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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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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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The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies

Why are policies created they way they are? This question is particularly interesting when the policies do not appear to function well. It may be that the 'failing' policies are not actually failing, but serving another, often unstated, purpose. A classic, essential read on this question is "Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies" by Robert H. Bates (1981). The author explains that the book "seeks to go beyond the position of agricultural economists by asking the obvious question: Why should reasonable men adopt public policies that have harmful consequences for the societies they govern? In answering this question, it looks for the social purposes that lead policy-makers to intervene in agricultural markets. Above all, it examines the political calculations that induce governments to intervene in ways which are harmful to the interests of most farmers" (p. 3).

"When African governments intervene in markets, they often do so in ways that harm the short-run interests of most farmers. On the one hand, by sheltering domestic industries from competition, they increase the prices that farmers must pay for goods from the urban areas. One the other, through the use of state power, they lower the prices farmers receive for their products; alternatively, they compete with them in supplying food to the urban markets. And the benefits of subsidies they do confer on farm inputs are reaped by the richer few" (p. 81). Further, these same programs are used to secure power, as incentives and disincentives (p. 110, 112, 117).

The problem of the decision maker is that they "want to move resources from agriculture to industry; and therefore they set prices in markets in order to capture resources from agriculture. Moreover, the governments need resources with which to implement these development programs; and to achieve their objectives, they need foreign exchange. In nations in which agriculture is the greatest source of income and the principal source of exports, it is natural that they should seek to levy revenues from the rural sector… Governments want to stay in power. They must appease powerful interests. And people turn to political action to secure political advantages – rewards they are unable to secure by competing in the marketplace. This book stresses the role of such factors in the formulation of agricultural policy." (p. 4)

Essentially, Bates outlines how governments have used policy to harm the majority of farmers, in seeking to serve other objectives.

While this book is good, it is unlikely it would pass the peer review process today. The author uses a few cases to generalize about "governments of Africa", pulling examples to prove points where most suitable. It is, nonetheless, a important read – one that set the groundwork for much of the political economy research for agricultural policy.

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The Birth of Modern Terrorism?

What were the ideological origins of Al Qaeda and ISIS? Yaroslav Trofimov argues that the answer goes back to 1979, when an uprising occurred in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For an event that is largely undocumented officially, "The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda" (2007) is a fascinating historical book – and of what the author argues is the origin of modern Islamic terrorism. The book was written by a journalist, and thus academics searching for references and justification for some of the claims will be left wanting. I located a number of errors as I read through, but the book is nonetheless well worth reading.

Why the author believes this event is so important – and the ideology that drove it - is because Trofimov argues these were the origins of nearly all contemporary extremist movements. The author also outlines that the ideology driving these extremists did not only spread after 1979 naturally - it was actively supported "on the Cold War battlefronts. Instead of being suppressed, Juhayman's brutal brand of Islam was encouraged and nurtured as it metastasized across the planet since 1979" (p. 7). The most well-known instance of this was American support of jihadist movements in Afghanistan, of which Osama bin Laden was a part. The book is also fascinating in that it shows how this event has global impacts - from North Africa to Asia - about which the author includes chapters on.

The book also demonstrates the role of torture and brutal tactics in creating extremists and fostering extremist ideologies: "Like many members of the new movement, Mohammed Abdullah had reasons to dislike the Saudi state. By one account, prior to enrolling in university he was employed as an administrative worker in a Riyadh hospital. Suspicion fell on Mohammed Abdullah when money disappeared from the hospital safe. Saudi police, whose main investigating technique tends to be torture, pulled the young man's fingernails until he confessed to the crime. He was cleared and released from jail only after the real culprit was accidently caught with stolen cash later" (p. 38). Torture resulted in bad intelligence and pushed people into extremism. The person the quote is speaking about, Mohammed Abdullah, went on to become one of the leading members of the group of the 1979 uprising.

