Review for Canadian Journal of African studies, submitted 2005
Simon Batterbury www.simonbatterbury.net
Development: politics, projects and environment in
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
village politics in two Provinces of Burkina Faso, beginning in 1993 with
doctoral fieldwork. Yatenga is in the northern
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
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