Entries tagged with “the State”.


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.

So, according to NPR Iraq has now set the record for the longest time after a parliamentary election without a government.  For those unfamiliar, Iraq operates under a democratic system that awards seats in parliament by percentage of the vote, and they’ve got several political parties.  The end result?  Nobody has a majority, and at this point nobody seems to be able to cobble together a coalition of enough parties to get a majority and form a government.  Man, you really have to dislike the other guy when you more or less give up power rather than partner with them.

But this is not the sweeping case that the title of the article, “Iraq Breaks World Record for Length of Time Without a Government,” suggests.  By any reasonable standard, the contemporary record has to go to Somalia, which has been operating without anything resembling a real national government since . . . 1991. Yep, I graduated from high school right about the same time Somalia lost its government.  Current college freshmen and sophomores have never lived in a world where Somalia had a national government.  So why no mention of Somalia?  I mean, even if you count the transitional government (put in place in 2004), they went 13 years without a government.  Well, they are disqualified because they are not a parliamentary democracy (turns out Iraq’s record is pretty narrow, after all).  It’s too bad Somalia is out of this competition, though , because it is an amazing case of state failure in the modern world.  The transitional government appears to control, at best, a few city blocks in Mogadishu.  Seriously – that’s not a hyperbolic statement.  They literally control a few blocks.  Sometimes.  Er, that does not count as a national government, people.

Somalia is lines on a map and a bustling informal economy that seems to float a stable national currency – despite lacking a central bank or, as I mentioned above, A GOVERNMENT.  (Economists hate that.  A lot.)  That’s about it.  Somalia is the hole in the map, the one place in the world where there is really no effective control of the territory of the country by anything resembling a state.  Sure, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and many in Asia, contain territory over which they have very little, if any, control – but those tend to be little spaces within countries.  Somalia is basically a giant sovereignty hole, with a tiny pocket of control.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this these days, as I think the connection between the state and local communities is probably the central governance question for development agencies in places like sub-Saharan Africa.  Simply put, in much of SSA, the only legitimate governance (that is, governance that people feel bought into, and believe in) is pretty local, and vested in land tenure (those with control over access to land tend to be in charge, since so many people need land to farm and make a living).  Development agencies, on the other hand, tend to work with national governments and generally avoid dealing with “traditional” or “informal” modes of governance, such as those seen at the local level.  The result is a disconnect between a lot of development planning and programming and the reality of life on the ground in many countries – we do our planning and programming through a state that is simply unable to represent the needs of its people effectively, and even if it could it has no means of actually carrying out development planning in a meaningful way.  Yet some folks persist in worrying about how to write legislation that would lead to effective adaptation planning . . . which completely misses the point.  You can write all the laws you want, but if nobody can enforce them and the citizenry don’t see any reason to pay attention to them or any other governmental activity, all you are doing is killing time and trees.

In these situations, we’re looking for governance in the wrong places.  Hell, the people in Somalia are quite vulnerable – to drought, violence, disease, etc.  But they are not all dead, which means they have organized into structures that provide food, shelter, clothing and other goods in an informal way – there is governance here, but not from the state.  I’m not going to valorize much of that governance, as it is rooted almost completely in violence and physical force without respect for the needs of the wider population, but the point is that this governance has found its own form of legitimacy that works, for better or for worse, much better than the pointless national government that the rest of the world seems to want to prop up so they can go on with the charade of working with another national government.