Review for Canadian Journal of African studies, submitted 2005

Simon Batterbury


Endangering Development: politics, projects and environment in Burkina Faso. Lars Engberg-Pedersen. 2003. pp 170. isbn 0275979105

Westport, CN & London: Praeger.  US $69.95/£39.99 hardback


This book speaks to two audiences. The first are researchers and policymakers interested, from a practical or a critical perspective, in the decentralization of political and administrative powers in developing countries. The second group are those specifically interested in resource management and politics in Burkina Faso. The country is often regarded as one of francophone Africa’s rural backwaters, but it saw significant and sustained activity by international development agencies from the 1970s, and the actions of Thomas Sankara’s populist leadership were debated worldwide. The result is that there now many potential readers able to appreciate this book in the English language.


Lars Engberg-Pedersen studied village politics in two Provinces of Burkina Faso, beginning in 1993 with doctoral fieldwork. Yatenga is in the northern Sahel, and much is known about it through the work of anthropologists and geographers like Michel Izard, Jean-Yves Marchal, and Robert Ford. Bourgouriba is in the south west of the country, not far from north-west Ghana, and has more rainfall and better agricultural possibilities. Mossi peoples from Yatenga and other northern Provinces, and some other groups like the Dagari, have migrated and settled here in large numbers and this has led to tensions over land access with indigenous groups. The book is based on eighty days of fieldwork in four villages (two in each Province), plus a later survey of NGOs in Yatenga. Detailed ethnography was not carried out, but the constant focus is the political process as it relates to the presence of foreign aid. The author wants to understand, in particular, “…the lives and actions of the so-called poor”, (p viii) in relation to the politics that develop around resource management projects and decentralization efforts. He is less interested in the views and the development activities of those projects themselves.


Engberg-Petersen makes use of the conceptual frameworks developed by the ‘APAD school’ of anthropologists (Association euro-Africaine pour l'anthropologie du changement sociale et du développement) associated with Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Pierre-Joseph Laurent and Thomas Bierschenk, and actor-oriented sociology championed by Norman Long and colleagues. These writers analyze development activity as a social and political ‘field’ (or “political space”, as the author terms it), and they look at its unintended outcomes, the brokering of development deals, the rationales for ‘participation’ in development, and the hermeneutics of development practice. The author successfully argues that dispassionate efforts to create new decentralized institutions to manage natural resources (mainly for tackling Burkina’s serious soil erosion problems), are doomed to failure if they do not recognized the power-laden nature of Burkina rural society and the overwhelming importance of the ‘struggle’ for status and resources in a resource-poor environment. This is the major ‘policy’ lesson to emerge.


The middle section of the book presents empirical findings from the case study villages. Chapters 5 and 6, which describe some of the political outcomes in the four villages around natural resource management efforts in detail, are excellent introductions to how village politics actually works when development enters the ‘political space’.  This material is perhaps of most interest to scholars of Burkina, but at times local actors do not have much of a voice in the text. Nonetheless, from these accounts one gets a sense of  a) the realities of doing rural development in Burkina and countries like it; b) how local groups use the presence of projects to increase their power base in rural society; and c) some of the real problems facing efforts to decentralize administrative powers, both now and in future. The book offers a useful summary of how development interventions influence politics, focusing on the gestion des terroirs initiatives (village land use management) that were popular throughout 1990s.


A particular focus is how fractious village politics is either put aside, or plays out, in ‘committees’ that were set up to work with development agencies promoting gestion des terroirs. Engberg-Pedersen’s first encounter with the conflicts that are endemic to institutional life in Burkinabe villages, illustrates the issue. During a meeting convened to explain his research in Yatenga Province, he and his interpreter had to rapidly withdraw after their presence kicked off a verbal slanging match between rival political factions. He sees understanding such conflicts as vital to the conduct of development activities (p135), because  …the historical, social and economic context has produced a situation in which the competition for political power permeates all social interaction”.  (p151). Although I think the word “all” is an exaggeration, recognizing that local organizations and committees participate in activities like the construction of soil and water conservation measures (SWC) with instrumental goals is realistic, and it rings true. Diligence and hard work may result, later on, in further development benefits accruing to the community (p150).  This is a fundamental insight.


Political decentralization, the subject of the book’s final chapter, has been dominating political debate in Burkina for some years, and has resulted in numerous government proposals and stalled efforts. Engberg-Pedersen reveals the difficulties facing any imposition of ‘decentralization’ along the neo-liberal model of fiscal autonomy and democratic institution-building, and the fractious nature of power relations between local members of such institutions.


Judicious editing of the author’s original doctoral work has resulted in a readable and well presented text. Despite the focus on politics and power, it would have been helpful, I think, to relate local politics much more to the actual land transformations that villagers were experiencing. Engberg-Pedersen does say that “…it seemed reasonable to expect that the state of the natural resources might influence the political processes” (p55). But those political processes, in turn, influence the landscape – they influence land tenure, agricultural productivity, settlement patterns and so-on. Politics alters landscapes and livelihoods, for example by directing SWC to certain plots, creating new work patterns (in my own fieldwork conducted nearby, over-burdened women were the main workforce for heavy SWC work), as well as creating new possibilities for disputes over land and ownership. There is brief discussion of some of these issues (p117) but the focus of the book is more on political maneuverings and struggles themselves.


For the potential audience of decentralization scholars, the book reminds us, like Jesse Ribot has done, that decentralization or resource management in West Africa cannot be taken uncritically. It is almost always appropriated by powerful groups, and it is layered upon a system of chieftainship or oligarchy that has existed since the 14th century in the case of the Mossi. Village ‘councils’ recently set up to oversee natural resource management may not always appreciate what development projects are trying to do, but they are happy to conceal village disputes to work with them, in the expectation of later opportunities for enrichment of wealth or status. Decentralizing of political powers will create uneven results, as the four villages show. For those with a prime interest in Burkina’s political and current affairs, the book provides an interesting snapshot of rural politics in the early 1990s, supplemented with more recent observations.



Simon Batterbury

School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia