Introduction: The Argument
This paper engages with contemporary uses of the ‘livelihoods approach’ in the broad field of rural development. Rural development remains a core engagement of many researchers and practitioners who are deeply concerned about persistent poverty and inequality in many parts of the world. They are interested in the everyday challenges facing people, and therefore attempt to better understand and analyse the reasons so many still have to struggle to make ends meet. It is these in-depth insights – gained through a livelihoods approach – that should aid the design of practical and effective interventions to be implemented by development practitioners ranging from state agencies and non-governmental organisations to supporting donors. A livelihoods approach focuses on people so as to learn how they construct their livelihoods using the assets they control. It understands people as active agents, but it also addresses the wider social, cultural and political context in which they are embedded – a context that may support some people’s livelihood-related efforts while hindering others. These insights are then intended to help organisations reflect on how best to support people’s own efforts. Thus, the linking of analytical insights with the sphere of policy is a core ingredient of the livelihoods approach.
Livelihood approaches provide an essential lens on questions of rural development, poverty and well-being, but they need to be situated in a better understanding of the political economy of agrarian change.scoones 2015: xvii
Analysing the causes of poverty and defining interventions are intrinsically interwoven. The issues uncovered by research should, in principle, be addressed in practice. Issues which that analysis does not highlight will usually feature less in the process of defining interventions. This statement may, of course, be oversimplistic and a reification of a linear and positivist understanding of the science–policy nexus (Keely and Scoones 2000; Leach et al. 2007: 5), but it does
This interest in the relationship between understanding and action, evidence and intervention, forms the starting point for this chapter’s engagement with the livelihoods approach. As a matter of fact, livelihood research has become an integral part of contemporary attempts to understand why some people are in a position to maintain or even improve their living standards while others not. And insights from this research are influential – at least to some extent – in shaping development policies and practices. This kind of development policy, based on evidence and insights from livelihoods research, is no longer limited to progressive non-governmental organisations, but has been mainstreamed within the bilateral and multilateral aid community, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (fao) programme to ‘increase the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises’ (fao 2016) and also the Livelihood Asia Summit 2015 (access 2015).
However, it has also come in for criticism. Development research and policy inspired by a livelihoods approach is increasingly criticised for being apolitical, that is, for not sufficiently addressing the power relations that keep people in poverty in the first place. Such apolitical analyses are accused of fostering an apolitical agenda in development intervention. This criticism will be outlined further below, and it does indeed highlight trends in how livelihoods frameworks are currently applied in certain sections of academia and among development practitioners. However, I argue that this criticism does not disqualify the livelihoods approach per se. The core focus of this paper is to propose that the challenge is not the absence of attention to power or politics in livelihood-centred studies, but how power and politics are conceptualised in these studies, and how power and politics are then addressed in the sphere of interventions. I argue that most researchers and practitioners do include issues of power and politics in their endeavours, but they imbue these terms with different meanings that are in turn embedded in different ontologies. The issue, then, is not to disqualify one or the other as apolitical, but to examine, first, their respective strengths or limitations in explaining the importance power and politics have in restricting or enabling people’s livelihood options (in specific contexts); and second, how these insights can inform debates on interventions in a meaningful way.
In order to characterise such differences in ontologies I build upon Bernstein’s famous typology of residual versus relational understandings of rural challenges. This typology nicely positions two fundamentally different bundles of analyses and action. They have very different – almost dichotomised – takes
Beyond this rather dichotomised debate, though, many concerned researchers and practitioners are engaging with more differentiated conceptualisations of the political-administrative, economic and socio-cultural fields within which people have to construct their livelihoods. They base their research on ontologies that allow for far more differentiated readings of these contexts and their relations to people’s life-worlds. As a result, they highlight the complexities and context-dependency of social relations. However, unlike in the mainstream positions mentioned above, analytical insights from these differentiated analyses have no clear-cut templates for informing practice. Their insights are complex and not easy to translate into practical interventions, not least because those assumed to be in charge of policy and policy implementation – the state, non-governmental organisations (ngos) and donors – are not excluded from the analyses of social relations. On the contrary, the role they play in the production and reproduction of inequality is a focus of particular attention.
