Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development

​Cochrane, L. (2019) Review: Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development. Progress in Development Studies 19: 84-86.

Starting in the 1980s, there have been regular publications of books that invite critical self-reflection in development study and practice: Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983), Challenging the Professions (1993), Whose Reality Counts? (1997), Participatory Workshops (2002), Ideas for Development (2005), Revolutions in Development Inquiry (2008) and Provocations for Development (2012). Robert Chambers, critical champion of participatory development, yet again reminds and challenges donors, development practitioners and academics in Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development (2017). This book focuses upon knowledge – what, why and how we know, and how this impacts decision making and is a reflection of power.

The book is structured in typical Chambers style, in chapters that could be read as thematic stand-alone contributions (with abstracts and a concluding 'agenda for reflection and action'). The book challenges, but also engages, offering avenues for new ways forward. The six chapters respectively cover: (1) error and myth, (2) biases and blind spots, (3) lenses and lock-ins, (4) rigour for complexity, (5) power, participation, and knowledge: knowing better together, and (6) knowing for a better future. The first half is the critical foundation. In it, Chambers makes the case for why we need to know better: preventing the damage being done and ending the misallocation of resources. The examples of poor, uninformed or failed policies, programmes and professional beliefs that Chambers provides in the opening chapters are largely from decades past, and one wishes that Chambers would have guided readers to see the errors in the present and challenge new us to move in new directions (hindsight is always clearer). The latter half of the book is the 'more positive and forward looking' that is 'infused with an optimism which negative academics may find naïve and those embedded in bureaucracies difficult to put into practice' (p. xiii). It is call both for learning and unlearning better.

For anyone engaged in development – from the community-based practitioner to the researcher and donor – the biases that Chambers points out (spatial, project, person, seasonal, diplomatic, professional, security, urban slum) help everyone reflect on the ways in which we need to know better, and the processes through which these biases can be confronted. This is particularly important for those based away from project areas, the 'uppers' often working in offices in capital cities. Chambers believes we have made progress on some blind spots (water, sanitation and hygiene, gender, harmful traditional practices, unpaid care, masculinities and men, sexuality, child sex abuse) but others remain 'backwaters' (corruption, entomophagy, neglected tropical diseases, cookstove air pollution, climate change and ocean ecology) (p. 31-36).

Much has been said about random control trials in recent years. Chambers makes his position very clear, and argues that the reality people experience has become distorted, limited, and narrow as mechanical and reductionist approaches of research have become the standard (e.g. randomized control trials and systematic reviews). These types of research, he argues, have been entrenched by funding requirements that require these methodologies when demanding evidence and best practices. The alternatives Chambers advocates for are participatory, contextual, qualitative, inclusive, and collaborative approaches. It might have served the book well had the case for technical, expert-driven processes also been explored. For example, the design of electrical and telecommunication systems, drinking water contamination standards and regulations, and currency and exchange policy, to name a few, require specific technical information and expert knowledge. These are also development challenges. The argument for radical transformation may have transcended the echo chamber had it been made with slightly more nuance on the contexts and questions for which inclusive and participatory approaches are necessary, and when alternatives may be considered.

While Chambers spoke about the disincentives in research and academic publishing, an additional blind spot not covered in detail in this work is human resources and the incentives within the development industry that can result in less than ideal environments for enabling the kind of transformation Chambers is calling for. In many countries, jobs within international agencies and NGOs are often amongst the most well paid, attracting highly skilled individuals from a range of private and public sectors. The salary incentive is not one that necessarily attracts the values, passion, love, courage, commitment, reflectivity, and openness for new ways of knowing that Chambers argues are so critical for knowing better (p. 161-162). Rather, it is for many the best paying job on the block. This is one reason for the continued disconnect between the proposal and the implementation (e.g. the on-going struggle for changed practice using 'do no harm' and 'gender transformative' approaches). The way forward is unclear, but this challenge cannot be underestimated when seeking to understand why the myths, biases, lock-ins, misconceptions and lenses continue.

Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development is not a final word, but a call for continuous renewal: 'there will forever be new constellations of being wrong and new ways of being right, of being in touch, up to date, and realistic. We will always need to go on learning how to know better, and through knowing better, doing better' (p. xiv). Chambers calls for humility, passion and self-reflection, and provokes readers to re-consider their own values as donors, practitioners and academics engaging with development. This is a book that should be widely read, and should be essential reading for all students in development studies as well as those planning to engage in the practice of development.

Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement

Priscilla Claeys's "Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control" (2015) had some high level support and praise (Jun Borras, Olivier De Schutter, etc). The beginning of the abstract reads: "Our global food system is undergoing rapid change. Since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a range of new issues have come to public attention, such as land grabbing, food prices volatility, agrofuels and climate change. Peasant social movements are trying to respond to these challenges by organizing from the local to the global to demand food sovereignty. As the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina celebrates its 20th anniversary, this book takes stock of the movement's achievements and reflects on challenges for the future. It provides an in-depth analysis of the movement's vision and strategies, and shows how it has contributed not only to the emergence of an alternative development paradigm but also of an alternative conception of human rights."

For those interested in La Via Campesina and the emergence of legal approaches (via human rights), this is a useful resource. With regard to international legal advocacy, Claey offers some interesting experiences (namely the role of: critical junctures, networks and allies, framing and re-problematizing):

  • "Very few 'new rights' that emerge from the grassroots find their way onto the international human rights agenda (Bob 2010b). How did peasant organizations succeed in getting support for a process of negotiation of a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at the UN? Three success factors are worth highlighting here. First, the global food crisis of 207-8 put the spotlight on smallholder farmers and gave peasant activities unprecedented access to international arenas to advance their demands." (p. 60)
  • "Second, Via Campesina's demand for a new instrument was endorsed by a number of key actors who helped identify the 'legal opportunities' (Israel 2003) that could be seized at the HRC. The close ties, shared diagnosis and trust built between Via Campesina activists and human rights experts over the years played a central role in enabling them to move swiftly, and strategically. Without that endorsement, peasant activists would not have been able to advance their claims at the HRC." (p. 60)
  • "Third, Indonesian peasant activists succeeded in framing their claims as human rights abuses, and in bringing their claims to the attention of peasant organizations in other countries, first in South-East Asia, then the world over. Most importantly, they chose not to depict their grievances as abuses of well-accepted human rights." (p. 61)

On the latter point, the author elaborates later in the text, one quote from that:

  • ​"Diagnostic work is crucial because it enables 'system attributions' (McAdam et al. 1996, 9); it allows (potential) movement constituents to attribute everyday problems to global and structural mechanisms, and to overcome the 'fundamental attribution error', the tendency of people to explain their situation as a function of individual deficiencies rather than features of the system (Ross 1977). In the case of Via Campesina, diagnostic work has involved identifying injustices (appropriation of natural resources, forced rural migration, broken families and traditions, hunger, poverty and despair), victims (people of the land) and culprits (large financial institutions, neoliberal states, agribusiness and other transnational corporations)." (p. 82)

Education, Politics and Social Change in Ethiopia

In looking for research that explores the challenges of ethnic federalism and language in Ethiopia, I came across the book "Education, Politics and Social Change in Ethiopia" (2010), edited by Paulos Milkias (Concordia University) and Messay Kebede (University of Dayton). All of the contributing authors are based outside of Ethiopia, which is not necessarily negative, but I think it would have been a useful addition to have people more actively engaged in the Ethiopian education and political systems contribute. The book covers a range of topics: English as a medium of instruction, traditional and modern education, influences of western education, history of education, an Ethiopian theory of education, education and the Pentecostal movement, language politics, women and education, and power of educating.

I support the linguistic arguments made by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and found Tekeste Negash's work (Chapter 1) an interesting read. While Ethiopia does not have a colonial legacy, it has adopted a colonial language for its primary medium of instruction: "The problem with English as a medium of instruction is even more complex. English is not only a language but it is a value system. Attending all classes in English is tantamount to the whole sale adaptation of the culture that the English language represents at the price of one's native language and the values such language contains." (p. 19) Recently, Ethiopia opted for dual language instruction (Afan Oromo and Amharic) in federal jurisdictions (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa), which Tekeste suggested when this book was published in 2010: "I believe it is imperative that Ethiopia makes the transition from English into Amharic and Afan-Oromo by about 2025. To some readers of this paper, twenty years may sound a very long time; but 20 to 25 years is just enough to discuss the issue of the benefits of connecting to ones world view and of initiating the process of translation and reinterpretation of school materials as well the development of both languages." (p. 23).

