MEA Book Summary and Review: Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives, by Peter D. Little (2013)

Economic and Political Reform in Africa – A re-examination of economic development, markets, food aid, and wildlife conservation based on analysis of local outcomes.

Note: This is an expansion of a review posted on the Amazon product page for Economic and Political Reform in Africa, and was written by the same author as the Amazon review.

Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives (Indiana University Press, November 2013) represents anthropologist Peter Little’s work in numerous contexts from Accra to Nairobi to Maputo over the past two decades. Little uses data and ethnographic interviews in a series of case studies to show how market-oriented, “pro-poor,” and democratic reforms have actually worked in society and in local economies, as well as how locals targeted as beneficiaries of economic reform or foreign aid programs perceive themselves, the programs, and the outcomes. Based on seven case studies in Ghana, The Gambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Kenya (including the Somali borderlands of Kenya), Little argues primarily that 1) despite the focus on “market liberalization” by development agencies such as the World Bank, the state has in many cases been an important actor during the period of neoliberal reform in Africa (sometimes as an active presence, sometimes more passively); 2) the extension of global markets into various African contexts has often disempowered smallholders and the poor; 3) democracy and “community empowerment” (including community conservation initiatives) have in some cases heightened communal/ethnic tensions; and 4) “pro-poor” development may serve as justification for African states to pursue political agendas targeting certain elements of their populations.

Little takes a similar tack to James Ferguson’s “Global Shadows” in that he approaches neoliberal globalization with a critical lens using a number of case studies; whereas Ferguson takes on a number of themes within this framework (cultural, media development, and governance over specific spaces), Little focuses largely on economic reforms (with the exception of Chapter 4) and their specific effects on the livelihoods of certain groups (smallholder farmers, nomadic pastoralists, and petty traders, for the most part). As the book’s main points are reached by analysis of somewhat disconnected individual case studies, I will outline the basic ideas of the case studies below. The work is best read as a whole, but in case you are interested in a specific aspect of development policy or a certain geographical region, read below to find out how this book may be applicable to your interests.

Chapter 1: Agricultural non-traditional commodities in Accra and Bangui

The first chapter compares contract farming in the non-traditional commodities (NTCs) sector – specifically, in fresh fruits and vegetables – in The Gambia and Ghana, showing how programs intended to benefit smallholder farmers had outcomes that differed greatly from their expressed intent. Rather than empowering smallholder farmers, the programs in both countries eventually served to support the centralization of fresh fruit and vegetable production under a small number of export-oriented farms which dumped produce not fit for export into local markets at low cost, undercutting local smallholder farmers. In The Gambia, NTC commodities consisted largely of green beans, peppers, and other vegetables, and contract farming was an activity largely dominated by females. Between 1994 and 2004, The Gambia saw a decline from 15 large firms exporting NTCs to two firms, one of which is owned by a British supermarket chain. Besides reflecting business consolidation, this decline reflects the decline in demand for Gambian NTCs in Europe, as other competitors (such as Morocco and Egypt, with somewhat lower transport costs to Europe) arose to take over market share. Yet development experts and agencies were still heralding NTC exports as an answer to The Gambia’s development problems.

Smallholders in Ghana fared somewhat better than those in The Gambia due to World Bank and government support for Ghanaian cooperatives to form Farmapine Ghana Limited. However, Ghanaian farmers were pushed to sell on local markets because of the lack of reliability of exporters and the ripening of the fruit once sprayed with chemical ripening agents. Lack of credit extended by exporters also excluded many smallholders from the business. Overall, Little’s fieldwork indicates that “Both Ghanaian and Gambian contract farmers complained about the negative effects of Economic Reform Programme (ERP) policies in their countries.” Locals were also very aware of the uneven implementation of reforms that often favored large commercial farms. Through these case studies, Little shows that without state support for smallholders, economic reforms at the country level are often governed by fickle markets and international regulations (such as food sanitation standards) that affect what type of economic actor actually benefits from such programs. Little’s study supports the arguments of William Easterly (2014) and others pointing to the ineffectiveness of planned development schemes in generating practical local development outcomes, and the refusal of “development experts” to recognize when their own plans are not working; however, Little’s approach gives a much more nuanced view on how problems also stem from international market regulations and consumer preferences, rather than just a lack of political rights for individuals. Development is much more complex than the state, experts, the individual, or the market – all of these actors and others must be taken into account.

