The Peasant and the State

Dessalegn Rahmato is one of Ethiopian social scientists, his ideas and publications have shifted public perceptions on issues of land and the rural smallholder farmers. This posts draws upon his work, "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), which is essential reading for anyone interesting in rural Ethiopia.

As a book that covers five decades, Dessalegn begins by setting the stage for how the change of governments was experienced by the rural farming majority: "Over this half century much has changed in the country but much also remains the same. Similarly, while the three political regimes differ radically in a number of significant respects, they also have many things in common, particularly in their relations to the peasantry, their quest for a strong presence in the countryside, and, in some respects, in their approach to development management" (p. 13). What is the same? "An enduring element of state peasant relations is the paternalist attitude towards peasants held by local officials and party activists. Indeed, paternalism permeates all levels of state officialdom, including authorities at the top, and this is reflected in some of the main rural policies of the government. The underlying assumption is that the peasantry needs strong leadership to guide it to the greater good of modernization, as well as to protect it from outsiders with evil intentions, or the foolishness of peasants themselves" (p. 261).

Regarding the shifts: "On the one hand, agrarian change has removed some of the forces of peasant domination, but on the other hand, it has enhanced the power of the state over the peasant and inhibited the agency of the rural producers" (p. 23). On the Derg, the land reform "abolished landlordism, and this, in my view, is its enduring legacy and its greatest achievement" (p. 139). On the current government and land certification: "peasant insecurity is more deep-rooted and cannot be removed merely by issuing user certificates. Peasants are dependant on local officials for interpreting the law and interpretation is frequently made to suit the given circumstances. This is one of the factors for peasant subordination, and insecurity cannot be cured without addressing the causes of subordination" (p. 205). Further, he adds the land certification is viewed by some as a success as is used low cost and local administration, but "this is a misunderstanding of the whole point of the program: title registration is meant to provide security and to minimize disputes, and this can only be possible if the program is credible in the eyes of the beneficiaries concerned" (p. 210, also see p. 240).

His focal argument in the book is that "the role played by the human agent and the institutional environment impacting on human agency is either ignored or given insufficient attention… the question of human agency, that is the agency of the men and women who are responsible for cultivating the land and managing the resources associated with it, and the institutions that have helped or hindered them in their endeavour, must be placed at the centre of the agrarian debate. My concept of the term human agency here is similar to Sen's idea of capability. By agency I mean the ability to make independent decisions and free choices to bring about a desired outcome, and to secure the benefits free of imposition or coercion. It means the ability to have a voice, and to be an active force even if in a small way… a major determining factor is the nature of the rules of governance, particularly rights, freedoms and obligations embodied either in social values and norms or formal political institutions" (p. 21). He concludes the book in arguing that "human agency is an indispensable factor in accelerating change and invigorating the economy. As we have seen already, the agrarian systems we have dealt with stifled, in one way or another, the agency of the rural producer with dire consequences of which some have been discussed at length in the preceding pages. A fundamental rethink of this issue, which I believe is overdue, will have wider implications in terms of political institutions, power relations, attitudinal and management approaches" (p. 350).

Dessalegn argues that "Famine is a measure of the vulnerability of the peasant world as well as of its resilience, a reflection of the nature of class relations as well as of the relations between the state and peasantry. Famines do not occur if [the] peasant economy is robust, if the popular classes in the rural areas have a tradition of social assertiveness and resistance, or if the state is in some manner accountable to the people" (p. 43). And, that "Ethiopian peasants have not enjoyed this kind of freedom [to choose one's leaders, to justice, to freedom of speech], and I believe this has been responsible to a large extent for the failure of agrarian progress in this country" (p. 22). He later concludes: "Rural poverty cannot be solved through the instrumentality of the state alone, but requires the active engagement of the poor themselves. Democratizations, property rights that are inclusive of the poor, enabling citizens' groups, including poor people's organizations: these, individually or in ensemble, help to expand human agency, the agency of the poor in particular" (p. 276-277)

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New Publication: Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. and Gecho, Y. (2016) The Dynamics of Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Southern Ethiopia (p. 139-148). In Responses to Disasters and Climate Change: Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience, edited by M. Companion and M. Chaiken. CRC Press: Boca Raton.