Kofi Annan – Interventions

Kofi Annan (1938-2018) was the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, a turbulent time to say the least. He penned "Interventions: A Life in War and Peace" (2012) with Nader Mousavizadeh to provide some of the high, lows, challenges and successes of his time leading the UN. The book is a recounting of events, for those versed in the time period, not a lot that is new, barring a few interesting reflections. A few include:

  • "The world abandoned Somalia, allowing it to create for the world whole new forms of civil chaos and human suffering. Somalia would from then on [after 1993] be ignored by Western countries – until years later, when international terrorists emerged there in force, and when scores of well-organized pirates took to the high seas to threaten one of the lifelines of international commerce." (p. 45-46)
  • "We were not along in our optimism. The international development community had been engaged for years in Rwanda, and right up to March 1994, reports were still being written by leading development organizations that praised Rwanda as an unusual success story. But the international community had a thin appreciation of Rwanda's society and history and the force at play there." (p. 51)
  • "The core problem at the top of the UN's power structure is the composition of the Security Council. Today we have five permanent members with veto powers – the United States, Britain, Russia, France, and China – based essentially on the geopolitical reality that existed at the end of World War II. The other ten nonpermanent members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms, on the basis of geographical representation. This situation is intolerable to some; unjustifiable to most. Japan and Germany pay the second- and third-largest contributions to the UN but do not have a fixed seat at its most important table. India has over a sixth of the world's population but no seat. There is no permanent member from Africa or Latin America." (p. 141-142)
  • "It is true that Africa's short and intense experience of colonialism was destructive and divisive. It is also true that many African countries are landlocked and so denied the vital economic asset of direct access to seaborne trade – which many economists emphasize as an essential part of the explanation for Africa's previous poor economic performance as a whole. However, it is inaccurate and, worst of all, irresponsible for Africans to blame colonialism alone. Similarly, if you consider some of the great failures of African development, such economic impediments are not the heart of the problem." (p. 176)
  • "The responsibility lies with Africans, their systems of rule, and their leaders. Africa has had the experience it has, most of all, because of the decisions made by individuals and the systems of rule deliberately enacted by leaders and their supporters. Africa, the poverty of Africa, the violence of Africa, is not the inexorable product of its environment but rather the consequence of choices and decisions made by its leaders." (p. 177)

Who Really Feeds the World

​Vandava Shiva was one of the earliest challengers to corporate control of food and the food system. In her most recent book, "Who Really Feeds the World: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology" (2016), Shiva continues the activism. While I am generally in agreement with the positions advocated in the book, it is a frustrating read from an academic perspective. Many stats and claims are mentioned without references (I found well over 50 without references), some sources that are listed are decades old and no longer reflect the current situation, some arguments are value-driven and emotionally-based as opposed to supported by evidence, there is an undertone of a doomsday narrative with a binary with-me or against-the-world positioning, and there is a strong romanticism for the past that most historians would suggest does not reflect reality. While believers in the message may not find these to be critical problems, this book will likely not reach beyond its echo chamber because of these problems.

A few notes from my reading:

  • "We are facing a deep and growing crisis rooted in how we produce, process, and distribute food. The planet's well-being, people's health, and societies' stability are severely threatened by an industrial globalized agriculture driven by greed and profits. An inefficient, wasteful, and nonsustainable model of food production is pushing the planet, its ecosystems, and its diverse species to the brink of destruction." (ix)
  • "The food question becomes an ethical question about our relationship with the Earth and other species; about whether we have the right to push species to extinction or deny large numbers of the human family safe, heathy, and nutritious food." (p. xx)
  • "Productivity and sustainability are much higher in mixed systems of farming and forestry that produce diverse outputs. The productivity of monocultures is low in the context of diverse outputs and needs." (p. 50)
  • "we conducted field experiments in organic farms in which farmers grew twelve crops (baranaaja), nine crops (navdanya), and seven crops (saptarshi). In an acre of farmland, organic baranaaja produced 73.5 percent more protein, 3,200 percent more vitamins, 67 percent more minerals, and 186 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping did. Organic navdanya produced 355 percent more protein, 5,174 percent more vitamins, 57 percent more minerals, and 160 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping did, per acre of farmland. And finally, organic saptarshi produced 66 percent more protein, 54 percent more minerals, and 153 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping. When agricultural output is measured in terms of "health per acre" and "nutrition per acre" instead of "yield per acre," biodiverse, ecological systems clearly have a much higher output." (p. 53)
  • "Small farms produce more food than large industrial farms because small-scale farmers give more care to the soil, plants, and animals, and they intensify biodiversity, not external chemical inputs. As farms increase in size, they replace labor with fossil fuels for farm machinery, the caring work of farmers with toxic chemicals, and the intelligence of nature and farmers with careless technologies." (p. 60)
  • "Corporations say that GMOs are substantially equivalent to non-GMO crops and food [for approval], but the same corporations also simultaneously claim that GMOs are new and different, that they are invention [for patents]. Under this logic, the same GMO is natural when is comes to avoiding responsibility for safety, but it is different from the nature - or unnatural - when it comes to owning it." (p. 69)

