Sunday, November 17, 2013

States and Farmers - An Inconclusive Encounter?

Sara Berry (1993) historicizes what she refers to as the “inconclusive encounter” between farmers and states in the era of planned development. She aptly critiques a then substantial literature of the time for failing to fully explain the general failure of rural development programs initiated by “international agencies and African government to accelerate agricultural growth and/or raise rural living standards” (43). For her, this inadequacy in their explanatory power stems from an ‘either or’ approach between the actors and structures, that is, explaining ‘what went wrong’ in Africa as “a logical consequence of either rationality of a particular class of actors (politicians, bureaucrats, or peasants) or the structure of particular institutions (traditional communities, contemporary states)” (45). 

Variants of (1) Goran Hyden’s notion of the ‘uncaptured peasantry’ that evades government control; (2) Robert Bates’ attribution to members of the political apparatus as concerned with maintaining power rather than promoting development and; (3) Richard Sandbrook’s argument on the colonial legacy of neopatrimonial rule are particularly singled out.

Taking an approach that is similar to Frederick Cooper in his attempt to ensure that the nuances and open-ended possibilities created by the encounter between the state and subjects is not lost while explaining the ‘bigger picture’ of structures, Berry attempts to write a corrective history that moves beyond interpretations that “tend to ignore the interplay between individual action and institutional structure” and “imply that rural development programs have definitive consequences which can be clearly labeled successes of failures” (45). However, she is careful enough not too lose the bigger picture. Publishing around the same time as Mahmood Mamdani was finalizing his Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, it is interesting to note how she also invokes the centrality of indirect rule in shaping, albeit in nuanced ways, the structures and strictures of rural setups. The “contradictions of indirect rule...[reflected] in the inability of colonial regimes to solve the Kikuyu land problem, create stable rural settlements in northeastern Zambia, or settle disputed claims to tribute or rent in northeastern Zambia”, Berry notes, “led officials to argue for more comprehensive and centrally controlled approaches to these problems(47).

What is particularly significant in Berry’s approach is that it does not look at indirect rule, which continued to provide the ideological framework for state interventionism, as being entirely deterministic as far as outcomes and responses from actors are concerned.  Instead, she describes ‘inconclusive encounters’ between the state and those it sought to control. If there was any continuity between the colonial and post-colonial state, then one of them is that of restructuring local jurisdictions and administrative systems, a situation that increased rapidly after independence in the quest for expanding the economy. However, the inconclusive (development/underdevelopment) encounters persisted whereby “the proliferation of state institutions in rural areas multiplied the potential channels through which bureaucrats and farmers sought access to each other’s resources” (57).  

Another important, albeit controversial, contribution is her argument that the presence of the state, both during the ‘second colonial occupation and after independence, was intrusive rather than hegemonic with regard to rural economies.  But if she is right, how was this intrusion achieved without forceful coercion or hegemonic consent? 

Sarah Berry (1993). No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Madison, US: University of Wisconsin Press. 


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