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 Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions

In recent decades there has been a trend toward aligning or integrating military and humanitarian action. It has taken the form of militaries wanting to win hearts and minds, on one side, and humanitarian actors calling for military action on the other. "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" (2010), edited by D. Fassin and M. Pandolfi, explores these shifts and their implications. The edited volume presents a range of different topics, three stand out for me.

In the Introduction, Fassin and Pandolfi problematize the scene well: "humanitarian intervention is still a law of the strongest – this is what makes it possible, for there is no question of intervening in Chechnya, Tibet, or even North Korea to protect populations at risk. This relation of forces – and the realpolitik that, highly paradoxically, underlies military and humanitarian government – explains not only why local impulses toward resistance are discouraged, but also why the human cost of intervention is much lower for the intervening forces, even at the cost of placing the populations on whose behalf the intervention is supposedly undertaken in considerable danger: zero deaths among the NATO forces, compared with the five hundred civilians killed by the bombardment in Kosovo in 1999, and, by 2008, more than forty-five hundred deaths among the coalition troops compared with over a million mainly civilian deaths in Iraq since the invasion in 2003." (13-14). For readers interested in an introduction to the topic, this is a worthwhile read.

In my reading, Alex de Waal's "An Emancipatory Imperium?: Power and Principle in the Humanitarian International" is the strongest chapter. The chapter explores two interventions – Somalia and Sudan (Darfur specifically) – and the evolution of humanitarian-military interventions. "For many of the humanitarian advocates of the intervention [Somalia], success was axiomatic – they simply assumed that the U.S. Marine Corps, with its vastly superior weaponry and training, would impose its will on Somalia and save hundreds of thousands of lives of people at risk of starvation. Humanitarian advocacy is all about deriving an "ought" from an "is" – the very label "emergency" is both a descriptor and a prescription for (urgent) action. By the same token whereby human suffering demands an international response, such a response must work. The question of efficacy simply did not arise." (p. 297). The entire chapter is excellent, and recommended for all interested in humanitarian and international action.

Pupavac's "Between Compassion and Conservatism: A Genealogy of Humanitarian Sensibilities" presents a historical contextualization of how justifications are made for humanitarian action. The chapter focuses less on military action per se, but the shifting values that have enabled the intersection. Even if unrelated directly to military action, some points to stir debate include reflections on the development of values within the humanitarian and development sector. For example, "current British aid organizations also evolved in reaction against industrial society. Their philosophy has historically accorded more with Bonham-Carter's aversion to modern industrialization than with Hoggart's affirmation of its benefits for ordinary people. They have been inclined to idealize authentic traditional peasant communities as counterposed to an inauthentic, corrupting industrial society. Anti-industrial sentiments have followed anthropological thinking, which also informed colonial administration" (p. 135). A second example: "Those most likely to be concerned about ethical consumption are among the wealthier social groups with higher rates of consumption. Shopping as social action fits, rather than necessarily opposes, a consumer outlook in which it is difficult to conceive of action beyond consumption. Moreover, ethical consumption may represent a form of conspicuous ethical consumption. Affluent consumers may demonstrate their superior discernment, compared with that of the masses, by means of their organic tastes, expensive foreign travel to novel destinations, and specially sources authentic fair-trade and ecological goods." (p. 143).


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The Politics of Development in Morocco

'Doing development differently' can be interpreted as redistributing power in a decentralized way, and ensuring broad participation. How do we move these ideas from paper to practice? And, are these two objectives (not explicit in the DDD manifesto, but common in the discourse) compatible? Third, are these approaches to 'doing development differently' effective pathways to arrive at the desired objectives of the DDD agenda? A useful book to engage these questions is "The Politics of Development in Morocco: Local Governance and Participation in North Africa" (2017) by Sylvia Bergh. The book is based on data collection that occurred in the mid-2000s, and could have been updated for this publication. Nonetheless, it offers useful insight into the questions of decentralization and participation.

The author sets out to "assess the actual record and scope for state-society synergies in Morocco in the context of decentralization reforms and participatory development policies, particularly at the local (rural) level" (p. 18). Bergh argues that civil society, as manifested through community based organizations (CBOs), does not necessarily support decentralization, and is not necessarily supported by decentralized governance. Why? One reason is that "membership of these two spheres overlaps to a great extent. Local government councilors tend to use their simultaneous positions in CBOs to enhance their status as local patrons and increase their chances of re-election" (p. xxii). While the author does not view this conclusion as a novel one, Bergh believes the "main value lies in documenting how this phenomenon comes about, the extent to which it is happening, and the implications it has for the emergence of a strong local democracy" (p. xxii).

In many instances, the book highlights how power plays out in both the implementation of participatory policies and decentralization efforts. This included existing elite capturing resources, and/or utilizing the processes to further entrench their power (p. 19). In addition to the local level implementation problems, government officials viewed these processes as "instruments for implementing programs more cost-effectively and delegating responsibility for success or failure to the beneficiaries themselves, rather than as a vehicle to strengthen political capabilities that might, in the longer term, challenge existing power structures and thus bring about lasting change." (p. 20; also ps. 68, 79, 126 and 163 for more examples). In fact, Bergh argues, "the simultaneous implementation of decentralization reforms and "participatory" development programs may lead to increased elite capture and fewer, rather than more, spaces for transformative participation by ordinary citizens" (p. 228).

