Academic journal article African Economic History

Exploring the 'Niche Economy': A Commentary

Academic journal article African Economic History

Exploring the 'Niche Economy': A Commentary

Article excerpt

As I write [July 2005], controversy swirls around the G-8 meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland. Or more precisely, it swirls around the meaning of poverty in Africa and consequently, its causes and (potential) cures. If it is about the inherent inequality of post-colonial capitalism, then debt relief has the potential to make a difference. But if that inequity lies primarily in the realm of trade and not aid relations, then we are treating the wrong variant of the disease. If it is about the intrinsic corruption of post-colonial African leaders, then not only is the disease diagnosis wrong, the intended cure will exacerbate the situation, rather than improve it. As I listen, I hear the economists and political scientists pouring old wine into new bottles: is this not merely a reprise of discussions that took place in the face of the initial post-war 'failures' in so-called Third World countries-a debate between those who saw failure as an insufficient or misguided investment on the part of capitalist countries (more aid, more trade) and those who saw it as too much (if in some cases, inescapable) capitalism-the 'development of underdevelopment' analysis? On the one hand, some form of external assistance was the answer, on the other, it was anathema-indeed, it was the 'cause' of many of the internal problems, including inflation and corruption. Then, as today, the whole discussion presupposed that African economies functioned exactly as non-African (mostly Western) economies did. Or, that if they did not (the 'embedded economy' concept, the 'backward-bending' labor curve), this too must be part of the problem.

The people who got together for a double-roundtable session at the ASA in 2003 sought a way out of this vicious circle through an exploration of Jane Guyer's intriguing notion of the 'niche economy." The large, voluble audience that supported the effort brought with it its own set of experiences and a healthy dose of skepticism. This volume of African Economic History is the result of that process: responding to and interacting with Guyer's published ideas, responding to and interacting with each other and our 'audiences' at the ASA itself, and finally responding to and interacting with that experience in the re-writing of each contribution. Sara Berry and I, as discussants, as well as Jane Guyer herself, equally partook of this process; our contributions are therefore as much a result of the collective dynamic as the individual case studies. While I'm sure we all hoped that some central consensus would emerge that would clearly re-shape the debate and its terms, that has not happened. What has happened, however, is a resurrecting of the importance of economic history and economic anthropology in the larger discussion of 'African' economy/ies. With this modest volume, we reclaim a seat at the proverbial table and offer up some pertinent items for an agenda considering the nature of African economic development. And we do so completely cognizant of the fact that those items remain in the form of questions, rather than answers.

As a researcher, my career began in much the same way as Kathryn Barrett-Gaines', that is, in studying the economic history of salt.2 In recent years I have focused more on political, social and cultural questions that emerged from that work; therefore, it was with particular pleasure that I accepted the invitation to engage here with Jane Guyer's intriguing 'niche economy.' What follows begins with my questions about the nature of the concept as expressed in the initial Roundtable, and then builds on issues that emerged in the informal discussion. Some of these issues were also addressed further in these revised papers, thereby allowing for an even more detailed level of questioning and speculation in my comments here. Others were perhaps more relevant to the historians among the group; in turning to these in my concluding observations, I draw as well on my own disciplinary background and research experiences to assess our experience here. …

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