Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry

I enjoy reading books in the international development sphere than are dated. Sometimes it is encouraging to see how far the sector has come, and at other times it is depressing how little has changed. These books are often sources of inspiration for ideas, while at the same time provide a better grounding on where ideas come from – we often see a recent citation about a particular concept, when in fact it has much deeper, unacknowledged roots. Thus, I dug into Michael Watts nearly 700 page tome: "Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry in Northern Nigeria" (1983). The book was written the same year as another essential reading, "Rural Development" by Chambers (1983).

Watts sets out the key research questions at the outset: "Why has this crisis arisen [1980s], what are its historic origins, and why do food systems periodically break down completely? Why, in other words, do famines occurs and how have their genesis and effects changed through time?" (p. xxi). The author takes readers on a journey in this book exploring these questions in the context of northern Nigeria, and more specifically the area of the former Sokoto Caliphate. In addressing these questions, the author focuses on "the social dimensions of drought and, as a corollary, on the social production of famine" (p. xxii) as opposed to the environmental or biological foci that were common in the 1980s (and in some places, such as in the IPCC, maintain this focus.

This detailed study integrates geography, history and anthropology in unique ways. The data sources were not always plentiful and Watts is exceedingly open about the problems with data, his methods and the potential for biases. For example, in describing the work, he states "what emerges is a small, patchy and perhaps unrepresentative picture; yet to report to large-scale sampling on such sensitive subject matters would, in my opinion, magnify the error factor to a wholly intolerable degree" (p. 35).

The context of the book is time bound – as Watts engages leading thinkers of the moment (Scott and Popkin, in particular), however the debates continue in various manifestations, such as the economic systems wherein the poorest and most vulnerable benefit: "Although the relationships between colonialism and household security in Northern Nigeria were often ambiguous, it would nonetheless be wrongheaded in my opinion to conclude, as Popkin (1979, p. 33) does, based on his Asian experience, that the "expansion of markets is of particular benefit to poorer peasants"; or indeed that "peasants clearly benefit from the growth of law and order … and wider systems of trade, credit and communications… [which] helped keep [them] alive during local famines" (p. 81).

Throughout the book, and likely one of the reasons I enjoyed this book, is a prominent role of, and reflection about, politics. For example: "All of this is not to lessen the burden and the suffering of the famine or to delegitimize Sahelian poverty. But it is now clear that answers to many critical questions that pertain to conditions in the early 1970s are political and many more ultimately unknowable." (p. 374) Watts returns to this conclusion later as well (p. 464-465). There are also political responses, in addition to decisions of politicians: "The whole arena of labor control was characterized by constant struggle and peasant resistance, if not revolt, against explicit coercions by the state, taxes, or the voracious appetites of the buying agents. The evidence suggests that localized opposition, withdrawal, tax evasions, flight, desertion, sabotage, robbery, and religiously inspired revolt were a vital chapter in the history of the Hausa peasantry." (p. 364) While much has changed in the three decades since publication, thinking and acting politically remains one of the conversations that has continued, as limited progress has been made in putting it into practice.


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Poverty & the MDGs

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were widely touted as having broad positive impact, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continue the general, expanded, trajectory. With these high level, long-term agendas it is important to, on occasion, take ten steps back and reflect. Critical reflection may identify design challenges and structural flaws that can better inform, or entirely change, what is done in international development. Cimadamore, Koehler and Pogge (2016) offer such a space in their edited volume "Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals: A Critical Look Forward." This is not a typical critique of all that is 'development,' and the contributing authors include some engaged and widely respected individuals. As an edited volume, it is hard to review, but in particular I recommend Chapters 1, 2 and 6. Quotes from these chapters are included below, and identified as such.

The editors argue that a "critical assessment of the MGDs is necessary and we could have reached a moment in history conducive to producing the meaningful changes required to fulfil the commitment to eradicating extreme poverty and achieving human development and a better life for all. This volume intends to provide that kind of assessment, combined with a look ahead at the new development agenda" (p. 4, Chapter 1). However, the "trends suggest that, at the country level, income redistribution policies need to accompany poverty alleviation or eradication strategies. This has not been the case; neither in neoliberally oriented economies nor in the developmental states" (p. 12, Chapter 1). Furthermore, good intentions, and even good programs, only go so far. It "must be recognized that poverty, as well as its eradication and prevention, is a manifestly political issue… Policies that do not analyse the impact of power relations on the creation and re-creation of poverty can have only limited and superficial success" (p. 13, Chapter 1). Some of the explicit, political recommendations are repeated by others: "Promotion of participation, inclusion and voice of poor people is crucial to overcoming some of the political and structural determinants of poverty and its perpetuation" (p. 42, Chapter 2).