Shiva sets forth directions for the way forward, in summary:

  • "We need to move from the fiction of corporate personhood to the reality of real people who grow, process, cook, and eat real food." (p. 127)
  • "from mechanistic, reductionist science to an agroecological science based on relationships and interconnectedness" (p. 127)
  • "from seed as the 'intellectual property' of corporations to seed as living, diverse, and evolving: toward seed as the commons that is the source of food and the source of life" (p. 128)
  • "from chemical intensification to biodiversity intensification and ecological intensifications, and from monocultures to diversity" (p. 128)
  • "to decommodify and liberate land and labor, and focus on the living intelligence of nature, with her diversity and potential for creating abundance" (p. 129)
  • "from food that destroys our health to food that nourishes our bodies and minds" (p. 129)
  • "from the obsession with 'big' to a nurturing of 'small', from global to the local" (p. 130)
  • "from the false idea of competition to the reality of cooperation" (p. 132)

The History of Famine and Epidemics in Ethiopia

​Richard Pankhurst made significant contributions to the study of history in Ethiopia (see a listing of some of his works here). In this book, "The History of Famine and Epidemics in Ethiopia Prior to the Twentieth Century" (1985), published by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Richard Pankhurst brings together a series of others works:

  1. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1889-92 (1961) University College Review
  2. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92: A New Assessment (1966) Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
  3. The History of Famine and Pestilence in Ethiopia Prior to the Founding of Gondar (1972) Ethiopian Medical Journal
  4. The Earliest History of Famine and Pestilence in Ethiopia (1973) Ethiopian Medical Journal
  5. Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (1961)
  6. Economic History of Ethiopia 1800-1935 (1968)

What I liked from the book is the clear outline of the complex interaction of factors that result in famine and epidemic. Rarely is it ever a single factor. This approach may have been more common in historical works than in development studies in decades past. Pankhurst outlines how in the 1888-92 famine, the first factor was animal disease, which contributed to agricultural failure as fields could not be plowed. The failure of rains also contributed to poor agricultural yields and a hot and dry season resulted in more locust, which compounded the losses. As famine struck, prices for all food commodities rose, deepening the food insecurity situation. As people began to die, poor sanitation resulted in the spread of human disease, and further loss of human life. ​

America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

​Anand Gopal was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Ridenhour Prize for "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes" (2014). For those interested in Afghanistan, I've covered books by Ahmed Rashid, William Dalrymple and Stephen Saideman elsewhere. Gopal's book is an excellent read and presents the counter-narrative to Saideman - rather than the foreign experience, this is Afghan experience. This is not an academic text, as Dalrymple's is, but offers a wealth of insight. The New York Times Book Review described Gopal's book as "essential reading for anyone concerned about how American got Afghanistan so wrong". I could not agree more. Some notes:

  • Given the recent shift to talk with the Taliban, history shows how other paths were available. Before the war, the "Taliban agreed to place bin Laden on trial, but Washington, not trusting the impartiality of Afghan courts, demanded his extradition to US soil. The Taliban, for their part, doubted the objectivity of the American legal system. They agreed to hand him over only to a neutral Islamic country for trial, which Washington rejected." (p. 12)​
  • The shallow vision of the socio-political context resulted in tremendous errors: "Karzai understood what his American friends did not yet grasp: not only individuals but entire tribal communities were winners and losers in the invasion. Time would reveal this in a most painful way." (p. 44)​
  • Finger pointing often means four fingers pointing at oneself, and one at the other: "Looking to keep the war fueled, Washington - where the prevailing ethos was to bleed the Russians until the last Afghan - financed textbooks for schoolchildren in refugee camps that were festooned with illustrations of Kalashnikovs, swords, and overturned tanks." (p. 56)​
  • The (short-term) consequentialist thinking driving decision making, disregarding the lives lost in the means taken: "when Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security advisor to President Carter helped to initiate Washington's anti-Soviet mujahedeen policies, was asked in the late 1990s whether he had any regrets, he replied: "What is more important in the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" (p. 67)​
  • The cold reality: "Save for a few lone wolf attacks, US forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet US special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism. How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai - and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans - without them realizing it - had put in place. Sherzai's enemies became American enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as "counterterrorism," his business interests as Washington's. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did." (p. 109)​
  • Creating enemies: "They were forced to kneel there for hours, their hands bound behind them. Some passed out from the pain. Some lost sensation in their hands and feet. Then they were marched into a room and made to strip and stand in front of American soldiers for inspection, inspiring a humiliation that, in the Pashtun ethos, was difficult to even imagine. "When they made us walk naked in front of all those Americans," captive Abdul Wahid later told a reporter, "I was praying to God to let me die. If someone could have sold me a poisoned tablet for $100,000, I would have bought it." In a final act of emasculation, soldiers appeared with clippers. One by one the captives beards were shorn off, and many of them broke down in tears. Some, for resisting, had their eyebrows removed as well... After five days they were brought to Kandahar's soccer stadium and released [finding them to have supported the US]. A crowd of thousands, who had made the trip from Maiwand, was there to greet them. A few months earlier many of these farmers had packed the stadium seats waving the new Afghan flag and chanting in favor of the coming loya jirga. Now, for the first time, anti-American slogans filled the air." (p. 110-111)​
  • "Reading the official list of charges against the rest gives a sense of the farce the system had become. One inmate was accused, among other crimes, of supporting the political organization of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the pro-Western Northern Alliance leader murdered by al-Qaeda. Another was alleged to have been a member of Herakat-i-Inquilabi—an anti-Soviet mujahedeen group, backed by the United States, that had been defunct since the mid-1990s. Inmate Muhammad Nasim arrived at Guantanamo accused of working as a deputy to Rashid Dostum, the pro-US warloard and former Gelam Jam militia leader who, prison authorities mistakenly believed, had "defected to the Taliban in 1998"—or so Nasim's classified filed stated. In fact, Dostum had been a member of the Northern Alliance and a staunch anti-Taliban fighter, even winding up on the CIA payroll during the 2001 invasion. Nasim was also accused of being the former Taliban deputy minister of education, even though records indicate there was no person by that name in that position. Abdullah Khan found himself in Guantanamo charged with being Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban minister of the interior, which might have been more plausible—if Khairkhwa had not also been in Guantanamo at the time." (p. 144-145)​
  • "Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state." (p. 273)

Empire (Hardt & Negri)

"Empire" (2000) by Hardt and Negri lines many shelves and sits on many recommended reading lists on the Left. I have written up a summary of their 2004 book, for anyone interested - that book is also easier reading for those not interested or well versed in Marxist literature / terminology. Empire presents a detailed history of the nation-state, imperialism and their vision for a transition to a new form of empire. It is heavy reading, and probably not suitable for undergraduates. The world has changed significantly since the penning of this book in the mid-90s, which is another reason to pick up more recent works. A few notes from the book:

  • "Globalization, of course, is not one thing, and the multiple processes that we recognize as globalization are not unified or univocal. Our political task, we will argue, is not simple to resist these processes but to reorganize them and redirect them toward new ends. The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges." (p. xv)​
  • "We, by contrast, must denaturalize these concepts and ask what is a nation and how is it made, but also, what is a people and how is it made? Although "the people" is posed as the originary basis of the nation, the modern conception of the people is in fact a product of the nation-state, and survives only within its specific ideological context. Many contemporary analyses of nations and nationalism from a wide variety of perspectives go wrong precisely because they rely unquestioningly on the naturalness of the concept and identity of the people." (p. 102)​
  • "The perils of national liberation are even clearer when viewed externally, in terms of the world economic system in which the "liberated" nation finds itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, really serves to mobilize popular forces and galvanize a social movement, but where does the movement lead and what interests does it serve? In most cases it involves a delegated struggle, in which the modernization project also establishes in power the new ruling group that is charged with carrying it out. The revolution is thus offered up, hand and feet bound, to the new bourgeoisie." (p. 132-133)​
  • "When we begin to consider the ideologies of corporate capital and the world market, it certainly appears that the postmodernist and postcolonialist theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity, and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. Power has evacuated the bastion of they are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists thus find themselves pushing against an open door." (p. 138)​
  • "Fundamentalism, however, is a poor and confused category that groups together widely disparate phenomena. In general, one might say that fundamentalisms, diverse though they may be, are linked by their being understood both from within and outside as anti-modernist movements, resurgences of primordial identities and values; they are conceived as a kind of historical backflow, a de-modernization. It is more accurate and more useful, however, to understand the various fundamentalism not as the re-creation of a premodern world, but rather as a powerful refusal of the contemporary historical passage in course." (p. 146-147)​
  • "Countries whose economic production is not presently at the level of the dominant countries are thus seen as developing countries, with the idea that if they continue on the path followed previously by the dominant countries and repeat their economic policies and strategies, they will eventually enjoy an analogous position or stage. The developmental view fails to recognize, however, that the economies of the so-called developed countries are defined not only be certain quantitative factors or by their internal structures, but also and more important by their dominant position in the global system." (p. 282)​
  • "Empire is characterized by the close proximity of extremely unequal populations, which creates a situation of permanent social danger and requires the powerful apparatuses of the society of control to ensure separation and guarantee the new management of social space." (p. 336-337)​
  • "Revolutionary political militancy today, on the contrary, must rediscover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity. Militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity. This is the form in which we and all those who revolt against the rule of capital recognize ourselves as militants today. Militants resist imperial command in a creative way." (p. 413)

The History of the Ethiopian Army

​Richard Pankhurst made innumerable contributions to the history of Ethiopia. I found an original copy of "An Introduction fo the History of the Ethiopian Army", published by the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force, 101st Training Centre, in 1967. The Forward (of only 2 pages) by Colonel Aberra Wolde Mariam provide interesting insight into the thinking of the Ethiopian Military of the time, such as his comment that "no amount of technical skill and professional competence will win a war or achieve any worthwhile purpose unless it is coupled with that genuine pride and strong faith which alone is the driving force capable of stirring on to action despite insurmountable difficulties."

The book is 183 pages. A small portion (p. 3-17) covers the ancient and medieval times, followed be larger chapters on the army in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 18-60) and the history of firearms (p. 61-147). A concluding chapter speaks about the effects of war (p. 148-183). The book contains a large number of endnotes for each chapter, which Pankhurst says are largely for the benefit of students and historians who want to pursue the matters discussed in greater detail. As Pankhurst books are known for, the book is detailed and offers an immense about of detail otherwise extremely difficult to locate.

A few notes from the text:

  • "Traditionally the soldiers did not constitute a separate section of the population, but were ordinary citizens mobilized by their rulers in time of need. Alvares, describing the set-up in the sixteenth century, noted that many lords, courtiers and even minor functionaries, such as trumpeteers, received grants of land in return for their service, while Almeida declared: "So that they should follow soldiering and continue to do so the Emperor grants them the lands on which they live and and which they enjoy in as much as they serve him. As soon as they fail him he gives the land to others"." (p. 7)​
  • "The institution of war, as we have seen, played an important role in the economic and social life of Ethiopia in traditional times. Fighting against internal or external enemies was a frequent occurrence and involved very large armies, often composed of fifty or a hundred thousand men with numerous camp followers. The fact that the soldiers were unpaid meant that they were obliged to requisition or loot whatever they required from the countries through which they passed, irrespective of whether the inhabitants were friends or foes." (p. 148)​
  • "The result, Pearce says, was that "the people... never know when their persons or property are safe, on which account they are obliged to repair to the habitations of their chief on holydays, some presenting bread, butter, honey, and corn, and others a goat, sheep, or fowls, to keep in favour, and to prevent him from sending his soldiers to live upon their premises." Though legal redress was often outside their power, perhaps for that very reason, the peasants showed great ingenuity in protecting themselves from the soldiers' rapacity. Peasantry and soldiery were in fact often engaged in a ceaseless battle of wits. "It is custom," Pearce relates, "for the inhabitants of the villages to have gudgauds, large pits under-ground, plastered within with cowdung and mud, and having the mouth very narrow, some of which are made to hold forty or fifty churns or corn, between three and four hundred English bushels." (p. 149)​
  • Wylde explained that they [soldiers] seemed to increase their demands in areas of better cultivation, particularly where irrigation was practised: "Very often," he says, "the soldiers when they are on the march and cannot procure supplies from the natives, break down the slight banks of the channels, and in a few minutes destroy the labour of perhaps many days. Knowing what will happen if they do not give supplies, the peasants are most easily imposed upon, and the soldiers, when going through a country that depends upon irrigation for summer crops, always demand more from the people than in other places"." (p. 170) 