Chapter 2: Street traders in peri-urban Maputo, Mozambique

Some analysts have thought that informal business would decline in Africa as private investment grew and formal sector employment expanded. Building on his 1999 article “Selling to Eat” and other research on informal businesses (by Alison Brown and others), in the second chapter of Economic and Political Reform in Africa Little demonstrates how economic reform in Mozambique reduced formal-sector employment, decreased access to land, increased cheap imports, devalued currency, and aggravated food costs in Maputo, pushing many residents into petty trade for survival. The outcomes were uneven, with some winners and some losers. This chapter mainly uses ethnography and local economic data collected through fieldwork with Maputo’s “dumba nengue” street vendors in order to challenge the notion that street trading/hawking is productive microenterprise that represents an effective strategy for combating poverty in Africa’s cities.

Among Little’s contributions in this chapter is a brief analysis of gender and street trade; he shows that the women who dominate much of Maputo’s produce trade on the street are not head of their own households, calling into question the notion that the most successful women traders in Africa are highly independent and head their own households. He also suggests that informal revolving loan funds have been somewhat ineffective in generating business growth amid such extreme poverty – most of the money was used to buy necessities rather than expand business. Furthermore, the study data indicate that education level and income are strongly correlated in Maputo, with those interviewees who had four or more years of education earning nearly ten times more than those with no formal education. Maputo’s stagnating economy has encouraged more emigration to South Africa since Little’s research was conducted, indicating that things have continued in the direction his research indicated. Street trading provides an escape from poverty for some (according to my fieldwork in Johannesburg, a number of large business owners started out as street hawkers, but most had some education in business or economics), but for many, it provides only a subsistence livelihood. While the market is open in Mozambique, very little support for business training and little government protection for local industry and innovation makes it difficult for a large group of per-urban traders to escape persistent poverty.

Chapter 3: Community-based conservation in Kenya

Chapter 3, titled “We Now Milk Elephants”, rethinks wildlife conservation in Africa as Little shows the economic costs of communities becoming involved in community-based conservation efforts that provide international conservationists with the good feeling of helping save wild animals. The chapter uncovers the various combinations of private and public actors in Kenya’s community-based conservation (CBC) efforts, comparing three different CBC sites to show that while couched in the language of economic development, CBC programs have largely failed to bring economic gains that they promised. The case studies include Kimana, Amboseli District; Wamba Division, Samburu District; and Lake Baringo-Bogoria Basin. As few benefits have accrued to communities, Little’s interviews with locals suggest that rural communities have often adopted negative attitudes towards conservation. While the CBC model is not inherently negative, Little argues that it has been “hijacked by private investors, overly zealous conservation groups, and, in some cases, local elite”.

The themes drawn from interviews across the communities involved in the studies point to the problems facing community-based conservation efforts as they are currently implemented. Here Little challenges the conservation mindset of environmentalists approaching Africa’s wildlife when this mindset prioritizes conserving animals over offering productive livelihoods to local people. Whereas the issues that Little deals with in the first two chapter are well-known to critics of neoliberal globalization, this case against the current CBC model is among a few voices (among them James Ferguson [2006]) pointing to the large disparity between what CBC models promise regarding economic reform, and what they are able to deliver, compared to alternative land use strategies. As long as the focus remains on the wildlife conservation aspect of CBC rather than actual strategies to generate equitable incomes for locals, the model will likely continue to generate negative feedback in local communities.