To give a simple summary of my argument: first, accusing the livelihoods approach of being apolitical is a distraction. Rather than asking whether or not power and politics are addressed, I consider it more useful to look at how power and politics are conceptualised and how power and politics then become a theme of interventions. Second, the more differentiated power, politics and social relations are analysed, the more challenging it becomes to define interventions for ‘development’.
In order to illustrate and, above all, substantiate my argument, I start in the following section with the case of a study report I came across during recent fieldwork on rural labour in the Sindh province of Pakistan. In the next section, I shall draw on my ongoing research in the same region to show that this report does indeed address dimensions of power and politics, but in a specific way. It occludes certain relational issues of power, particularly the relations between different categories of farmers, between farmers and sharecroppers, and between all of these and the state. In the subsequent section, I will address the question of whether this makes this report apolitical; to do this I shall briefly discuss what ‘apolitical’ means in contemporary critiques. Then, in order to substantiate my claim that this criticism misses important points, I shall present Bernstein’s residual versus relational understandings of rural development in the next section. In two subsequent sections, I will show that the debate on
The Case: Analysing Vulnerabilities in Rural Sindh, Pakistan
The issue of vulnerable populations is a problematic one … People’s susceptibility to suffer damage is embedded in everyday power relations and political economy and can be inflected by class … gender … and ethnicity … among other factors.Social Policy and Development Centre [spdc] 2015: 2
The quantum of income, or poverty level are not very good indicators of vulnerability. What matters more is the stability and diversity of income.spdc 2015: 48
The first quote introduces the general analytical direction, the second highlights one of the findings of a study in the Sindh province of Pakistan, the final report for which was published in early 2015. The study was undertaken by a Pakistani think tank and financed by well-known international donors. Its objective was to understand the vulnerability situation of rural households with an emphasis on women and their (lack of) capacities to cope with climate change. Data were collected through a large sample of household interviews located in four different agro-ecological/livelihood zones, i.e. two in regions with irrigated agriculture, one in a rain-fed agricultural zone, and one on the coast where the main livelihood is fishing. The data collected encompassed various types of assets including education, incomes, access to social networks, infrastructure and employment, and gave specific attention to the interviewees’ own perception of vulnerability and coping capacities. Data were comparatively analysed first at household level, then at community level, and finally at the level of the agro-ecological/livelihood zone.
In sum, the study found that
Agriculture landholding at family level has become skewed due to distribution of land among multiple legal heirs: this makes the size of landholdings too small for productivity and profitability. Water scarcity is also a major cause of reduced farm activities leading to high unemployment rate at village level.spdc 2015: 44
As a consequence, the report’s recommendations call primarily upon the state and ngos to invest in physical and educational infrastructure in order to enable more diversified income opportunities. It ends by formulating the core task ahead as the need ‘to support the ingenuity and resourcefulness, of both men and women to negotiate the challenges they are facing and will face’ (spdc 2015: 94). Regarding the study’s analytical approach, the authors conclude by reiterating the ‘significance of nuance, context and attention to class and gender differentiated analysis’ (spdc 2015: 94).
access to services (health, education) and roads was positively associated with vulnerability, education partially so, but quantum of income or poverty level was not a good indicator of vulnerability – more significant was the stability and diversity of income.spdc 2015: xiv, see also 91–92
Though it was not explicitly stated, the study followed a contemporary livelihoods approach. It started with an analysis of individuals’ lived experiences at household, community, and regional levels. It researched their assets (including social capital), their access to assets, and contextualised these insights within wider development aspects such as the state’s institutional capacities. The study also addressed issues of vulnerability and coping strategies – again core notions in livelihood-oriented research. The findings reflect contemporary concerns as well: a concern for intra-household inequalities, especially gender; the limitations of the physical resource base, for example water and soil quality; the importance of livelihood diversity (the ‘watchword’ of the livelihoods approach according to Scoones [2009: 2]); the role of social networks; and the importance of the state. Finally, the study addressed ‘everyday power relations and political economy [which] can be inflected by class … gender … and ethnicity … among other factors’ (spdc 2015: 2). But though the study
The Complexity of Social Relations
The report I have briefly summarised above serves as an inspiration to reflect more generally on the relationship between analysis and action. After all, the report is based on a thorough analysis of everyday livelihood challenges faced by people in specific regions of Sindh. Based on these insights, it makes clear recommendations to the state and to ngos for interventions. Thus, it provides relevant and novel insights into important facets of the challenges different categories of people at the grassroots have to face. However, it misses important dimensions of the relations between these different categories of people. The report explicitly takes note of power relations, for example in the sphere of gender, but other power relations faced by the rural population in Pakistan’s Sindh province are not addressed.