I believe one of the most interesting contributions of this book is not the processes of how, but unique insight into the challenges and limitations of civil society organizations. While these organizations are tasked with large responsibilities, their capacity is low and their resources limited to absent. Without providing support and capacity building (common in these Moroccan study areas), international organizations are setting community based organizations up for failure. Bergh concludes "the growth of CBOs following "participatory" development projects does not equate with the expansion of a "civil society" that could engage in partnerships with local governments, either for service provision or co-governance. Rather, I find that a high proportion of these CBOs lack the capacities and/or incentives to do so due to their instrumentalization by actors in "political society" for clientelist purposes." (p. 228).

As it relates to the 'good governance' agenda, and its emphasis upon decentralization and participation, this book challenges the "assumptions that citizen participation consists exclusively of involvement in NGOs and local associations, that this "civil society" can exert organized pressure on autocratic and unresponsive states, and that this is enough to bring about a democracy with substance and depth" (p. 232). In many ways, the case studies from Morocco demonstrate the opposite. As the DDD manifesto argues, altering these power structures requires a radically different approach to 'doing development', one that more often has to do with process (how), than the objective (such as decentralization). 

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Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Two of the prominent front runners of the US presidential election positions themselves as "anti-establishment" and campaigned to take away the power of the elites and return that power to the people. Reich's recent book "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few" (2015) took on many of the issues; essentially questions about democracy, power, law and justice. This book outlines what the rules that structure capitalism are, how they are used, and what impact they have. And, optimistically looks at how different rules better serve the majority.

Reich presents an accessible book, written for a non-expert audience, presenting how the 'rules of the game' of capitalism can benefit a powerful elite or the majority. And, it provides examples from the American context of how these struggles have been navigated in history. In general, the author presents a story of how the rules that govern corporate activity were adjusted to include the majority in the past (not always easily, but in the end). However, in the recent decades, these shifts / re-adjustments have not taken place. Inequality has rapidly risen, earnings (wages) have stagnated for average workers, and a minority of a minority has become extremely, unfathomably wealthy. "My solution" the author writes "and I am hardly along in suggesting this – has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to get ahead, and redistributes to the needy… I've come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs" (p. xii-xiii). The way forward: "the only way to reverse course it for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago" (p. xv).

Before delving into some of the specifics of Reich's arguments and evidence, based on the above summary I wish to make the following note: The author does an excellent job identifying the issues and providing concrete examples of what the rules of the game mean and how they are manipulated. While there are ideas about what new rules might look like, there are fewer ideas of how 'the people' will organize and unify to make change. Those that are presented (create/support third political parties, create/support unions) are ones that are difficult to establish because of the way the current system operates. For books that explore in greater detail how power can be disrupted and redistributed, one might read Green's (2016) How Change Happens or Alinsky's (1971) Rules for Radicals.

Throughout much of Reich's book, the author tries to break down the myth that the real issue is more/less government involved in the market. Rather, it is the rules that exist in either case. "The "free market" is a myth that prevents us from examining these rule changes and asking who they serve. The myth is therefore highly useful to those who do not wish such an examination to be undertaken. It is no accident that those with disproportionate influence over these rules, who are the largest beneficiaries of how the rules have been designed and adapted, are also among the most vehement supporters of the "free market" and the most ardent advocates of the relative superiority of the market over government. But the debate itself also serves their goal of distracting the public from the underlying realities of how the rules are generated and changed, their own power over this process, and the extent to which they gain from the results" (p. 6-7).

The book offers plenty of examples of how the rules of the game are rigged. I'll repeat one of them: "Monsanto has the distinction of spending more on lobbying – nearly $7 million in 2013 alone – than any other agribusiness. And Monsanto's former (and future) employees frequently inhabit top posts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, they staff congressional committees that deal with agriculture policy, and they become advisors to congressional leaders and the White House. Two Monsanto lobbyists are former congressman Vic Fazio and former senator Blanche Lincoln. Even Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was at one time an attorney for Monsanto. Monsanto, like any new monopoly, has strategically used its economic power to gain political power and used its political power to entrench its market power" (p. 35-36).

The problem is a shift of who has power, and the solution is re-shifting that power. Reich writes: "The underlying problem, then, is not that average working Americans are "worth" less in the market than they had been, or that they have been living beyond their means. The problem is that they have steadily lost the bargaining power needed to receive as large a portion of the economy's gains as they commanded in the first three decades after World War II" (p. 131). "The essential challenge" therefore "is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind that control" (p. 168). The book ends with:

"The coming challenge is not to technology or to economics. It is a challenge to democracy. The critical debate for the future is not about the size of government; it is about who government is for. The central choice is not between the "free market" and the government; it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top. The pertinent issue is not how much is to be taxed away from the wealthy and redistributed to those who are not; it is how to design the rules of the market so that the economy generates what most people would consider a fair distribution on its own, without necessitating large redistributions after the fact. The vast majority of the nation's citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again." (p. 219)

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Logan Cochrane

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