A note for the critical reader: the book perpetuates a range of stereotypes about the "Arabs" that are well suited to be examples for an updated version of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979). Even "seemingly reasonable Muslim intellectuals" are irrational (p. 107), are not trustable and do not trust each other (p. 136, 177), while they also have secret, mutually understood bonds between them. The result is that Arabs are portrayed, contradictorily, as idiotic and cunning; untrustworthy and trustworthy; highly skilled and untrained. Tropes of 'the other' that – consciously or not – have long been used as means to uphold one's own supposed superiority.

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21st Century Economics

​Today's students, the citizens of 2050, are being taught economics rooted in the 1950s, which are based on the theories of 1850. Kate Raworth argues we need a new, 21st century economics, and proposed its seven key features in "Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist" (2017). In many ways the key idea presented in Kate's book preceded its publication, and those following the work of Oxfam over the last few years are already familiar with the doughnut.

The book delves deeper than the doughnut; exploring how dominant ways of thinking came to be, their limitations, and proposing new approaches. At the root of the argument is that "we have economics that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need are economics that make us thrive, whether or not they grow" (p. 30). For the author, this does just mean new ideas, but also new images and metaphors. For example, from thinking that good equates with "forward-and-up" to good as "thriving-in-balance" (p. 53). An important shift Raworth highlights is the need to think about the long term; "it may sound extraordinary but, despite having adopted GDP growth as the de facto goal of economic policy, the textbooks never actually depict how it is expected to evolve over the long term" (p. 246). And, in so doing, recognizing that we may not – probably cannot – continue to grow indefinitely.

Much of the book is high level visionary thinking, providing thought leadership in how thinking might and could change. There are some key specific issues that Raworth highlights: population, distribution, aspiration, technology and governance" (p. 57). The book offers the most on distribution, technology and governance, which are interwoven, such as: "Rather than wait (in vain) for growth to deliver greater equality, twenty-first century economics will design distributive flow into the very structure of economic interactions from the get-go. Instead of focusing on redistributing income alone, they will also seek to redistribute wealth – be it the power to control land, money creation, enterprise, technology or knowledge – and will harness the market, the commons and the state alike to make it happen. Rather than wait for top-down reform, they will work with bottom-up networks that are already driving a revolution in redistribution. What's more, they will match this revolution in distributive economics with an equally powerful one in regenerative economic design" (p. 205).

A few side notes, I found interesting:

  • On Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs): "economists also uncovered a troubling flip side to the experiment that they had not been expecting. Students who were not selected by the scheme, but had siblings who were, became less likely to attend school regularly – and more likely to drop out – than students from similar families in which no one took part in the scheme. Most strikingly, this was particularly true amongst girls: those with siblings in the scheme were 10% more likely to drop out of school than girls from similar families in which no one was participating. What's more, this unintended negative drop-out effect turned out to be far stronger than the positive effect on attendance and re-enrolment that the scheme was set up to achieve in the first place" (p. 119)
  • On currency: "What kind of currency, then, could be aligned with the living world so that it promoted regenerative investments rather than pursuing endless accumulation? One possibility is a currency bearing demurrage, a small fee incurred for holding money, so that it tends to lose rather than gain in value the longer it is held… demurrage is a word worth knowing because it could just feature in the financial future." (p. 274).

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Lessons from Canada’s War in Afghanistan

Canada sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan, and spent an estimated $20 billion doing so. The outcomes of the mission are debated, but will likely have little to no sustained impact. What can be learned from Canada's war in Afghanistan? Stephen Saideman sets out to answer this question is his "Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan" (2016).

