Tuesday, March 20, 2007

the end of the peasantry?

I have spent most of my professional life working in an area that, within the political economy of international development, is called 'the agrarian question'. Simply stated, it is an approach to rural change that tries to understand how changes in rural life do or do not contribute to the development of capitalism, both in the rural economy and more widely.

For the past 10 years or more, there has been a debate within agrarian political economy concerning the relevance of the agrarian question in an era of globalization. The proposition is straightforward: that as a consequence of globalization, the current form of imperialism, the development of capitalism in the rural economy is simply irrelevant to transnational capital. Capital is formed globally, and national capitalisms are now not relevant to its transformative 'project'. This debate is explored at length in my next book, Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question: Globalization and Peasant Livelihoods.

Does agriculture matter any more, in today's globalized economy? Is the peasantry finished, a relic from an age that does not exist anymore? I have been thinking about this over the past month, both in Europe and in Canada, and it has struck me that this kind of thinking is predicated on a particularly modernist reading of change and development.

We live in an age where an ideology of progress holds firm. In other words, we believe, in our very soul, that human history is a constant movement forward, as problems are solved and our species slowly and fitfully 'progresses'. This motion is highly modernist: that we live in a times where science and technology propel change that will eventually be beneficial. Marx held to this notion; so did Adam Smith; and so does the World Bank.

The problem is that history shows us that progress is not inevitable. In the 10000 years since the human race began settled agriculture, and the 4000 years since 'civilization' emerged, ironically, in the modern day hell that is Sadr City, there have been many instances in which, rather than moving forward, societies have come to a halt, and indeed, regressed. Where progress has given way to retrogression. With retrogression has come technological collapse, and a loss of abilities to solve problems that had already been solved. In other words, human history is marked by periods of retreat, not progress. Invariably, this retreat is always associated with some kind of agricultural collapse, and the consequent inability of civilizations to feed themselves, allowing a degeneration of social order into conflict and death.

Our ideology of progress is so firmly rooted in us that we cannot imagine the idea of an agricultural collapse--although many parts of the world live it, day in and day out. Nonetheless, agricultural collapse may--and I hedge my bets here, and stress may--be staring us in the face. The median predictions of climate change that are currently accepted by those more knowledgeable than I suggest that the increase in planetary temperature in the next 40 years or so will result in end of wheat production in the second biggest wheat producer in the world--India. Of course, Indian wheat collapse will be partially offset by wheat production elsewhere--but that offset will only be partial. With this, and with the consequent possible collapse of grain production in many other parts of the world over the next half century (Argentina? Ukraine?), the idea that progress has rendered agriculture redundant to international development seems a non-starter. So it is. Indeed, it is probable that rather than facing the end of the peasantry, the death of the peasantry, we will soon be living in a world where a peasant's ability to feed themselves will be, once more, fought over by those who cannot or will not feed themselves and who have the resources and coercive power to take what they want.

Friday, March 9, 2007

institutions for international development studies

I am now a few hours from finishing my Gender and Economic Policy Analysis teaching at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where I worked for eleven years. Coming back to the ISS after being away for a while has allowed me to see the institution in a different light, and this says something, to me, about aspects of the state of education in international development studies.

The ISS is the oldest graduate school of development studies in Europe--and hence the world. Over the years, 10000 students have attended courses there, and the offerings of the ISS are, in terms of the range available, quite unparalled. Moreover, from a student's point of view, the ISS is a fantastic experience, with extremely low student staff ratios, with close contact with academic staff, and with an international, collaborative, mutally-supporting learning environment. When I meet international development students and practitioners who say they want to study, I tell them: go to the ISS. I still do. It is a remarkable place.

It is therefore all the more worrying to see this institution's continuing dysfunctionality. Being here this week, virtually every non-Dutch academic that is below the age of 50 that I have spoken to is actively seeking employment elsewhere. Many over 50 are as well. In addition, some who are not seeking employment elsewhere, including some professors, wish they had moved years ago. Why do these people, many of whom are amongst the best and the brightest in the field of international development, want to leave?

The answer is simple: management. The ISS was, during my time, a poorly managed institution. That was a major reason why I left. However, from the perspective of the academic staff--who, after all, are the source of the institution's reputation and thus the draw for many of its students and scholars--management has not improved and, in some instances, has in fact deteriorated over the course of the past year. It is very disheartening.

The origin of mismanagement lies in the deep history of the ISS. It is not really relevant here. What is relevant is why mismanagement continues. A large part of the answer lies in the ongoing application of new public sector management practices to the Dutch bureaucracy, and thus the ISS. The culture of targets, of form filling, of policy papers and vision statements generates jobs that are given to unqualified people and which detract from the capacity of academic staff to do their jobs--to teach students, and to undertake research and policy advice that directly addresses the issue of global poverty and inequality. Far, far too much time is spent undertaking activities that are purely administrative, which should be allocated to efficient administrators, resulting in a gross misallocation of the resources and time of the academic staff.