  • Agriculture accounts for more than 40% of the Ethiopian economy, 85% of all employment, and is driven primarily by rural smallholders. Those living in rural areas face a range of short-term, seasonal, annual, and long-term vulnerabilities. This chapter analyzes the range of dynamic, and sometimes unpredictable, challenges in Wolaita Zone, southern Ethiopia. We explore how individuals proactively manage vulnerabilities and seek means to enhance their adaptive capacity. These findings demonstrate that smallholders are engaging in change, highlighting the important role of their agency in understanding vulnerability and resilience.

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PhD Opportunity: Formation of Urbanity

The Institute of Social Anthropology and the interdisciplinary program in Urban and Landscape Studies at the University of Basel are offering two PhD positions for the SNF-funded research project Making the City: Agency, Urbanity and Urbanisation in Ordinary Cities (2016–2019)The project will explore the formation of urbanity by comparing respective processes in four cities of the Global South: Goma, DR Congo; Cartagena, Colombia; Johannesburg, South Africa and Yaoundé, Cameroon. Based on qualitative, interpretive and comparative methodology, fieldwork is planned in all four cities by two senior, two post-doc and two PhD researchers. PhD candidates are expected to conduct field research in one of the four cities according to their experience and choice in close collaboration with the other members of the research.

More details.

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The Rational Peasant (1979) Popkin

Popkin's book offers ideas that, at least at times, directly confront those of James C. Scott (see quotes from one of his works here). This post continues the 'thought provokers' series of posts from The Rational Peasant (1979).

On assumptions of peasant life:

  • "Some representations of preindustrial society idealize life in peasant villages. These romantic portraits of peasant life are greatly overdrawn and mislead us into thinking that the transformation of these societies is forced on the peasants and is always detrimental to their collective welfare. Exaggerating the virtues of the precapitalist village also results in erroneous diagnoses of the ailments of contemporary peasant society; these diagnoses lead in turn to misguided programs to remedy the ills. To understand the historical transformations or rural society and to develop effective programs for improving peasant welfare, we need to begin with a more accurate view of peasants and their institutions." (ix)
  • "This is romanticism; this is the "myth of the village." A way of life that may have existed only for lack of alternatives is extolled as a virtue. Peasants who had little or nothing to eat are assumed to have had a rich spiritual life. Sons who may have stayed with their fathers only in order to survive are credited with filial piety. What may have been the absence of incentives to change becomes a resistance to innovation and a defense of traditional ways. The rich who hid their wealth are perceived as having shown great modesty, and hostility among villages is converted to village solidarity. Somehow what might have only have been the necessities or oppression of one era come to be interpreted as traditional values during the next." (3)

On moral and political economics:

  • "Moral economists have argued that, from the perspective of peasant welfare, peasant society is moral, economically efficient, and stable. I, in contrast, will argue that none of these can be assumed. Moral economists take too benign a view of villages and patron-client ties and too harsh a view of market potential. They do not always look closely enough at the ways in which markets can benefit peasants nor at the structural factors that determine the impact a market (or a technology) will have on peasants. It is harder than they sometimes assume for peasants averse to risk (as moral economists recognize peasants to be) to make villages work well. Fuller attention must be paid to the ways in which aversion to risk affects intravillage (as well as market) relations, and more consideration must be given to conflicts between group and individual interests; it is also necessary to differentiate among the different types of crises that threaten peasants." (29-30)
  • "Because villages do not provide extensive insurance or welfare, there does not have to be a crisis before peasants will involve themselves in commercial agriculture; their involvement is generally not a last-gasp response to declining situations, but a response to new opportunities." (33)

Re-imagining peasant life:

  • "As James Scott has argued, "Commercial agriculture and the growth of the state … was to steadily reduce the reliability of subsistence guarantees to the point where peasants had hardly any alternative but resistance." Peasant protests are seen as restorative in nature: they seek to reinstate the traditional institutions and procedures menaced by capitalism; they are desperate responses to the threat of subsistence; they represent a collective response in the collective interest of the peasantry. But the facts of peasant movements in Vietnam challenge this interpretation in three ways. First, they movements are antifeudal, not restorative. They seek not to restore traditional practices and institutions, but to remake them; they seek not to destroy the market economy, but to tame capitalism. Second, there is no clear relationship between subsistence threat (or decline) and collective response. Third, the issue is not the extent of threat to a class, but the risk to individual participants…" (245-246) 
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