Accepted paper:

Rural innovation and institutional amnesia in Lindi, Tanzania


Felicitas Becker (Gent University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses why even well-meaning and well-informed rural development experts tend to portray rural producers as conservative, despite ample evidence of peasant-initiated innovation. It argues that claims about 'peasant conservatism' persist because they have political uses.

Paper long abstract:

Focusing on the inhabitants of Lindi Region Tanzania, the paper shows that agricultural innovation here was routine. Over the last century, cultivators have replaced sorghum with maize, expanded cultivation of cassava, and introduced cashew nut as a cash crop. While technical innovations remained too limited to significantly raise productivity, cultivators also tried innovative tools such tractors and 'modern' hoes. That official language nevertheless tends to characterize them as hidebound by tradition is in keeping with much recent work on the importance of the 'tradition/modernity' dichotomy to the politics of decolonization and development. It is nevertheless ironic that, despite frequent announcements of new and improved paradigms, rural development intervention itself drew on a narrow and repetitive set of stratagems. Moreover, explanations that focus on the large-scale dynamics of the 'development machine' can come uncomfortably close to caricaturing experts as apparatchik and cultivators, again, as passive. I argue that a form of institutional amnesia is built into development work due to the poverty of the rural state, the narrow practical limits on officials' options, and the political impossibility of acknowledging these limits. Unless officials talk up the potential of both the region targeted and the method used, they will be denied funding; they therefore obscure predictable problems. When explaining failure in hindsight, awkward questions about lack of preparation are avoided by focusing on 'unexpected' problems, which are more safely located in human behavior than in relatively constant environmental constraints. Rural 'traditionalism' then helps protect experts' and officials' reputations.

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Knowledge contest: global development and local survival