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Readings on Africa, Pt. 1

May 25, 2011

When I start my PhD, much of my research will be set in sub-Saharan Africa. I know very little about its history, so I have set out to book-learn as much as I can before I engage in research purporting to help “explain” what’s happening and “improve” policy. I am especially interested in the history of agricultural/development policies and political economy more generally. It’s always hard to know where to start, so I have used the reading list laid out by Chris Blattman and Elliot Green as a starting point.

This is the first in a multiple part series briefly describing these foundational (for me) reads.

Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies, by Robert H. Bates. Written in 1981, this book was one of the first (so he claims) to apply the ‘rational choice’ model to evaluate the political economy of African agriculture, and proved to be highly influential in setting (maybe unintentionally) the ‘structural adjustment’ atmosphere of the 80’s and 90’s. His basic argument was this: After gaining independence, African governments pursued an industrial, urban-centric model of development to the disadvantage of the rural and especially small-scale agricultural sector. In order to pacify their much better organized urban populations and promote industrial development, they effectively taxed farmers by forcing them to sell to “agricultural marketing boards” at artificially low prices. The outcome of this was to discourage agricultural investment and prevent longer term food security. Bates described in some detail how these policies hurt small farmers more than large farmers, and how farmers have responded by shifting cultivation away from state sponsored exports, paying bribes to local officials, and selling to informal (black) markets at a higher price.

This book was very interesting in that it avoided demonizing certain groups responsible for failed policies, instead showing how these policies were logical outcomes of the incentive structure facing different actors. It also gave me some perspective on why the IMF and World Bank insisted so heavily on ‘structural adjustment’ in the 1980’s (other than the typical explanation of pure evil). The governments were highly corrupt,  fiscally unsustainable, and most of all ineffective at guiding long-term development. The subsequent failures of ‘structural adjustment’ is covered very well in the next book I will cover.

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