Collective Choice and Social Welfare

​Amartya Sen has made significant contributions to economics, development studies and philosophy. His early work actually focused on collective choice, which was the the topic of his 1970 book "Collective Choice and Social Welfare" (re-printed with significant additions in 2017). In the 2017 Introduction, Sen outlines what social choice theory is and the broad array of questions it might be used to answer:

  • "Challenges of group choice can be extensive and exacting, particularly because of the divergent interests and concerns of its members. Social thinkers have speculated, for a very long time, on how the concerns of the members of a society can be reflected in one way or another in the decisions taken in a responsive society (even if it is not fully democratic)... Social choice theory is a very broad discipline, covering a variety of distinct questions, and it may be useful to note a few of them as illustrations of its subject matter. When would majority rule yield unambiguous and consistent decisions? How can we judge how well a society as a whole is doing in light of the disparate interests of its different members? How can we accommodate rights and liberties of persons while giving due recognition to the preferences of all? How do we measure aggregate poverty in view of the varying predicaments and miseries of the diverse people who make up the society? How do we evaluate public goods such as the natural environment, or epidemiological security?" (p. 1).

The original text and the additional chapters follow a unique style - a chapter of context (the philosophical discussion) followed by a chapter of economics (the math). As a non-economist, this made the book easier to pick up. The book cannot be neatly summarized, as each set of chapters covers different questions (there are 15 pairs of chapters, and two concluding chapters). Many economists (as scholars in other fields do as well) seek a universal theory, however, Sen acknowledges a relatively high degree of subjectivity that seems necessary for society choice theories. He writes:

  • "it is quite clear that an evaluation of the relative desirability of different systems will depend on the nature of the society. One way of interpreting the various 'impossibility' results is to say that there is no 'ideal' system of collective choice that works well in every society and for every configuration of individual preferences (as proposed by the use of the condition of 'unrestricted domain' employed in virtually all the impossibility theorems). Some choice procedures work very well for some types of choice and some sets of individuals preferences but not for others (see Chapters 5-7, 9 and 10), and naturally our evaluation of these procedures must depend on the type of society for which they may be considered. There is nothing outstandingly defeatist in this modest recognition." (p. 264)

Sen also reflects on the underlying assumptions and tools used within economics, and how these (often not reflected upon) has significant implications in influencing the field:

  • "For well over a century welfare economics has been dominated by one particular approach: utilitarianism. It was initiated, in its modern form, by Jeremy Bentham (1789), and championed by such economists as Mill (1861), Sidgwick (1874), Edgeworth (1881), Marshall (1890) and Pigou (1920). Utilitarianism has been, in many ways, the 'official' theory of traditional welfare economics, and its tends to serve as the 'default programme' in mainstream welfare economic analysis: the theory that is implicitly summoned when no others are explicitly invoked. Utilitarianism combined what we have been calling 'consequentialism', 'welfarism' and 'sum-ranking'. It is a result-oriented (and in that sense, consequentialist) theory that concentrates only on utility consequences (which is the informational base identified by welfarism), and, in particular, focuses on the sum-total of utilities (which is the demand that sum-ranking makes)." (p. 341)

One of the new chapters links social choice theory to Sen's other work, such as his expounding on functioning and capabilities:

  • "A person's achieved life can be seen as a combination of 'functionings' (i.e. doings and beings), and, taken together, can be the basis for assessing that person's quality of life. The functionings on which human flourishing depends include such elementary things as being alive, being well-nourished and in good health, moving about freely, and so on. It can also include more complex functionings, such as having self-respect and respect of others, and taking part in the life of the community... A person's 'capability' is represented by the set of combinations of functionings from which the person can choose any one combination. Thus, the 'capability set' stands for the actual freedom of choice a person has over the alternative lives that he or she can lead." (p. 357)

All page numbers from the 2017 Penguin publication.​

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