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Accounting for change in African economies

Talk of structural transformation is coming to dominate discussions of African development. More specifically, in the on-going drive to reorder world economies for aggressive growth, the very notion of structural transformation is being recast. Once seen as a negative consequence of the post adjustment crisis, it has become a new policy fetish. Structural transformation as both instrument for and effect of growth is the desired outcome of smart policies promising unprecedented rewards.

This shift in the valuation of structural change is not restricted to the policy speak of development donors and their financiers. Ambitious national development plans are making a comeback in the region, practically and politically superseding the donor driven agendas which comprised the post millennium poverty reduction strategies.

A number of countries across the continent, bolstered by Chinese capital, American development finance and a natural resource boom which shows little sign of slowing are striving to create new national economies and the infrastructures to support them within new frames of regional regulation and market freedom (Mohan & Power 2009). Countries such as Tanzania and Uganda, recently considered to be amongst the poorest in the world, are now striving to attain middle income status (Hickey 2013).

Middle income Africa is part of a powerful global reimagining of development driven by the ambitions of elites seeking a move away from the post adjustment prioritisation of poverty and social sectors towards what are perceived to be the economic opportunities offered through large scale growth. This vision of African states promises a pathway to equivalence with middle income exemplars in Latin America and Asia, resituating African nations within a frame of reference where comparators are not the failing states with which the continent was formerly associated, but countries such as Brazil, Vietnam and Malaysia which can claim to have crossed the threshold from abject to emerging economy.

Although this vision has powerful political appeal, particularly for the rising middle classes, it contains the seeds of profound disillusionment. Ambitious plans to rapidly transition extremely poor countries into middle income nation states are far removed from existing economic realities. The creation of `modern’ economies able to sustain anticipated middle income social orders based on large scale formal employment and mass participation in post primary and higher education demands changed forms of productive relations, including regimes of value and access to productive resources  (Moyo, Simson, Jacob & de Mevius 2010). Social dislocation on an unprecedented scale is not merely a possibility in this trajectory of totalising change. As Polanyi recognised over sixty years ago (2002), it is foundational to economic transition.

I have recently been doing fieldwork in Tanzania, a country where I have undertaken research since the 1990s. During this time Tanzania has moved from socialism through liberalisation softened by a poverty reduction strategy (Havnevik & Isinka 2010; Saul 2012) to the recent reinstatement of a National Development Plan oriented towards becoming middle income by 2025 (URT 2011). My current research explores the narratives and practices of economic change, including emergent cultures of rural middle class entrepreneurship and associated transformations in the infrastructures and architectures of every day life as the country embarks on what is, in effect, the mass restructuring of national society.

Tanzania’s National Development Plan is informed by the assumed paths to success of Asian exemplars, as set out in the aptly titled 2005 Tanzania Mini Tiger Plan, combined with a menu of interventions from World Bank templates for agricultural growth (World Bank 2008). Proposed policy imaginaries of middle income modernization legitimate a predictable range of initiatives intended to restructure rural economies and the production practices of small farmers who must be reconfigured as commercial farmers or farm workers. Some of these strategies, with their emphasis on new technologies as proxies for modernization, replicate the kinds of interventions directed at rural society in Africa since the 1950’s.

This back to the future basis of agricultural policy in Tanzania is reiterated in the government’s campaign for the promotion of agriculture, Kilimo Kwanza (Farming First), as the national policy priority. Kilimo Kwanza calls for a Green Revolution in Tanzania through a combination of improved agricultural technology and wholesale commercialisation, including input supply. The effects of this policy and the initiatives it supports are uncertain, prompting criticism of government failure and the inappropriateness of projects rather than discussion about trajectories of transformation in the country (eg Therkilsden 2011; Cooksey 2012) which are rendered largely invisible.

There is no doubt that the emphasis on state promoted transformation through national plans and development visions in Tanzania, as in developing countries more generally, can occlude the extent to which local actors have consistently pursued their own aspirations for economic reordering. There is little debate inside Tanzania about the extent of local transformations in the organisation of the economy nor the means through which emergent inequalities are being consolidated through de facto changes in tenure regimes and property relations. This is not only the result of land grabs by foreign investors which attract the attention of media and campaigners, but of the small scale land acquisition strategies of citizens seeking to secure their access to farmland for the future or to rental income (Bryceson 2002; Nindi 1978; Falk Moore 1993).

While certain local actors have always been potentially able to engage in rural restructuring this process is intensified in a continent now awash with investment cash and where a precarious middle class comprising former public servants is desperate to invest in enterprise in order to consolidate their middle income status. In Tanzania, as across the continent, the scale and extent of local level changes in the organisation of productive resources and in the kinds of enterprise in which people are engaged is staggering.

To what extent has anthropology as a discipline shed light on the dynamics of economic and social change in sub Saharan Africa? Less than it could have, is one possible answer. With few exceptions (Guyer 1997), the ethnography of economic change in Africa produced in the twentieth century, like accounts of change in Africa in general, is characterised by an emphasis on the quest to reinstate moral economies steeped in community oriented valuations, a concern which doggedly persists into this one. Change is too often presented in anthropological accounts as exceptionally problematic, exogenously enforced through crisis, and interpreted within strict cultural frames  (Hutchinson 1996; Ferguson 1999). This preoccupation with issues of moral economy and ethics is of course important. But it risks obscuring actual historicities of social change and structural transformation in the region. As Sarah Berry makes clear in her fabulously titled No Condition is Permanent, successive interventions of colonial and postcolonial governments have worked against locally driven transformation as much as they have produced dramatic economic restructuring (1993).