Chapter 2, a unique contribution from Sundaram, makes a compelling case for the flawed methodological system that determines "success" in the MDGs. Consider: "If one starts from the original poverty definition of $1/day (in 1985 dollars) used for drafting MDG1, and then corrects for US inflation in the 1985-2005 period, one gets an equivalent poverty line of $1.815/day (in 2005 dollars), or $55.18/month, which is clearly much higher than the $1.25/day for 2005 used by the World Bank. The number of poor would then be 2,698.42 million in 1990 and 2,146.68 million in 2010 – for a mere 20.5 percent reduction over twenty years, nowhere near the enough to halve the proportion, let alone the number, of poor in developing countries" (p. 32, Chapter 2).

There are also important reflections from the MDGs on the potential of reaching the SGDs: "Available evidence on poverty trends and our policy analyses suggest that continuing with the same set of policies and measures will not suffice to eradicate extreme poverty, or even to achieve a substantial reduction in acute and other forms of poverty by 2030" (p. 14, Chapter 1). Chapter 3 continues "People feel they have been bypassed by new economic opportunities. Access to markets and/or links to higher levels of society are hindered by their powerlessness and lack of resources for fair participation" (p. 48, Chapter 3). Chapter 6 attempts to re-focus the failures away from domestic decision making to "the treacherous features of the international system whose structure serves mainly the economic and political interests of powerful factions in donor countries" (p. 127) whose power is reinforced by voting weights in global governance structures.

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Post-doc: Power, Poverty & Politics

​The International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam the Netherlands is seeking to fill three full-time (100%) vacancies for the position of Post-Doctoral Researcher for a two year period from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018. We welcome applications from prospective postdoc researchers who are interested in doing operational research on gender, governance and development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The researchers will be part of the research project 'Power, Poverty and Politics (PPP) in DRC', a subproject of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium led by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. The project is financed by UK Aid for the UK Government. It comprises a network of partners and research under the project is set up as close collaborations between international and Congolese universities and research institutes. 

This two-year research program (1 January 2017- 31 December 2018) aims to deepen existing research on governance, service delivery and economic growth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to examine the details of policy implementation from national to local levels, to generate lessons from what works in promoting positive change and how to measure change. The PPP will do this by tackling a range of sector specific topics that link closely to Department for International Development (DfID) programs and policies and are thus chosen for their potential to contribute practical operational knowledge.

  1. Women, power and society. This project concerns the question of how the changing roles of women in DRC affect their power relations, with a particular focus on social accountability and decision making. It will be based on case studies of development programmes that incorporate social accountability mechanisms (including community scorecards and local community committees), and seek to assess the broader impact of these programmes on gender relations. 
  2. Everyday politics and practices of family planning in DRC. Promoting and protecting women's reproductive rights and health is key to women's empowerment and gender equality. This proposal concerns current policies and practices of family planning; debates on policy and perceptions of people regarding family planning and the role of societal stakeholders. It takes a 360 degrees, mixed methods look at family planning services. 
  3. Mining reforms and the changing roles of women in mining communities. The artisanal mining sector constitutes a vital source of income for many poor women and men - a substantial part of the population in DRC. In the course of the past decade,several attempts have been made to promote good governance in the mining sector. This study will focus on the gendered implications of ongoing reforms for the women and communities involved in artisanal mining in (Eastern) DRC.

More details.