The books focus is narrower than the title might imply. Saideman explains it "is neither on the decisions made in Ottawa or Kandahar nor on what Canadians encountered in Afghanistan. Instead, the premise here is what that we can learn a great deal about Canada from what is experienced in Afghanistan and how it reacted" (p. 4). As a result, the book is highly Canada- and Canadian-centric. While the book makes minor allusions to the impact the war had on Afghans and Afghanistan, there are no details on this. Readers learn only of Canadian casualties, Canadian foreign relations, Canadian media, and so forth. Contextualization is important. I suggest that this book not be read alone, but alongside others, such as: Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid (2008), The Wars of Afghanistan by Peter Tomsen (2011), Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by Dalrymple (2012) and The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan by Graeme Smith (2013).

One of the interesting discussions that Saideman weaves throughout this book is the reasoning and justification regarding why Canada went to war in Afghanistan. It is often assumed that Canada had no choice, due to its membership in NATO. The author writes that the "famous Article V, which says that an attack upon one member will be viewed as an attack upon all, includes an opt-out clause that allows each country to respond to the attacks as it 'deems necessary'" (p. 21), and thus Canada did have options. Secondly, even after agreeing to join the mission, there was a question of scale. Saideman highlights Greece, as a NATO member, which had very few (often less than 20) soldiers in Afghanistan at any time. At one point, Canada sent more than 3,000 soldiers.

Why did Canada go? And, why did it enter at such a large scale? The author explains: "To be clear, Canada did not go into Afghanistan for the sake of Afghans but to better position itself in international affairs: to solidify relations with the United States, to improve its position within NATO and support alliances at a critical time, and to visibly make a difference" (p. 40). What sorts of successes can Canada claim? According to the author these include changing the culture of the Canadian Forces, improving Canada's position within NATO, and changing the international perception of Canadian forces. From this Canada-centric perspective, the war was a "success". He concludes: "We can cloud the issue by talking about schools, vaccinations, and the like, but the reality is that Canadian leaders (three of them, from two political parties) sent troops into harm's way because of Canada's place in the world. We can look at the conflicting progress reports about what was achieved in Afghanistan, but the mission always was about Canada's commitment to its allies" (p. 125).

While the author raises what cost this had to Canada, we do not learn of the costs to Afghans and Afghanistan. "Taking all this into consideration, I think a better approach to the question 'Was it worth it?' is to think about whether the relationship with the United States and membership in NATO were worth the [Canadian] casualties and financial commitment" (p. 125). Unfortunately, the author does not raise Afghan lives as important considerations in this assessment. Saideman does not mention the over 26,000 civilians killed during the war. One lesson the author does not tease out is how willing Canada and Canadians were to engage in war and take the lives of others to improve their own standing in the world.

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The Arts of Resistance

James C. Scott wrote "Weapons of the Weak" (1985) and "Seeing like a State" (1998), which have been widely influential (cited over 10,000 times each), and each are covered in earlier posts. Scott's 1990 book "Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts" has similar been widely read and referenced (also over 10,000 citations) and is an important read for those interested in gaining insight into how power is expressed and challenged. In it, Scott aims to "suggest how we might more successfully read, interpret, and understand the often fugitive political conduct of subordinate groups" (p. xii). For this, he argues, "the notion of the hidden transcripts helps us understand these rare moments of political electricity when, often for the first time in memory, the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power" (p. xiii).

Unlike the author's more ethnographic work, this book jumps around and pulls examples from different time periods and locations to explore different aspects of this 'hidden transcript.' Scott focuses attention on examples wherein there is great disparity between dominant and subordinate groups, as in these instances "the public transcript of subordinates will take on a more stereotyped, ritualistic cast. In other words, the more menacing the power, the thicker the mask." (p. 3).

The 'hidden transcript' is hidden because it is almost always not recoded in the 'public transcript', but occurs outside of the view of the official (or when within view goes unrecorded). "The social sites of the hidden transcripts are those locations in which the unspoken riposte, stifled anger, and bitten tongues created by relations of domination find vehement, full-throated expression. It follows that the hidden transcript will be least inhibited when two conditions are fulfilled: first, when it is voiced in a sequestered social site where the control, surveillance, and repression of the dominant are least able to reach, and second, when this sequestered social milieu is composed entirely of close confidants who share similar experiences of domination" (p. 120).

