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.