Chapter 4: Multiparty Elections in Rural Kenya

Little extends the theme of indigeneity that he began to develop in Chapter 3 into this study of democracy’s effect on the Il Chamus community of Kenya. Little explores the ways that the Il Chamus negotiated the changing political landscape from the 1980s to 2010, as they moved from an emphasis on “indigenous rights” and an association with the Maasai to a language of “minority rights” and an independent ethnic identity. As Little shows, this is not a unique phenomenon: throughout Kenya, groups have invoked indigenous rights in their contestation for space and traditional homelands, and have invoked minority rights when it comes to political representation. The Il Chamus took the Government of Kenya to court and won the right to have their own political constituency; however, the right was never enforced, and the new constitution of 2010 returned Kenya to a smaller number of counties. The political situation of the Il Chamus, having attempted to break away from the neighboring groups that were the majority in their district, remains fragile, with regular skirmishes and instability in the area.

Once again in this chapter, Little challenges common development and democratization discourse by showing how the spread of democracy to the local level may create instability among ethnic groups, and in fact such bases for democracy often reinforce ethnic divisions, since politics in the wake of Daniel Arap Moi and other leaders who have rewarded their supporters – often co-ethnics, family, and friends – once the leader obtains political power. Rather than proposing any kind of solution, Little leave the question there – what is the alternative? As he argues in the conclusion of the book, it is not necessarily for development experts and outsiders to determine the solutions to all of “Africa’s problems”. As is evident in the case of South Sudan and several other African states, democracy in multi-ethnic settings needs to be rethought and the debate reframed in light of historical animosities, the possibility of the tyranny of a majority, and abuses of “democratic” systems.

Chapter 5: Food aid dependence in South Wollo, Ethiopia

The politics of famine and food security have long been at the top of the development discourse. Chapter 5 shows how the Ethiopian government uses a discourse of food insecurity, distributions of food aid, and required participation in development projects to maintain control over rural populations in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. Using data from the droughts of 1999-2000 and 2002-2003, the chapter argues that while the Ethiopian government calls for food aid recipients to work for food instead of developing dependence, in fact, aid recipients and non-recipients pursue virtually the same livelihood strategies, and with similar outcomes. This is because food aid was not predictable and was often not given to the poorest groups of people, because of the politics of local officials’ involvement in food aid distribution.

This chapter proved very interesting and is a useful update/commentary on the work of Amartya Sen (1983 [1981]) and others on famine and aid in Ethiopia. Furthermore, Little challenges the perception that access to land is enough to generate local development; although average landholdings in South Wollo were fairly similar (and small), ownership of two oxen for use in plow agriculture is shown to be a key determinate of farm productivity. In conclusion, Little states that “if food aid is supposed to reduce work and livelihood incentives – that is, create a ‘dependency syndrom’ and make ‘people lazy’ – the South Wollo data do not support this” (Location 3045).

Chapter 6: Pastoralist Poverty Assessments in Kenya

I found Chapter 6 to be among the most relevant of the book as it challenges quantitative measures commonly employed to define poverty, questions political motivations for state-targeted “development” of certain areas, and demonstrates the lack of a connection between market access and wealth by local standards. This last point provides a basis for countering simplistic free-market approaches to development by demonstrating that market penetration is not always beneficial in generating incomes. By a number of measures – cash income, access to health, improved water, education, etc., the pastoralist areas of Northeastern Province, Kenya, appear among the poorest regions of the country, and indeed, the continent. This assessment of poverty has been used by Kenya and by development NGOs and INGOs to legitimize interventions designed to provide nomadic pastoralists with alternative livelihoods, including the introduction of sedentary farming schemes and even the leasing of land to foreign investors pursuing agriculture projects. The chapter’s case studies show that in areas where pastoralists have been forced to give up mobility or pursue alternative livelihoods, they have benefited very little. More mobile communities included in the study were not only wealthier in terms of livestock and auto-consumption; they also have a better ability to weather drought that often kills off the majority of the livestock belonging to sedentary farmers.