Readers might wonder why all this matters – Scott argues that the "undeclared ideological guerrilla war that rages in this political space requires that we enter the world of rumor, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity. For good reason, nothing is entirely straightforward here; the realities of power for subordinate groups mean that much of their political action requires interpretation precisely because it is intended to by cryptic and opaque" (p. 137). He explains that the term infrapolitics "seems an appropriate shorthand to convey the idea that we are dealing with an unobtrusive realm of political struggle. For a social science attuned to the relatively open politics of liberal democracies and the loud, headline-grabbing protests, demonstrations, and rebellions, the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups is, like infrared rays, beyond the visible end of the spectrum. That is should be visible, as we have seen, is in large part by design – a tactical choice born of a prudent awareness of the balance of power" (p. 183).

To be clear, the author emphasizes that infrapolitics "is, to be sure, real politics. In many respects it is conducted in more earnest, for higher stakes, and against greater odds than political life in liberal democracies. Real ground is lost and gained. Armies are undone and revolutions facilitated by the desertions of infrapolitics. De facto property rights are established and challenged. States confront fiscal crises or crises of appropriation when the cumulative petty stratagems of its subjects deny them labor and taxes. Resistant subcultures of dignity and vengeful dreams are created and nurtured. Counterhegemonic discourse is elaborated. Thus infrapolitics is, as emphasized earlier, always pressing, testing, probing the boundaries of the permissible" (p. 200).

Neglecting to study this important form of politics, can limit the vision of researchers – consider the Arab Spring: "Social scientists, not to mention ruling elites, are often taken surprise by the rapidity with which an apparently deferential, quiescent, and loyal subordinate group is catapulted into mass defiance. That ruling elites should be taken unaware by social eruptions of this kind is due, in part, to the fact that they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the normal posing of the powerless. Neither social scientists nor ruling elites, moreover, are likely to fully appreciate the incitement a successful act of defiance may represent for the subordinate group, precisely because they are unlikely to be much aware of the hidden transcript from which it derives much of its energy" (p. 224). A small spark may ignite a forest fire: "When the first declaration of the hidden transcript succeeds, its mobilizing capacity as a symbolic act is potentially awesome… That first declaration speaks for the trolled, choked back, stifled, and suppressed. If the results seem like moment of madness, if the politics they engender is tumultuous, frenetic, delirious, and occasionally violent, that is perhaps because the powerless are so rarely on the public stage and have so much to say and do when they finally arrive." (p. 227)

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Famine in Ethiopia (1958-1977)

One of the earliest comprehensive works on famine in Ethiopia was "Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia, 1958-1977", written by Mesfin Wolde Mariam (published 1986). The author is noteworthy for a career advocating for human rights, for which he was nominated for the Sakharov Prize, and also for which he was imprisoned by the Government of Ethiopia in 2005. While his life is worthy of many more words, in what follows, I focus on his book on famine:

The author shifts attention away from environmental conditions, and toward two others: the mode of production (subsistence agriculture) and oppression along with exploitation.

  • Mode of production: "If we accept the fact that, in general, subsistence producers are essentially and almost exclusively engaged in producing for themselves and their families on a harvest-to-harvest basis without any reserves of food or cash to carry them over a critical period, then we have recognized a system that is falsely self-sufficient and unreasonably reliant on the capricious physical conditions of the environment and the exploitative socio-economic organization of the society. It is precisely the false self-sufficiency and the groundless reliance on the physical conditions, and the persistent exploitation, that render subsistence production basically vulnerable to famine" (p. 24).
  • Exploitation and oppression: "We are now, it seems [following an analysis of the findings], on much better ground to emphasize that the subsistence production system is the root of the famine, and that the persistent oppressions and exploitations of peasants by socio-economic and political forces rather than occasional aberrations of the natural forces are the decisive factors of vulnerability to famine" (p. 173). When "peasants are forced to pay taxes even when their gross production is insufficient to meet their subsistence requirements, taxation turns into a brutal form of legalized exploitation" (p. 186), for which, Wolde Mariam notes, they benefit nothing.

