Theses Doctoral

"We cultivate to redistribute": Child-Rearing, Rural Development and the Politics of Inequality in Twentieth Century Burkina Faso

Zuber, Thomas

Was there such a thing as a postcolonial social compact? Why did the limited scope of the social state generate such intense contestation, even as it excluded a majority of the Burkinabè (Upper-Volta before 1984) population in the 1960s through the 1980s? “We cultivate to redistribute”: Child-rearing, agricultural expertise, and the politics of inequality in 20th century Burkina Faso analyzes rural families’ political and social claims to economic redistribution, from 1947 to 1987. The phrase “We cultivate to redistribute” (kod ti pui in Mooré) was associated with historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s Mouvement de Libération Nationale, (the opposition party of successive civilian and military governments) by both detractors and supporters. In a sense, it encapsulates several of the stakes of Burkinabè history in the second-half of the twentieth century: the quest for agricultural development, the labor requirements of cash crops (who is cultivating?), the importance of remittances to family budgets (who is redistributing?). Therefore, the terms of redistribution generated sharp political and economic contestations, while redistributive programs often naturalized certain forms of mutual aid and dependence.

Part I analyzes the political claims for redistribution from the late colonial period to the 1973 drought. I argue that the “inequality question” became a central battleground for anticolonial demands and postcolonial legitimacy. As West African unions and politicians, such as Daniel Ouezzin Coulibaly, demanded equal treatment with their French metropolitan peers, anti-colonial activism in rural regions was largely driven by women, who relied on models of public motherhood to demand redistributive justice for child-raising and agricultural labor (Chapter 1). In the late 1950s, as Maurice Yaméogo consolidated a one-party system around the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain party, the question faced by anticolonial activists concerned the ways of transforming anticolonial economic justice claims into claims for economic sovereignty. In Burkina Faso, elite social reformers framed demands through a form of Catholic developmentalism, which focused on poverty alleviation as it naturalized social status and gender inequality (Chapter 2). Two generations of women, often trained as sociologists and social workers (Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo, Georgette Combary) relied on international networks to define redistributive justice through Catholic charity.

Part II focuses on rural community contestations over institutions meant to reduce inequality. In the 1970s, Joseph Ki-Zerbo argued that income and health inequalities had deepened. In Chapter 3, I show that as household incomes from agricultural yields and salaried work stagnated, families relied on remittances from relatives abroad. Crucially, the period of increased inequality was associated with increases in household indebtedness, which forced farmers to sell their crops before they were harvested. In response to such growing inequality between rural and urban citizens, Catholic social reformers aimed to reorganize colonial Catholic charity institutions into legitimate state institutions at independence, by balancing the fine line between public-private collaboration in service provision. Two policies of redistribution undergirded but also challenged the legitimacies of new governments: limited financial transfers and food distribution sites. These programs relied on status and filiation, such as “widowhood” and “orphanhood” to project a moral economy of redistribution that naturalized inequality as much as it sought to challenge it (Chapter 4). Such programs sought to mobilize peasants to become cash crop producing citizens. New development initiatives reframed redistribution and triggered new labor demands on rural households. The Burkinabè state sponsored rural education projects that sought regiment mobility: rural education and delinquency centers reflected two sides of the same coin, and were run by the same government agents (Chapter 5). These projects suffered from their perceived similarities to colonial forced labor schemes.

Part III argues that the Sahelian drought transformed the terms of redistribution, as new institutional actors, particularly NGOs, took over the means of distributing food and assistance to displaced people. Faced with growing contestations, the Voltaic president Sangoulé Lamizana announced a process of Voltaization which would disentangle the Voltaic state from French and Western aid. Such Voltaization occurred at the moment the practices of state social provision changed, with an NGOization of provision. In the 1980s, the drought and economic crisis laid bare the inequalities in Burkinabè society (Chapter 6). The Burkinabè revolution, led by Captain Thomas Sankara, in 1983, sought to upend “neocolonial hierarchies” to support food self-sufficiency and economic development. It projected a new model of “self-adjustment” to economic crises, eliciting strong popular support, implementing a brief rethinking of social hierarchies (Chapter 7).

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mann, Gregory
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 10, 2023