Structural transformation in sub Saharan Africa is not novel. Nor is it a simply a response to crisis. On the contrary, as Jane Guyer has suggestively proposed, the flexibility and adaptability of social categories and practice seem predisposed to facilitate novel forms of social and economic organisation (2004). Narratives of moral economy, frequently articulated through enactments of purported tradition, commonly become instruments of the very kind of structural transformation anthropologists critique. This situation is described in detail in David Parkin’s (1994) classic account of economic transformation on the Kenya coast in the late 1960s.

Palms, Wines and Witnesses was first published in 1972. The book explores the process of change among Mijikenda communities who have shifted the basis of their agricultural production from small scale to plantation production of palms, and from palm wine to copra. This shift necessitates reorganising the   ownership of palms and the consolidation of assets, a transition enabled in the absence of legal title through the efforts of wealthy entrepreneurs to maintain the social support of other men who can bear witness to their claims to land.  The perpetuation of a localised economy in palm wine, which spoils quickly and hence requires tapping daily, and which is organised to maintain a role for the tappers of other men’s palms, supports the relations of mutuality which facilitate economic restructuring. In this part of Kenya, at that particular time, it is what Parkin refers to as the `paradox of custom’  (1994: 101) which enables structural transformation.

Of course, custom is only paradoxical if change is perceived as antithetical to social order. What Parkin’s study actually shows is not that there is a problematic contradiction between accumulation and custom, but that new economic practices and the relations which sustain them have to be socially situated. This does not imply stasis. The focus on the dynamics of legal practice and the negotiations around which one man can act as witness to another man’s claims demonstrate that this situation is an active process. Acceptable roles which accommodate social transition incorporate pre existing categorisations: hence the expansion of traditional healing as a credible status for elders who are less successful in the new economy, an expansion that is replicated throughout the region (Ashforth 2005).

Parkin’s book presents an interesting contrast with a distinctly twenty first century analysis of the moralities of economic change in Sub Saharan Africa.  Janet Roitman’s Fiscal Disobedience (2005), a study prompted by a tax refusal campaign in small town Cameroon, is subtitled ` An anthropology of economic regulation in central Africa’. Like Parkin, Roitman is concerned to explore the moral dimensions of economic transformation as they relate to the social mobilization of wealth distribution and changing scales of value in the Chad basin. Whereas Parkin’s main focus was the changing moral content of economic relations between members of a particular community, Roitman aims to examine the moral content of relations between people and the Cameroonian state as articulated through financial transactions symbolised through price and tax and the constitution of the fiscal subject (2005, 48-72).  The book’s analysis of price as a social contract between state and subject in West African history is insightful, highlighting the moral place of regulation in the constitution of citizenship regimes.

A product of its own history, however, Roitman’s text is influenced by the now familiar portfolio of theoretical concerns which align those scholars working towards a `history of the present’. Her analytical starting point is the `work of historical inscription of truths about wealth creation and sociability’ (2005:2). Although based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out over a decade between 1992 and 2002, the narrative speaks to an ethnographic present constituted by a pan African `crisis’ precipitated by adjustment and state failure, one in which rapacious officials loot and extract wealth while mobile persons forced into interstitial economic spaces between formal economic national regimes generate illicit wealth through trading, expropriation and the evasion of regulation. Actors appear historically scripted to interpret economic practices in particular ways rather than rescript them. The concern with subjectivity, despite its claimed nesting within a narrative of historical inscription, is ultimately de-historicising.

Roitman’s analysis reveals core values around wealth and its extraction but in scripting agency too tightly is less able to account for trajectories of economic transformation in the region. Parkin’s account, despite its twentieth century anthropological preoccupation with questions of social order, is ultimately more successful in highlighting possible directions of change because it never loses sight of the centrality of agency. Roitman’s text points to some important similarities with the Kenya of the nineteen sixties in the ways that persons can accumulate wealth. The ability to fix entitlement through claiming assets is important, as is the ability to move between transaction zones of different scales where values multiply. The contribution of this book is not in its account of the moral orderings which impact on local economic relations and their historical inscription so much as the exploration of the ways in which African economies are structured though on-going social practices of enclosure and dispossession, not only in relation to land but to anything categorised as having the potentiality of value.

This structuring is not simply the effect of historical inscription. It is actively enabled by those who seek to profit from it using a combination of old scripts where these prove useful, and new scripts which enable new positions. Tanzania’s national level alienation of huge tracts of agricultural land to an array of foreign corporations is paralleled by a long standing process of small scale appropriation of productive resources, the sale of farm and construction plots and the prevalence of renting. These are, in turn, being legitimated by new scripts celebrating a modern agricultural economy as the foundation of national development. Understanding change in African rural economies necessitates approaches which acknowledge the moral meanings of local economic categories and the widespread desire to transform them.



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Bryceson, D 2002 “Multiplex livelihoods in rural Africa: recasting the terms and conditions of gainful employment”, Journal of Modern African Studies 40 (1), 1-28.

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