This is not helped by senior management, who are clearly not capable of managing an institution with the complexity of the ISS. A management that stifles innovation, that feathers nests, and which does not create an enabling environment for one of the most diverse and talented sets of development practitioners in an academic environment that can be found today. This is indeed the great tragedy of the ISS--as so many academic staff have said to me over the week, it has so much potential, and yet it does not live up to that potential, because it restricts the ability of the academic staff to creatively engage with international development issues day in and day out. Academic staff spend too much time as bureaucrats, and not enough time as educationalists and researchers.

International development studies requires international development education. It requires institutions with the focus and potential capabilities of the ISS. However, it also requires a managerial environment that fosters those capabilities. As neoconservative globalization restructures the state, it promotes the emergence of educational institutions that fail to foster the capabilities of staff and students, and in so doing lets down international development. The ISS is failing in its mission because of factors that are part and parcel of the very thing that it seeks to understand. That it itself does not understand this--and some of the academic staff clearly do--is a loss, for the ISS, but more importantly, for international development itself.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

why don't development economists learn?

I have been, these past few days, teaching a short course at my old workplace, the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, on Gender and Microeconomic Policy Analysis. The students on the course come from 4 continents, and are here to basically improve their economic literacy so that they can advocate more effectively for gender-aware policy interventions with the economists that they meet and who dominate policy identification, design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation in international development.

I've been an economist for all of my professional life, and yet teaching the material that I have been teaching--about the gender-constructed character of demand, the centrality of the household and care to the capacity of an economy to supply goods and services, and the gendered character of markets and other economic institutions--I am struck by the fact that:

1. it should be obvious that gender shapes economics
2. if it is obvious, why is feminist development economics a minority within a minority within international development?
3. in this light, how can gender be said to be 'mainstreamed' unless it is fully integrated into the economic analysis that dominates international development? It can't.
4. what does all this say about the effective, as opposed to indicative, commitment of international development practioners and practice to gender empowerment?

Economics in general is dominated by neo-classicism. Even at it's most erudite, dealing with the economics of information, it is unable to address the way in which conflict and consensus shape activity in the care economy, the allocation of time and resources to the care and market economies, and the way in which care is a precondition of markets. In failing to address these issues, neo-classicism demonstrates the extent of its abstraction from the real world. Yet teach basic neo-classical ideas to non-economists, demonstrate the gender critique of those ideas, and it is obvious. They get it. Why can't the economics profession get it?

The answer has to lie in the challenge that feminist development economics, along with other branches of heterodox economics, poses to entrenched positions of power and privilege, within economics, sure, but more importantly, in the real world--in the centers of political and economic power that shape the global economy. Ideas do change the world. Feminist development economics offers a humane alternative to our globalized future. This is precisely why it is marginalized. It is also precisely why there is an ongoing need to advocate for feminist development economics in the institutions where we work, and the civil society where we live.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

microfinance and the mystery of capital

I was struck in a student seminar this week when we were talking about microfinance. I was discussing the underlying assumption, noted in a previous devlog, that behind microfinance is the idea that every poor person is a budding entrepreneur waiting to be unleashed so that they could accumulate. What struck me, as I was saying it, was the relationship between this assumption and the ideas of Hernando de Soto, the widely-lauded author of The Mystery of Capital. De Soto's basic proposition is very straightforward: poor people are not poor. Rather, poor people lack effective and enforceable ownership of the resources that they use to construct a livelihood. Therefore, according to de Soto, the most important policy response to poverty should be to vest property rights amongst the poor in those assets that they use, day in and day out, to manage, but which they do not own. Property rights are the key out of poverty.

Property rights are the way out of poverty, though, for what reason, according to de Soto? The reason is that people with property can get loans, their incentives to accumulate are stronger, and they have a deeper need to make sure that their assets are used in the best possible way. In other words, according to de Soto, poor people are petty entrepreneurs waiting to be unleashed, and all that is required to unleash them is giving them vested ownership in the things that they already use, day in and day out.

For both the microfinance industry and de Soto, then, poor people make the best possible choices they can, given the circumstances they face. Alter the circumstances--by giving them a loan, or by giving them an asset--and their choice set will change, in the effort by them to accumulate using their latent entrepreneurial abilities. Both approaches are, then, deeply neo-classical in their approach to international development issues. People are not structurally subordinate for systemic reasons; they are simply making choices that could be made better by altering their circumstances. That the poverty of some is built on the wealth of others is something that these approaches do not accept.

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