-based information, was a social response to Ebola to be organized?" (p. 122)

For those interested in better understanding the Ebola epidemic, this is an excellent read. For those keen to learn about bottom-up citizen science, this might not be the best place to look.

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New Publication: Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Smallholder Farmers

Cochrane, L. (2017) Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Ethiopian Smallholder Farmers. Journal of Rural Social Sciences 32: 98-118.

Abstract: This paper presents an inquiry-based learning assessment into why farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia were not adopting a new planting methodology promoted by the government and non-governmental organizations. It offers a process of reflexivity whereby assumptions emerge as the key barriers to misunderstanding, and focuses on the concept of divergent worldviews as an important consideration for understanding (non)adoption. The learning process offers insight for policy, programming and research, emphasizing learning instead of definitive conclusions.

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The Challenge of Democracy from Below

Edited volumes do not tend to have staying power as a publication – collections of essays pass like most academic articles. Rarely does an edited volume remain an essential reading for decades. "Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below" edited by Bahru Zewde and Siegfried Pausewang (2002) is one of those books. A number of the chapters have been widely cited, and remain key sources for research. This text is also unique in that is was co-published by an Ethiopian civil society organization within Ethiopia (Forum for Social Studies)

Providing a summary of an edited volume is challenging. Rather than try to give a few points, I'll overview the structure and highlight some essential readings. The book is divided into four sections: (1) Traditional systems of governance, (2) The peasant and the management of power and resources, (3) Alternative loci of power, and (4) Alternative voices. Of these, contributions by Bahru Zewde, Oyvind Aadland, Svein Ege, Siegfried Pausewang, Dessalegn Rahmato, Mehret Ayenew and Original Wolde Giorgis are excellent. This book is well worth finding.

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Violence, Justice and Decolonization

If you are looking for a tour de force of colonialism, anti-colonization struggle and decolonization, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961) should be high on the list. Fanon is a unique voice; in style, content and argument. This work has influenced revolutionaries from Palestine to Sri Lanka and South Africa, as well as the United States. In his day – and undoubted in our times – Fanon was a radical. Fanon is probably most well known for his promotion of the use of violence, which comes out clearly in the first chapter of this book. He begins: "decolonization is always a violent event" (p. 1).

Will people will power – who use that power to entrench severe inequalities and enrich themselves – easily give up that power? Would they do so voluntarily? Fanon suggests not. "In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence" (p. 3).

Violence is not a means that is sought for its own sake, according to the author. For Fanon, violence is an expression of equality: "If, in fact, my life is worth as much as the colonist's, his look can no longer strike fear into me or nail me to the spot and his voice can no longer petrify me. I am no longer uneasy in his presence. In reality, to hell with him. Not only does his presence no longer bother me, but I am preparing to waylay him in such a way that soon he will have no other solution but to flee" (p. 10). The colonized person "is dominated but not domesticated. He is made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of his inferiority" (p. 16). "Over the years I have had the opportunity to verify the fundamental fact that honor, dignity and integrity are only truly evident in the context of national and international unity. As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being. You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer's body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at least be restored to their human dimension" (p. 221).

There have been tens of books, and hundreds of academic articles, published on the importance of strict non-violence in mass action, citizen movements. For the last decade, efforts have been made to show that violence does not work, and that only strict non-violence should be used. Fanon might suggest that this trend is not, in fact, novel: "At the critical, deciding moment the colonialist bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and business elite that their interests are identical to those of the colonialist bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensable, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good" (p. 23). However, the author argues that "the underprivileged and starving peasant is the exploited who very soon discovers that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possibility of concession" (p. 23). Furthermore, the control and exploitation need not be direct to be subject to violence, economic domination does also (p. 27). Fanon foresaw the real issue of the day being inequality: "What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a distribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be" (p. 55).

For all his original contributions, however, I found some aspects of Fanon's writing challenging – even self-contradicting. In many ways Fanon speaks for the people – for example: "what the colonized people want…" (p. 13); "the youth of Africa should not be…" (p. 137). This is a disempowering narrative for the people. Rather than advocate for the people to have their voices heard, and for their ability to create their own forms of governance, Fanon speaks on their behalf. Undoubtedly, Fanon argues in favor of governance by the people (e.g. p. 130), but his writing does not always reflect this (e.g. "the government must serve as filter and stabilizer" (p. 137)).

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Logan Cochrane

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