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Encountering Poverty

The 2016 book "Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World" brings together some of the insights draw from teaching in a critical undergraduate program. Roy, Negron-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker offer something between an edited volume and an undergraduate textbook, while also offering critical reflexivity of their own roles and positionality. The target audience of the book was broad, potentially too broad. At times it seems best suited for undergraduate students, and at others educators. Nonetheless, for either of those two audiences, it is a book I recommend. What this book does very well, and I believe uniquely so, is offer critical engagement with international and community development studies, that moves beyond criticism. Far too often I've come across recent graduates of development studies programs who feel hopeless about the sector and disinterested in further engagement with it. About the book, Matthew Sparke wrote: "far from leading us to a place of paralysis and moralistic self-flagellation, the authors advance a more reflective and constructive approach, arguing that we can still take modest steps against massive global inequality even as we navigate its contradictions and complexities."

The point of engagement is elaborated by contrasting the position of anthropologist Li (author of The Will to Improve and Land's End) and their own: "we depart from Li on one significant matter of expertise and politics. Li (2007, 2) argues that the "positions of critic and programmer are properly distinct." She notes that programmers, those who are tasked with implementing development, "under pressure to program better… are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis" (p. 46)." To this, they state: "… we are reluctant to conclude such a firm separation between the trustees and recipients of development. Instead, we interpret the mediators and functionaries of development – from star economists to young volunteers – to be engaged in the battle of ideas. Instead of positioning critics as those situated outside of development, we seek to explore how those within the system can participate in such struggles. However, we do not want to overlook the fact that, often, the poor themselves are programmers of development, especially at the interface between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people's movements" (p. 46).

As someone who has written about the problematic nature of short-term, small-scale, donor-determined handouts, this book offers useful insight into whose voices drive the direction of community and international development activities. The authors write: "Dominant frames of global poverty and dominant models of global citizenship do not address the poverty of power. However, the long history of poor people's movements must be read as the insistence for dignity, voice, and power. After all, the impoverished of the world are not mobilizing in mass action to demand malarial bed nets or TOMS shoes" (p. 31).

Much of the book seeks to re-position, re-frame and re-orient the study and practice of international development, first by diagnosing its challenges in clear and concise ways, and then offering alternative paths: "The pull to eliminate poverty is not only insufficient but also misguided unless the attempts to do so are rooted in analysis that acknowledges that poverty is an integral part of the growth of capitalism, that it is mapped onto colonial histories, and that it is connected to global social movements" (p. 10). "What if, instead of the ladder of development, we were to recognize that the prosperity of wealthy places often depends on the impoverishment of other places and peoples? And, what if, following Polanyi, we were to realize that this is not the natural order of things but rather a system of extreme artificiality?" (p. 61-62)

"What we are striving to achieve is not just a disruption of the master narrative but a disruption of a kind of poverty action that is about feeling good and keeping everything exactly the same. We must disrupt the politics of benevolence that position the poverty actor as the savior and the impoverished as the lucky recipients of their charitable deeds. We must train young, enthusiastic people to be hopeful but realistic, self-reflective but not self-absorbed, and imbued with a sense of responsibility but no an inflated ego. The challenge for us, then, is to think about how we can prepare a team of poverty actors who will disrupt the old, problematic dynamics of poverty interventions, privilege, and power and who will envision and execute a new kind of poverty politics that focuses on the development of solidarities, not aid, and promotes an honest engagement with the dynamics of power, privilege, and responsibility that come along with this work." (p. 175-176)

Supported by the diversity of disciplines the authors bring to this book, there are discussions that are not common to works of this nature, but add important dimensions to the discourse, such as in philosophy and education:

  • "We could argue that this overwhelming tendency to focus on educating poor people and to ignore poor people's own views of their own problems is a symptom of middle-class paternalism. We could also argue that it is neoliberal, in that it focuses on individuals and personal responsibility and seemingly neglects the larger more long-term causes of inequity and inequality. These are valid and important cautionary points to make. But I want to suggest a related third point (a point bound up in these other two, as they are perhaps all ultimately determined by the current historical moment): that this tendency to focus on educating poor people is (also) a symptom of the widespread utilitarian approach to people and society. For utilitarianism focuses on individuals, and it does so instrumentally." (p. 133)
  • "Praxis posits that learning is not simply about individual fulfillment or deepening knowledge but rather about transformation, not only of the self but also of the world around us. Freire argued that learning without action is empty, and that we learn in order to act in the world around us, and that learning (and therefore also teaching) must be explicitly oriented toward this aim." (p. 163)

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Logan Cochrane

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