F. Becker: The Politics of Poverty

The Politics of Poverty. Policy-Making and Development in Rural Tanzania

Becker, Felicitas
378 S.
£ 90.00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Michele Sollai, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) Geneva

“Problems are not solved, but lived”. With this quotation from Pasolini’s film Notes Towards an African Orestes, Felicitas Becker heads towards the conclusion of her new book The Politics of Poverty._ A fitting comment on the experience of poverty and development in Southeastern Tanzania – the main subject of this book – the quotation can also serve as an indicator of the author’s overall approach and perspective. While histories of development in the African context traditionally centre around the configuration of development planning and its relative successes or failures, the present book looks through and beyond the ‘outcomes’ of development and rather focuses on its ‘practice’: the routine dynamics of development in connection with the lives of its main protagonists, peasants and provincial officials.

From this angle, the book aims to address two fundamental questions: How is it possible to explain the spread and rooting of poverty in Southeastern Tanzania throughout the 20th century? And accordingly, why and how ‘development’ continued to be purported as the key answer to rural poverty in the region, despite the persistent deficiency and evanescence of its various forms and inflections? The book sets out to respond to these questions through the analysis of a wide range of oral sources and first-hand accounts gathered during extensive fieldwork in Southeast Tanzania, as well as written evidence from local, colonial and missionary archives. Empirically rich and detailed, the book moreover speaks to multiple strands of historiography and draws elements of analysis from various fields in the social sciences.

The book is organised as follows. Chapter 1 revolves around the case study of a famine that struck the Tunduru district of British mandated Tanganyika in the 1930s. In order to exemplify later (colonial and post-colonial) dynamics of development in the region, the chapter focuses in particular on the diagnoses and responses to the famine by British provincial functionaries. In the grip of financial constraints and central authorities’ political disengagement from the region, local colonial officials’ framing of the famine reflected their impasse in the face of structural problems and their parallel need to deflect responsibility towards the “natives” and the apparent defects of their post-slavery social organisation.

Chapter 2 takes a step back and provides an overview of Southeastern Tanzania, illustrating its major environmental features and its political, social and economic transformation from the late 19th to the early 20th century. During the inter-war British mandate, various political, geographic and environmental factors sidelined the region from the parallel evolution of many colonial rural economies towards cash crop production and labour migrancy. Relying mostly on low-yielding, low-value food crops for both internal consumption and cash income, the region’s rural inhabitants found themselves in a «eating vs. earning dilemma» (p. 23), a condition of poverty and uncertainty that colonial policy partly induced, rarely addressed, and progressively naturalised as congenital to the territory.

Chapter 3 concentrates on the Southeast’s «struggle to trade» (p. 115) and its difficult position with respect to global markets from colonial to post-colonial times. Contrary to the assumption of “native” agriculture as solely subsistence-oriented and insusceptible to market forces, farmers were in fact exposed to fluctuations in global commodity prices and exposed themselves to long-distance trade, despite the remoteness of the region and the low returns for their products. In this context, the chapter further elucidates the contrast between provincial officials’ ephemeral attempts to stimulate cash crop production with a view to increasing the territory’s tax base, and central authorities’ reluctance towards infrastructural investments and agricultural development.

Chapter 4 analyses the marked change of developmental discourse in the transition from colonialism to independence in Tanzania, and sheds light on its key political function in official nationalistic narratives as a state- and nation-building tool. As the case of the Southeast shows, however, the structural socio-economic problems of the region remained unvaried. Local officials’ response to and understanding of rural poverty, too, continued to be constrained by the disruption of both technocratic and ‘educational’ schemes, and by the pressing need to manage and reproduce state expectations on the development outlook of the territory.

Chapter 5 sheds new light on the disjunctures between the theory and practice of villagisation in the 1970s. Analysing Southeastern people’s recollections of the period and provincial officials’ struggles to follow through state’s demands, the chapter shows how the «practical process» (p. 195) of villagisation recalled more the «muddling through» (p. 183) of past colonial dynamics than the hoped unfolding of modernist planning. Emphasising in particular the intertwinement between entrepreneurialism and collectivisation, market interactions and state institutions, the chapter aptly demonstrates the hybridity of the practice of villagisation as well as the ambivalence of its political foundations.

Chapter 6 investigates the changing configurations of poverty and policy-making in Southeast Tanzania, following the 1990s shift towards liberalisation. Despite the persistence and consolidation of rural poverty in the region, calls for development have continued to shape local political aims and to inform power relationships among peasants, state officials and development agents. In the context of the spread of ‘participatory’ approaches to development in the region, one of the most interesting insights of the chapter relates to the ‘public performances’ set up by provincial administrators to comply with and attract funding from NGO-led development projects. As the chapter shows, villagers’ active participation in these performances suggest a rather pragmatic and flexible stance around development, an observation that aims to complexify frequent assumptions about their role as mere spectators and possibly victims of the ‘development machine’.

