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Review of Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives


By Will Nyerere Plastow

Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives. Peter D Little. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2014. Pp. 240. ISBN 978-0-253-01084-1 (pb). £14.95

Economic and Political Reform in Africa is the culmination of over 30 years of research on development in sub-Saharan Africa on the part of Peter Little and it shows. The book fits in to the contemporary trend of texts attempting to move discussion on from a straightforwardly critical approach to neoliberal development. Working from a firm empirical basis of ethnography, case studies and statistical data, Little takes examples from Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique, Ghana, Gambia and Ethiopia to draw his conclusions concerning the effects and direction of neoliberal policy reform in Sub-Saharan Africa. This type of comparative analysis is notoriously difficult, but Little handles his material excellently showing a capacity similar to that of Tsing (2004) to highlight broader trends through careful attention to the specificity of individual cases.

As suggested above, Little does not investigate neoliberal development policy simply through the assumption that it can be understood as a series of imposed Northern economic models and their subsequent failures. Rather, his case studies focus on the openings-up and foreclosures of strategies of action and political understanding that have become available to the various groups effected by neoliberal reform policies. In this analysis Little is informed, but not blinded, by Foucault’s concept of governmentality, Scott’s notion of ‘legibility’ and more recent discussions of globalised networks. The text shows a keen appreciation of some of the (bitter) ironies of much neoliberal development policy. A central line of inquiry developed by Little is his focus on the permeability and artificiality of the conceptual and policy boundaries evoked in many development narratives. Pursuing a vision of pro-corporate market-led development it is argued that NGOs, IFIs and state governments have created a series of conceptual divisions between the state and private sector, formal and informal markets, dependency and growth which bare staggeringly little relation to the lives of most of those who are supposed to be ‘developed’. In many cases Little suggests 21st century development policy bolsters the power of the central state and international investors in a manner that is both anti-democratic and anti-open-market. In spite of his fierce exposure of contradictions, the overall tone of the text is surprisingly optimistic, regularly coming back to the resilience and adaptability of many of the groups it engages with.

Barring the introduction and conclusion, each chapter is a case study within which Little draws out different trends in current neoliberal reform policy. Chapter one investigates the impact of joint government and IFI sponsored attempts to grow Non-Traditional-Commodities (NTCs) for export to European markets. Little suggests that price fluctuations and costs relating to regulatory oversight effectively close the NTC market to all but the wealthiest Africans and international investors. Chapter two looks at Mozambican street and market traders’ experiences of pro-market reforms, arguing that their increased engagement with informal markets is due to scarcity of alternatives rather than burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit. However the research this chapter is based on is over twenty years old and the author possibly doesn’t do enough to demonstrate that his conclusions are still relevant. Chapter three focuses on the issues surrounding neoliberal donor funded conservation programmes in Kenya, arguing that these are often less economically viable than pastoralism and provide a rationale for ‘green’ land grabs at pastoralists’ expense by international investors, NGOs and local elites. Chapter four looks at some of the opportunities opened up by neoliberal development, particularly focusing on the Il Chamus’ legal battle with the Kenyan government for legal recognition as a minority. By adopting the discourse of minority rights and making alliances with Northern NGOs Il Chamus were able to win significant legal, if not substantive, victories. Chapter five deconstructs the narrative of food aid dependency using examples from South Wollo, Ethiopia. Little shows that food aid is both too irregular and insufficient for poor farmers to depend on, but that the narrative of fighting dependency has provided a strong rationale for government attempts to enact political strategies of intervention and resettlement in the rural hinterland. Chapters six and seven were for me the most interesting. Chapter six uses Kenyan material to discuss how economic analyses regularly underestimate both the wealth and contribution of pastoralists to national economies. Little suggests this problem of ‘legibility’ allows states and NGOs to problematise pastoralist communities as in particular need of development. This narrative coincides conveniently with the Kenyan government’s desire to sedentarise these groups and seize their lands. Conversely, chapter seven gives a fascinating account of the ways in which Somali businessmen have taken advantage of the opening-up of regional markets to create a lucrative transnational trade network organised around Garissa, Nairobi and Dubai. Here it is the ability of stateless Somalis to deftly negotiate boundaries between formal and informal economies, which has allowed them to take advantage of neoliberal reforms. However the possibility of continued success is argued to be threatened by increasing concern in Europe and America with international terrorism.

Taken as a whole, Economic and Political Reform in Africa is a fascinating and wide ranging treatment of neoliberal development policy in sub-Saharan Africa. This text should be required reading for anybody interested in African development, and would be of significant interest to anybody interested in neoliberal development in post-colonial settings. Whilst more limited in theoretical scope than Scott’s Seeing like a State (1998)and Tsing’s Friction (2004), Economic and Political Reform in Africa ranks alongside these texts for its excellently researched discussion of neoliberal development as a contemporary grand narrative which must be accommodated with, and is inextricable from, messy local political realities.

Reviewed by: Will Nyerere Plastow, Manchester University

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 91-93]

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