Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Development Economics on Trial

 Front Cover

I was chatting with my friend Niklas Hultin yesterday when he recommended a book about a conflict between anthropology and economics. On his recommendation, I went to the library here at UCF and read the book right away. It's quite accessible, and is both engaging and well documented with supporting evidence. It's a sobering read for an archaeologist interested in agriculture, because Polly Hill (check out this interview) points out how difficult it is to characterize and describe agriculture in the tropics. Some of her strongest points include how ambiguous official statistics can be, how much inequality there can be (and usually is) among farmers, and how farmers do all kinds of things in addition to cultivating, including loaning and borrowing money, trading, and crafts like blacksmithing. Hill's examples are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It seems even more bleak when I consider that these are economists, agronomists and anthropologists who have the chance to talk to farmers, not archaeologists trying to interpret material evidence. On the other hand, in pre-Columbian eastern Bolivia at least we have access to some direct evidence of what fields look like, how big they are, and where they are located. That's not always the case in the tropics, as Hill convincingly emphasizes.

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