In conclusion, Chapter 7 delves deeper into Southeastern villagers’ attitude towards development, by focusing on the case study of the RIPS (Rural Integrated Project Support), a small-scale Finnish-financed program carried out in the early 2000s. As the material inputs provided by RIPS’ various projects could not generate the planned effects, the program was phased out a few years after its launching. Despite RIPS’ official ‘failure’, however, villagers’ ex-post views are not entirely negative and rather reflect their «speculative, opportunistic, part hopeful and part resigned attitude» (p. 250) underpinning their acceptance and involvement in the program. More broadly, the case of RIPS represents one clear example of the progressive slippage of the notion of development both in provincial bureaucracies and rural villagers’ expectations, from a recipe for transformation to a chance of partial, yet welcome, relief from destitution.

The Politics of Poverty successfully provides a detailed historical account of a relatively understudied region – Southeast Tanzania – and at the same time a balanced reflection on development relevant to broader histories of colonial and post-colonial Africa. The set of arguments linked to this latter aspect constitutes an original contribution to the growing historiography on development and merits particular consideration. One of the main hypotheses underpinning the book’s century-long periodisation is that of the persistence of similar development dynamics amidst regime changes and paradigm shifts. While historiography has so far mostly analysed direct continuities in colonial and post-colonial development (e.g. in terms of its main actors and strategies), the book dwells on the reproduction of development ‘on the ground’, especially with regard to its translation into common practices and behaviours. In particular, the author captures the recurrence of similar tropes and stances among provincial state officials at different times, especially in their analysis of rural poverty and in their re-assertion of development. The emphasis on provincial bureaucracies’ own narratives on the causes and endurance of poverty then brings to light a second major argument of the book, that of the “weakness” of development in its local materialisation. With a view to problematising frequent views of the pervasiveness of state ‘development machines’ and by implication of its provincial agents, the book shows how people with these functions were in fact the first exposed to the systematic ‘failures’ of development and, more often than not, entirely absorbed by the need to deflect them and reinstate the promise of future success. Rather than mere vectors of central state planning, provincial officials were in practice a key factor for keeping the prospect of development alive throughout colonial and post-colonial times. By showing the rationale and impact of the discursive strategies (defined by the author «forced optimism» and «rhetoric of feasibility») adopted by provincial agents in order to rally both villagers and the central government around development, the book therefore provides further evidence for viewing development not as a monolith of top-down prescriptions, but rather as flexible array of concepts and practices determined by its recipients and intermediaries as much by central policy-making.

These are just but some of the many interesting insights that the reader will find in this informative and persuasive study. The book has very few flaws, among which perhaps a certain indulgence towards the use of jargon and a somewhat dispersive unfolding of the argumentation. Without questioning the author’s subject focus, one may wonder whether the figure of the “provincial official” could have been unpacked further. While for the British mandate period the book portrays very few, mostly individual accounts of this group, for the late colonial years and the independence period the perspective converges more towards a unified and collective representation, at the risk of reification. Of course, the author can only go as far as sources allow, yet it is not always entirely clear what are the actual common denominators of provincial officials as a category of practice over time and space, beyond the above-mentioned role in local development dynamics. From this follows a certain ambiguity as to who exactly belongs to this group among the constellation of actors involved in development. For example, as the two terms are often paired together in the book, one might ask if “experts” (e.g. agronomists, soil scientists, veterinarians) are considered as part of the provincial administration, and if so what are the modalities of their involvement in the local re-definition of development goals and expectations. In other words, how does the “rhetoric of feasibility” inform the production of scientific knowledge? To what extent does technical expertise influence local understandings and proposed remedies for poverty? How can we describe the “coping” and “muddling through” of experts when faced with the disjuncture between the plans and the hard facts of development? The book dedicates various sections to the analysis of actual development projects in which scientific expertise may have played an important role (e.g. the ‘betterment’ campaigns in the 1930s, the repurposing of the Groundnut Scheme in the 1950s, the quest for food autarky during villagisation, RIPS’ goat loan scheme), yet it rarely engages with such questions. This, in any case, does not take away from the overall thoroughness, depth and originality of the book. The Politics of Poverty undoubtedly constitutes an excellent endeavour and will contribute greatly to Africanist and development historiography.

Editors Information
Published on
Temporal Classification
Regional Classification
Subject - Topic
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review