Transforming the Fisheries

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.

Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.

Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.

Times Literary Supplement


Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers

John Markakis’s latest book, ‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’, presents a political history of Ethiopia covering the period 1916 to 2010. Focusing on the transformation of a multicultural empire into a modern nation state, Markakis continuously leans on the “centre/periphery” dynamic as a method of analysis. In the vein of subaltern studies, he seeks to give agency to “peripheral” peoples in the state-building process.  Using a vast range of historical, political and anthropological sources, Markakis describes Ethiopia’s northern and central regions as comprising the “centre”. The “last two frontiers” are the two peripheries: the “highland periphery”, essentially the Oromo-dominated southern highlands, and the “lowland periphery”, inhabited by the Oromo but also by major pastoralist groups such as the Afar and the Somali, as well many other smaller ethnic groups.

Split into five parts, the book begins with a discussion of the main peripheral peoples, followed by a history of the modern Ethiopian empire from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, under Emperors Menelik II (1844–1913) and Haile Selassie (1916–74). During this period, Amharic became the lingua franca, excluding non-speakers from power. Both highland and lowland peripheries were subjugated: exploited for labour, taxes and tribute. Markakis then assesses the period of Dergue rule after the deposition of Haile Selassie, in 1974, in which the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in expanding the state apparatus until his overthrow in 1991. The fourth part describes how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, sought a state and national identity that would encapsulate Ethiopia’s diversity, empowering the three-quarters of the population that were not Amhara. Subsequently re-formed into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), their brand of government has blended leftist nationalist ideology with a pragmatic drive to commercialize agriculture in the south. The final part of the book assesses the impacts of federalism on the diverse ethnic groups populating the southern regions.

Markakis believes the EPRDF has overseen an expansion of the state, with more schools and hospitals established in previously neglected regions. Pluralism has been feted. But beyond basic services and symbolic gestures, he argues, the “regime” has kept a “tight reign” and is “lacking in imagination” when it comes to offering real political power to peripheral regions.

‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’ reflects Markakis’s immense knowledge and passion for Ethiopia. Although the tone, structure and style could be lighter, readers will nevertheless find much worth in this expansive and original study.


Times Literary Supplement

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development

(edited by David Mosse)

Adventures in Aidland is a collection of articles by anthropologists looking not so much at the social effects of development policy on “beneficiaries” in the developing world, but more at the knowledge producers themselves. The book provides fascinating insights into the construction and constructers of knowledge about global poverty. It concerns the lifestyles and dilemmas of development practitioners in “the field”, a generic term encompassing locations across the entire developing world.

Given the authors’ background, the broad field of study and the structure of such an academic reference book, the ten chapters presented cover a diverse range of subjects. Naturally a sense of coherence is lost, but this is a book for non-specialists to dip into and enjoy passages of illuminating analysis.

In his introduction the editor David Mosse illustrates how “field”-based development professionals’ identities, if at all visible, are rendered homogenous by the universalizing content and transmission methods of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’, the orthodox approach to global poverty reduction. Mosse also explores the paradox of development practice that, under donor pressure, claims to promote unprecedented levels of community participation and local ownership and yet simultaneously makes itself increasingly ‘technicized’ – and therefore removed from those communities – in order to fulfil donors’ demands for accountability.

Rosalind Eyben, a former head of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) country office in Bolivia, describes her need to take ‘reality checks’ to parts of the country to actually learn about Bolivian people and their social and economic institutions at the local level. But this mildly anthropological approach to enhancing her professional work made her expatriate  co-workers suspicious,  vaguely reiterating the same doubts that surrounded those colonial administrators who spent time in the bush a hundred years ago, whispered by colleagues to have ‘gone native’.

Dinah Rajak and Jock Stirrat’s chapter, titled ‘Parochial Cosmopolitanism and the Power of Nostalgia’ illustrates the complex, yet banal, lifestyles of many expatriate development professionals. Their argument is compelling: that while outwardly, “their peripatetic existence, their continual exposure to varying and ever-changing cultural and political milieux” and their international agenda would make development workers appear to be ‘cosmopolitan’, in reality, their insulated, isolated expatriate worlds, and the standardizing effect  of neoliberal thought, which denies difference and historical specificity to countries, makes them somewhat parochial. In extension to this, as Renato Rosaldo has argued, we learn that development professionals “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”, bringing an “imperial nostalgia” to their imaginings of the countries in which they work.

The disillusion which many aid workers feel is caused by an acknowledged epistemic disconnect between centralized, universalizing development bureaucracies and their diverse recipient clients. By denying developing countries history, culture and specificity, aid agencies arrogantly perpetuate their own insularity. Further, they deny their cohorts on the ground two key motivations which can make them effective: humanity and curiosity. This is fascinating and under-explored territory for anthropologists and development theorists alike, making this an important collection.

Times Literary Supplement