People of the Plow

James McCann's People of the Plow (1995) presents the agricultural history of Ethiopia from 1800 to 1990. While historical, it is also in many ways anthropological, particularly in the parts wherein the author draws on years of fieldwork. What I found particularly interesting in the book is the broader discourse within which the book is written, more or less in response to concerns of a failing smallholder agricultural system. For example, McCann opens the book in stating: "The subject of this book is the modern history of Ethiopia's agriculture and the paradox of how the land and farming system which has sustained Africa's historically most productive agricultural system can have fallen into deep fundamental crisis" (p. 4). While Ethiopian agriculture remains framed as being in crisis, it is currently discussed within the context of fertile lands being bought by foreign investors and how farmers can maintain the rights to their land. Arguably the smallholder crisis is greater, due to continued land fragmentation since the writing of the book, but the contemporary discourse is framed quite differently.

The book is not doom and gloom. In many instances, McCann argues that the discourse of the 1990s offered too simplistic a narrative, and that "…the agricultural system and the farmers whose ideas and strategies put it into practice have, over the past millennium, evolved a distinctive technologies, social institutions, and effective solutions to environmental problems" that require far more careful study (p. 4). What this book does remarkably well is to show that while some facets of the agricultural system have remained the same, it demonstrates how dynamic the agricultural system has been and how farmers have engaged with change over time. This feeds nicely into the discourse about farmers being unwilling or resistant to change; history attests to the fact that farmers do change, what this book offers is insight into why those changes take place. For example:

  • "…the kingdom of Kaffa shifted to plow agriculture in the seventeenth century not as a producer-based response to increase overall food production, but as a result of the royal court's preference for the prestige value of teff and cereals over qocho (ensete), yams, and taro, spurring elites to require tributes in cereals. Cereals were better for tax collectors since they could be stored, divided, and moved." (p. 47)
  • "The transformation of the coffee-maize complex to a full-blown maize monoculture resulted partly from an environmental factor (CBD) but more from policies in the political arena – fixed coffee prices, land reform, and villagization – which projected state power and urban priorities onto the rural landscape." (p. 190).

For those interested in Ethiopian agriculture, this book provides an important historical context. Yet, as McCann notes throughout the book, historical references are scarce and in many instances the author extrapolates from what exists, which is sparse. While this has limitations, it is a valuable resource nonetheless. For those less interested in Ethiopian history, the book offers unique into rural development processes, particularly on how agricultural change happens (and does not happen, for example mechanization).

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Post-doc: Groundwater Futures in Sub-Saharan Africa (IDS)

This position will be based at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), UK, and will contribute to testing and applying an inclusive, transparent and scientifically-informed Pathways Approach to inform groundwater management decision-making, with a particular focus on the Upper Awash Basin in Ethiopia, in partnership with GroFutures colleagues at the International Water Management Institute and Addis Ababa University.

The successful candidate will work with senior GroFutures researchers to employ Multicriteria Mapping (MCM), an interactive, decision-analysis technique, to appraise a set of plausible, technically and politically distinct, 'groundwater development pathways' characterised through a set of stakeholder analyses and social and physical science assessments of their plausibility. This will involve a multi-stage interview process to help informants in the Upper Awash Basin Observatory to explain their views and priorities related to those pathways in a structured and systematic way. Central to the MCM Pathways Analysis will be the inclusion of all relevant perspectives, particularly those of poor women and men groundwater users.

The Postdoctoral Researcher will contribute to the analysis of the MCM findings and the preparation of a series of academic and policy-relevant outputs from this research. The results and policy implications will be presented at multi-stakeholder workshops within the Upper Awash Basin Observatory. These events will be used to assess the commonalities and differences among stakeholder perspectives related to groundwater futures, while making decision-making more transparent and accountable through a deliberative and scientifically-informed process. The candidate will also contribute to the implementation of the pathways analysis and stakeholder engagement work carried out in the other two basin observatories in Niger/Nigeria and Tanzania.

We are seeking highly-organised applicants for this post who possess excellent analytical skills and strong interpersonal and communication skills, with the demonstrated ability to work effectively with colleagues and stakeholders in an interdisciplinary and multicultural environment. The successful candidate should be willing to travel to Sub-Saharan Africa on a periodic basis.

The position is a four-year, half-time, fixed-term position, which is fully funded in the first three years. In year four, with support and training, individuals will be expected to pursue and secure other funding opportunities and develop their own portfolio of work.

More details.

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Post-doc: African city periphery

A new international research project focussed on lives at the urban periphery: You will make an important contribution to a 3-year research project which focusses upon experiences of infrastructural investment on the peripheries of three city-regions in Africa. The primary objective is to understand how urban change in the peripheries of African cities, focusing on infrastructural investments and economic change, is shaped, governed and experienced, and how these processes then impact on urban poverty. 

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and the National Research Foundation (South Africa) as part of the Urban Transformations research agenda. The project is led by Dr Paula Meth and Dr Tom Goodfellow in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and will be conducted in collaboration with colleagues in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University (South Africa). You will play a key role in the research process, particularly in relation to qualitative data collection and analysis. 

Research methods will include literature, document and policy review and analysis; interviewing; using solicited diaries; and auto-photography. Your role will involve spending substantial periods of time in either South Africa or Ethiopia in order to conduct fieldwork and carry out other related research tasks. Whilst based overseas, you will be supported by research partners in South Africa and Ethiopia, as well as being supervised (remotely) by Sheffield-based investigators. In the latter stages of the project, you will contribute to writing of academic and non-academic research outputs and be involved in dissemination activities. You will have or be close to completing a PhD in a relevant subject area; have experience of relevant qualitative and quantitative research methodologies; and have a good track record of successful research writing. The ability to communicate to a reasonable level Sotho or Zulu and experience of conference presentations is desirable.

More details

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Ethiopia's Safety Net: Power, Politics and Practice

Cochrane, L. and Tamiru, Y. (2016) Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Program: Power, Politics and Practice. Journal of International Development 28(5): 649-665.


  • With one third of the population living in poverty and millions experiencing chronic food insecurity, the government of Ethiopia faces difcult and complex challenges. One of the most robust and effective social protection efforts is the Productive Safety Net Program, which has served more than seven million people since 2005. This article explores the role of power and politics and posits that the maintenance of political control explains why components of the program are not implemented as planned. We focus upon everyday mundane aspects of life in rural communities wherein governmental programs entrench political control while making progress towards stated objectives.

The full article is gated. Abstract and further publication details available via the link above. If you would like a copy of the article, send me an email.

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Logan Cochrane

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