The Peasant & the State: A Comprehensive Rural Policy Analysis

Desalegn Rahmato and his book "The Peasant and The State" Desalegn Rahmato and his book "The Peasant and The State"

Bringing together garnered knowledge of three decades of agrarian research on Ethiopia, which stretches across three regimes (the imperial regime (the emperor Haile Selaseie regime that ended in 1974) the Derge regime (1974-1991) and the EPRDF regime (1992-to date), Desalegn Rahmato present a lucid and comprehensive argument in his book entitled The Peasant and the State. Coming to the conclusion that despite three regime shifts and various policies, the Ethiopian agriculture has fundamentally remained unchanged. This has left the Ethiopian peasants to remain in abject poverty at which the author is personally outraged. The main message that Desalegn finally wanted to convey is that this is because all regimes and their policy did not take the peasant as ‘an agency’ of change. The peasant is not free to do at will what he/she wants to do. The peasant doesn't even have the limited freedom needed for his/her development. This consists of the right to the land without any outside imposition, the right to work freely and for oneself, the adequacy of product from the land, and the right to dispose of the product form the land to benefit the producer themselves.

To come up to this fundamental conclusion Desalegn has marshaled both analytical and empirical information on agrarian transformation in the world and in Africa in general and the Ethiopian agriculture history in the last half a century in particular. The introduction part is worth reading for anyone interested in agrarian transformation in Africa/ Ethiopia as it brings the major findings of the book in simple and yet rigorous way.

The book goes on to discuss Peasants and Rural Policy in the country, across the three regimes noted above. In the imperial regime, he has examined the successive five year plans and the various package programs used as instruments of agricultural policies of the period. He noted and amply demonstrated with amazing detail, that all those policies had very limited impact on agricultural development in Ethiopia and part of the blame for this disappointing results lies in the state (and its foreign advisors) wrong perception of the peasant economy (as well as the class bias of policy makers at that time). For the policy makers the peasants were invincible and irrelevant. The foreign planners were in particular left alone to do or plan whatever they want to do as long as they do not touch the institutions of property right and power relation. In this regard Desalegn managed to successfully show how ridiculous it is the D. Levine type ‘Wax and Gold’ explanation of perceiving the non-western culture as anti- progress to explain the underdevelopment of the Ethiopian agriculture. In the process he analytically has shown the wrong basis of policies taken from outside the country and imposed on Ethiopia in a superb fashion.

Desalegn has also talked about commercial farming in detail. The argument and details given in this chapter are not only of historical importance but also are of current policy concerns from which policy makers today could learn. He has shown the pros and cons of commercial farming us- ing the then available evidence. The former includes employment, urbanization, and development of agro- processing while the latter refers to eviction and dis- placement of peasants. After a careful evaluation, he noted that the commercial farming model is imposed on existing system and was unsustainable model of development for Ethiopia anyway. From the analysis in this chapter he suggested the emergence of ‘Kulak’ peasants as a possibly more sustainable approach to modern agricultural development. This kind of contemplation can be a potential outlet to the current government’s dilemma of how to handle the emerging similar issue related to what is called ‘land-grabbing’ today.

Desalegn examined traditional agriculture based social movements and associated conflict by focusing on one of his research locations –North Ethiopia, Wello. In a quite amazing detail, he shows the problem of the peasant as an agency of change– the running theme in his entire work. He noted that such rural social movements do have a dynamic of their own, invariably including the peasants, even if the latter have not started such uprising. The peasants are usu- ally put in such movement through intimidation by local leaders who are rebelling on the state. He documented the sacrifice these peasants have made both for their local leaders and also at times for their own right. However, whenever the peasants managed to secure their right, the new regime/rulers betray them

again – placing them in the subjugated position. This vicious cycle make the peasants life a miserable one. The implication of this for agricultural underdevelopment is an obvious one. In fact, this is a reminiscent of the great work of Gebre-Hiwot Baykedagne in early 20th century Ethiopia on conflict and underdevelopment in Ethiopia.

He devoted a good part of his writings to agrarian issues that prevailed during the EPRDF regime. He examined the current government’s policy of ‘land registration’ as one of the policies to ensure tenure security. To come up with a balanced view about the issue, he has examined case studies both from the North and South of the country. Here he addressed the endemic problems of land disputes in rural Ethiopia, and how insecure the peasant had been and still are about the land on which they work. After a through examination of the evidence he managed to collect, he came up to the conclusion that the current government’s policy of land registration did not bring fundamental change in tenure security because it failed to change the fundamental relationship between the peasants and state, in which relationship the latter is dominant.

For anyone interested to have an overall picture of rural Ethiopia and its governance as it exists today the book gives an excellent insight. Desalegn has outlined various roadblocks to empower the Ethiopian peas- ant. He noted that empowering the peasant could be done primarily by the peasants. However it can be greatly assisted by all concerned. The importance of this lies in the great emphasis that Desalegn has put on the issue of focusing on the peasant as an agency of change, which he was arguing throughout the book as a missing angle in agrarian policy making in this country.

The author concludes the book with excellent pointers to future policy direction. In this part of the book Desalegn has pointed out to an interesting aspect of Ethiopian agrarian history and policy where a policy to address one issue (such as the 1975 land reform that is meant to address land inequality) leads to another problem (fragmentation of land and insecurity as an enduring aspect of Ethiopian agriculture). The author also shows how individual/ class land lordship is replaced by state-land lordship and in the processes the hegemony of others on the peasants, which is mediated by property ownership, became an enduring aspect of the country’s rural life, and one of the reasons that led to underdevelopment of the sector and the country.

He wrap up his conclusion by outlining about five policy directions that any expert concerned with the development of Ethiopia in general and the Ethiopian agriculture in particular need to take as a must reading. These policy directions are tied together to the author’s belief that development should be a joint venture, including in particular the peasant as an agency of change. He also noted that development should also be pluralistic. I strongly recommend this final part of the book for our policy makers today which are confronted with identical problems that Desalegn has examined thoroughly for decades.

The contribution of the book relates to historical documentation of agrarian policy, as well as state peasant relation and rural conflict in the last five decades in Ethiopia. The book also could be taken as a work of critical evaluation of past agrarian po- lices and the implication of that for current policy. It does these things in an excellent manner and I am sure the audience will welcome it highly. The scholarship that went into this work is superior. I know of no competing work on this area and it is the best around.

I feel I might have not made justice to Desalegn’s excellent book of over 350 pages about peasants and State in Ethiopia by summarizing and reviewing it in the few pages above. Be that as it may, I am of the opinion that like that of his previous classic work on ‘ Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia’ this book will also be a classic which will be a must reading for students of Agrarian change and development in Ethiopia – it is just excellent.

Alemayehu Geda (Prof.)

Alemayehu Geda did his PhD in Development Economics at the Institute of Social Studies, the Netherlands, in 1998. After that he had been teaching at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. He was also a research fellow at the University of Oxford. Prior to that he was at the World Bank in Washington on a special appointment to work on Global Model Building and the Place of Developing Countries in the World Economy. He is currently Professor of Economics at Addis Ababa University. Comments can be sent to

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