If any study in this book should be expanded, I think it ought to be this one. Little’s study of six field sites gives a good glimpse at the trends, but it would be helpful to see a broader assessment, and possibly one that takes other countries into account. Little’s challenge to the political motivations for “development” of pastoralist regions reflects a recent turn in development literature that begins to recognize that sedentary livelihoods are not always the answer. For example, along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, dialogues about cross-border herd movement have become an important element in local dialogues over boundary demarcation. The violence between pastoralists and farmers in Darfur, Chad, Niger, Mali, and throughout much of the Sahel should give impetus not to efforts to quash pastoralism as a way of life, but to recognize the continuing salience of pastoralist culture as well as the economic potential of pastoral herding (see Chapter 7; Little, 2003).

Chapter 7: Hyper-Liberalization and Somali Transnationalism

The final case study in Chapter 7 has perhaps increased in relevance since Al-Shabaab’s attack in Nairobi in 2013. Building on his previous work (which I recommend), Somalia: Economy Without State (2003), Little examines in this chapter how statelessness in Somalia actually allowed the country to achieve some of the neoliberal reform goals (in the economic sector) that eluded other African states in the 1990s-2000s. Unlike other studies of Somali transnationalism (such as those by Monder Ram et al., Anna Lindley, etc.), which have often focused on one or two study sites, Little briefly analyzes three critical (and very different) nodes of the transnational Somali economy – the international economic hub of Dubai, the main Kenyan hub and Somali-dominated market of Eastleigh, and the small but growing border town of Garissa. Quite a volume of work has been written on Somali transnationalism, particularly in America and the UK, but Little’s study does a very good job of demonstrating the significance of transnational networks on the ground in Somalia and Kenya, and in multiple trade sectors (consumer goods, electronics, livestock trade, livestock raising).

Of course, the chapter recognizes that Somalia’s hyper-liberalized economy has not benefited everyone, and there have been horrific costs that have come with the lack of a central government. But this careful analysis of a community that has received so much negative international attention is a step ahead in the literature on Somali transnationalism and the potential for rebuilding the state in Somalia through international and local Somali engagement. Little explains how the development of hawala (money transfer systems) has supported international Somali trade and finance of business in Somalia and Kenya. Anyone who has visited Eastleigh will be appreciate Little’s brief history of how this booming retail market area came to occupy such a prominent place in Nairobi’s economic landscape. The system of hawala and remittance networks that underlies the transnational Somali economy is a critical point of analysis for migration theorists, students of international finance and finance law, and has of late gained attention by governments combating terrorism (although Peter Little, interviewed by BBC TV on September 30, 2013, noted that the vast majority of money transfers were amounts far too small to be financing terror – remittances are a lifeline for families in the Horn of Africa with connections abroad).

The bottom line: If you are interested in development in Africa, and particularly among nomadic populations and/or the Horn of Africa, I recommend this work. It is very readable and does a great job of blending micro-level analysis into a critique of macro-level approaches to development, using much more grounded analysis and practical, local understandings than broader-level works like Easterly’s recent book. The case studies bring to life development challenges and the practical effects of economic theories, and challenge notions of development in Africa as a straightforward process. Works like this are an essential companion to broader-reaching, more theoretical approaches to development as they show how the theories are actually working on the ground. Challenging those that argue for heavy state intervention in the economy as well as those calling for an exclusively market-based approach for development, Economic and Political Reform in Africa brings together case studies on political, economic, and environmental development programs and examines policies critically in light of local perceptions and data from communities targeted in development interventions. Rather than prescribing a solution, Little leaves the debate fairly open-ended, but is highly critical of interventions planned by “development experts” that ignore local results and nuanced histories.


Little, Peter (2013). Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. (Kindle edition)

Easterly, William (2014). The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books.

Ferguson, James (2006). Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press.

Little, Peter (2003). Somalia: Economy Without State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sen, Amartya (1983 [1981]). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press.

What are your thoughts?