Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development

If you are looking for an accessible introduction to research within thew broad umbrella of livelihoods that is well researched and provides a clear outline of what we have learned and what we need to know more about, this is it. Ian Scoones book "Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development" (2015) would do well for undergraduates or those from other disciplines seeking an overview. This is not a book for experts, but part of a series of short, informative books on selected topics related to Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies.

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Rural Development Options

In 1990, Ethiopia was on the cusp of a major transition. The military government was on the way out and the EPRDF would come to power in the following year. It was in this year that "Ethiopia: Options for Rural Development" (1990), edited by Siegfried Pausewang, Fantu Cheru, Stefan Brune and Estetu Chole, was published. The writing was done during the late 1980s, but nonetheless provides an interesting window into how development researchers and practitioners felt about rural development - and what was prioritized - at that moment in history. The book has contributions from major scholars, in addition to the editors there are contributions from Dessalegn Rahmato, Alula Pankhurst, Helen Pankhurst, and a host of others. This is quite a rich book and I feel it offers insight for very similar questions being asked today. It was published by Zed books and is relatively available (compared to most books from the 80s and 90s on Ethiopia, which can be very difficult to find).

Advice that seems oft repeated (and slightly romantic): "The authors share the view that rural development is not just a question of choosing one or the other model, and that the "socialism" versus "capitalism" dichotomy has little relevance to Ethiopian rural society. Small peasants in rural communities have their own forms of organizing cooperation and equity. Instead of importing solutions from Western or Eastern models, it would be worth considering indigenous knowledge and experience, and building on local institutions with traditions of mutual aid and solidarity." (p. 4)

Pausewang's remarks on land remain useful: "There is hardly any field in which so much confusion persists so obstinately as that of land tenure in Ethiopian tradition. Even the word itself is misleading: rather than tenure, it would be more correct to speak about access to land. Land holding practice changed over time, and tremendous variations can be observed not only in different regions, but even within the same village and family. Most confusing of all is the social dimension of conceptions about rights to land: a nobleman may have conceptions of his rights to the land which are completely different from those of "his" peasants. Moreover, urban viewpoints on rights over land are often completely different from the rural viewpoint. Many misconceptions are still reproduced in public debate as well as in scientific literature and official documents. Misunderstandings are repeated time and time again. Many official statistics have been produced in such a confused and misguided fashion that the figures are not even guesses; they bear simply no relation to the reality of land holding. Nevertheless, they are quoted in scientific findings, and continue to mislead everybody." (p. 38).

Resettlement was practiced before the military government in Ethiopia, however it is interesting to note that one of the main pushes for resettlement in the country (which contributed to the loss of potentially hundreds of thousands of lives) was the World Bank: "The World Bank and US-AID proposed resettlement programmes to relieve certain areas of Tigray and Wollo. By 1979, under the supervision of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), some 20,000 ha were under cultivation in 84 resettlement sites." (p. 26)

Pausewang hints at questions of governance in the concluding chapter. However, given it was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, the lack of discussion about governance (not as policy, but as how governing occurs) is interesting. It reflects how we might be seeing the tree very clearly, but missing the forest. Makes one wonder what we are missing today, as we focus on a range of our own issues.

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Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia

"Agricultural Transformation in Ethiopia: State Policy and Smallholder Farming" (2018) edited by Atakilte Beyene is an excellent book on diverse components of the agricultural sector. Given the importance of agriculture in Ethiopia, this is an important addition as there are few books that cover the sector comprehensively (several are available that cover specific components). The introduction by Atakilte is an excellent overview, and is well worth reading as a stand-alone chapter.

Many of the chapters were authored by faculty at Bahir Dar University, are well written and well researched. Some edited volumes are a collection of only lightly unrelated chapters, but this is a cohesive volume and highly recommended as a resource for readers interested in the topic. The chapters cover: input supply and marketing systems (Ch. 1), investment in agricultural sector (Ch. 2), large scale irrigation (Ch. 3), climate resilient practices (Ch. 4), sociocultural perspective (Ch. 5), a history of malaria (Ch. 6), gender and rights (Ch. 7) and rural transformation through land rights (Ch. 8). Many chapters rely upon CSA data, and could have been more critical of that.

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False Start in Africa (1962)

Rene Dumont's "False Start in Africa" (1962) is arguably one of the most influential and widely read texts on agriculture in Africa. The book is more of a conversation, than it is an academic text. However, Dumont was a pioneering voice for identifying key issues such as soil erosion, micronutrient deficiencies, soil type and quality in agricultural planning, (a degree of) participation and ownership, and of the value of local procurement. Readers might not come across many "new" ideas, but it is certainly worthwhile reading (if nothing else to see what was being said 55+ years ago in agricultural development). 

Dumont recommends irrigation, fertilizer, erosion prevention, affordable energy and livestock as keys to agricultural development (p. 32). At the same time, he outlines many failures of large and inappropriate projects (in these same recommended areas). The book offers specifics as what Dumont feels is appropriate and worthwhile. The author suggests that machinery and equipment are essential - along with a reduction of luxury goods (p. 44) - but similarly outlines that the European model should not be blindly followed. Rather, a new path needs to be made by, and for, African nations (p. 58). In many ways, the book offers nuanced critiques and options for moving forward with positive examples (Dumont criticizes academics for their sole focus on failure, without recognizing success). 

Given that the book was written in 1962, Dumont offers some unique perspectives. He says that "Economic progress requires an exodus from rural areas" (p. 195). He also calls for a radical shift in education - one more focused on technical skills, and not the copying of more academic oriented European models unsuitable to the needs of the nation (p. 202). Dumont promoted African and regional unity, economic unions, and continent-wide coordination (p. 264). He also argued that Europeans should not dictate to Africa (note that the author was a former colonial employee), and says "before giving lessons on socialism to Africa, let us set our own houses in order" (p. 280). 

Amidst these interesting discussions, Dumont also offers his fair share of derogatory comments and bad ideas. For example, agricultural credit, he argues, should be given out by the local peasant leader to 'reinforce his authority' (p. 213). That authority, however, can act to entrench marginalization and exploitation. Although the language has changed, Dumont appears to favor the 'developmental state' model of a single party state to push development forward - at the expense of broad and inclusive participation (p. 240). While it is worthwhile recognizing the useful ideas of this book, we should also criticize it (as it is indeed well worth criticism). 

From one perspective, Dumont appears to contradict himself in different parts of the text. However, as mentioned above, the book reads more like a conversation than a structured flow of ideas. So, irrigation infrastructure failures are pointed out, alongside broad opposition to large projects of this nature, while irrigation is also recommended. In my reading, these are general critiques with specific exceptions, rather than contradictions. Another example of this is land tenure. Dumont argues that tenure security is key (p. 128) but also that the land should be communally or state owned, and land should be taken from farmers in some instances (p. 129). While apparently contradictory, it appears that the general rule advocated is tenure security while revoking that security is the exception. Others more versed in Dumont's opinions, or the rest of his works, may have a better understanding - it is nonetheless worth noting for potential readers that the book is one more akin to hearing stories and getting advice from an experienced grandfather, than it is a systematic research work with clearly stated positions / recommendations.

As a side note: Amongst his advice, Dumont recommends African students to read Frantz Fanon (p. 251).

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