Wolde Mariam also refutes commonly argued causes of famine, including one that places significant blame on colonialism. While accepting the disasters colonialism wrought, the exploitation it created and the harm caused, he also believes such an argument implies the "peoples and governments of the Third World are mere objects that cannot be called upon to account for their own ills. They are only there to be manipulated by this or that master mind. Such implicitly condescending arguments are extremely dangerous, dangerous because they incapacitate the peoples, especially the ruling elite of the Third World, from accepting the responsibility for their own condition, and for their own actions and inactions" (p. 132).

Given the book was written in 1986, there are a number of quotable points Mesfin Wolde Mariam makes:

  • "The slow and grinding action of famine which perhaps originates in one poor harvest starts a process that reduces the harvest of subsequent years. Famine prolongs and intensifies famine" (p. 63).
  • "Bureaucratic capitalism in its primitive form and most ruthless form becomes the instrument of oppression and exploitation, especially of the disorganized and weakest majority of the population" (p. 16)
  • "The undue idealization of the small peasant plots is a retrogressive view comparable to the well-known anthropologists' appeal 'to leave the native alone'… It is idle to believe that agricultural development can take place on miniscule farms where the majority of the population would remain permanently tied to the land" (p. 136-137).

Wolde Mariam draws on Tawney's description of the peasant situation, similar to a person standing permanently up to the neck in water, where ripples can be disastrous. And, yet, no "matter how strongly the peasants feel the injustice, the oppression, and the exploitation, as realists they find it better to rely on their commonsense and almost inexhaustible patience than on rebellion, which, even it is materializes, will almost certainly fail to achieve any purpose" (p. 18). For the solutions, or recommendations for reducing vulnerability to famine, Wolde Mariam suggests:

  • Social services: "We can also state more emphatically the urgent need for a development policy that is committed to welfare of the masses of Ethiopian peasants" (p. 173).
  • Participation: "by allowing the peasant masses to articulate their own problems and priorities, and by restoring to them their self-confidence and self-respect in order to mobilize their energy and resources to improve their own conditions of living" (p. 179). "It is idle to expect the rural people of Ethiopian to cooperate whole-heartedly in a plan or project that they rightly or wrongly believe is outside the realm of their pressing needs. In such instances, they can only become passive spectators, or, at the most, reluctant participants that will forget the whole thing as soon as the pressure it off them. This is why it is necessary for the new administrators to work with the people by allowing them a large measure of involvement in identifying problems, in setting priorities, in allocating resources, and in deciding the course of action" (p. 185).
  • Access to information: "There is no doubt that the detail and accuracy as well as the speed and efficiency of processing and transmitting information are crucial, particularly in an impending famine situation" (p. 104). However, the problem "is not only the lack of data at a lower level of aggregation, there is also the problem of access to available information. Individuals or institutions that wish to do research are constricted by the problem of the quantity and quality of data they have to use" (p. 181).
  • Control and regulation: "by tightly controlling the governmental and market forces through a responsible and responsive administrative structure in which the peasants should actively and decisively participate" (p. 179)
  • Caution with foreign aid: "It is important to bear in mind that foreign aid, as such, is not inconsequential. What makes it inconsequential, or even harmful, is the inability of the recipients to determine their own needs and priorities, and to insist on aid for specific purposes, on one hand, and the desire of the donors to create new needs and to strengthen the dependence of the recipients on them, on the other. It is the fact that most foreign aid is determined not by the needs of the recipient countries but by the needs of the donor countries that makes it ineffective" (p. 113)
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Logan Cochrane

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