I am in the midst of (finally) reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.  The book is a fascinating exercise in anarchist political geography – basically, examining how state power was limited by/shaped by various geographic factors in upland Southeast Asia.  As with many Scott books, it is a readably huge, sweeping view of a long timespan and a lot of diverse people, but thus far it hangs together well.

I was struck by a particular passage in chapter 3 that speaks rather directly to a lot of food security/agricultural development work being done in the world today, not least under Feed the Future.  The passage comes in a section where Scott is reviewing the historical efforts of various tenuous states to consolidate their control over the surrounding population, but contains an important message for those who are pushing the newest era of agricultural modernization (I call it part II, but there are compelling arguments for this being part III, or IV, depending on how you parse the history of development):

At about the same time as the Peloponnesian War, the early Chinese state was doing everything in its power to prevent the dispersal of population. Manuals of statecraft urged the king to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands “in order to increase the involvement of the people in the production of grain.” . . . The objective of this policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons.

There is no leap at all from this ancient Chinese case to what the inadvertent outcomes of much of our “efficiency-driven” food security and agricultural development work might do.  By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.  The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).  So, at least for Feed the Future, perhaps now would be a good time to call the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance folks (they’re just one floor up!) and have them take a look at this?

Not everyone wants a resilient population, folks.

The larger message here: incorporating people into agricultural markets is about much more than economic efficiency – there are much broader considerations, from state-level political economic issues to sub-household gender roles, that come into play when we radically rework existing agricultural systems and the livelihoods that go with them.  I seriously doubt we are doing enough to capture the wide suite of challenges that comes along with market engagement to ensure that our agricultural development programs are not enhancing vulnerability and stripping resilience from some of the most marginal people we are working with.  Output per hectare is not the only relevant metric. It’s probably not even the most relevant metric, given the fact we are not suffering from a production crisis at the global scale (despite what you hear from various outlets).

Incidentally, if you are at all interested in rural development, you should buy every book James Scott has ever written and get to reading.  Now.  Links below.

Weapons of the Weak is a classic – shame on you if you do rural development/community-based development and are not familiar with it. Or, shame on the people who taught you…

The Moral Economy of the Peasant is Scott’s most underrated text.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance is Scott’s first “meta” text – huge topic, giant sweep, really interesting.

Seeing Like A State shows up on everyone’s must read list…pretty much because you should read it.