To substantiate this critique, a brief discussion of these other facets of political economic realities in Sindh is due, based on my ongoing research into struggles for land reform in the region. This research, in turn, follows up earlier research into the social relations of production around natural resources (e.g. Shahbaz, Geiser, and Suleri 2013). Here, I concentrate on an irrigation-based agro-ecological/livelihood zone analysed in the report under examination.
My discussion specifically takes into account the skewed distribution of land holdings and the close relation of this inequality to landlordism on the one hand and frequently exploitative forms of sharecropping on the other. Though it emphasises agricultural production by farmers, the study summarised above does not differentiate between farmers with different amounts of land. Though addressing issues of social networks, it did not ask for the relation between landowners and sharecroppers or wage labour. The study does address class, but it understands class in a more static way, using proxies such as categories of income or gender.
The first critique concerns the notion of ‘farmers’, and especially ‘small farmers’. Data published by the official agricultural census (Bureau of Statistics 2011: 82) hint at the reported distribution of land, which indeed suggests the widespread presence of small farmers. But it hides the true extent of unequal land distribution. This discrepancy is due to the fact that for the purpose of official census enumeration, landowners often divide their land among their large capital of family members and relatives, making landholding sizes
My own interviews, and in particular studies undertaken by concerned local organisations and researchers (e.g. Shaikh 2001; Budhani and Gazdar 2011), show that there is indeed a category of what one could label small farmers, that is, people that own and operate up to around say 5 acres of land and are just able to eke out a living with a low level of productivity. Many of them, though, have to supplement their land-based income with casual labouring whenever they can, including working on their fellow farmers’ land. A large category owns between 10 acres and roughly 50 acres. While some of them cultivate part of this land as owner-operators, most already employ one or more families of haris, i.e. sharecroppers. Then there are those with ‘much land’ – as people say – in reference to landlords (often called zamindars) who control hundreds and thousands of acres. The notion of control is used here because actual land ownership is difficult to assess. These landlords, whose lands are toiled by dozens of hari families, are often absent, and managers (kamdaars) look after their farms.
This brings me to the second critique, that is the notion of agricultural wage labour mentioned in the Sindh study. Haris are a phenomenon that is quite specific to Pakistan’s Sindh province, but the word is not mentioned once in the report. Hari families are engaged by larger landowners to cultivate land on a sharecropping basis. Thus they are not, strictly speaking, wage labourers. While in earlier times the landowner would supply land, water and seed as inputs, and the haris labour and oxen, these arrangements have become highly differentiated and complex in the context of Green Revolution–induced changes to cultivation practices. The harvest is shared (a moment called batai) between landowner and haris. While sharing used generally to be on a 50–50 basis, this too has become complex and now depends on the (informal) share arrangements around the range of inputs required for modern-day farming. Another thing that is worth mentioning is that, after harvesting, the produce is usually marketed by the landowner or farm manager, but the haris rarely know the price obtained.
The third (and main) critique refers to the study’s lack of attention to social relations. Though de jure a Tenancy Act was introduced in 1950 to protect the rights of sharecroppers vis-à-vis landowners (Government of Sindh 1950; Hasnain and Marri 2015), de facto sharecropping arrangements are not formalised, and thus the Act cannot apply. As a matter of fact, during my interviews, I did not find one hari or small farmer/labourer who knew about this state legislation. Haris work at the will of their landlords, often without any
The fourth critique is linked to social relations, and concerns access to land. Here, the report discussed in the second section does not mention the objective reality of haris, but refers to the inheritance challenges faced by small farmers. It highlights the fact that inheritance reduces land sizes and implies the need to search additional labour opportunities and diversify income sources. Of course, issues of inheritance, the related subdivision of land holdings, and the lack of labour opportunities are important factors. But they mainly affect the aforementioned category of smaller landowners/owner-operators, and the others much less. But above all, land inheritance is not an issue at all for the masses of haris, as there is no land to be inherited, not even the plot where the hut is built.
A fifth and final critique concerns access to water. Access to water is indeed a challenge, but not for everyone. Huge irrigation infrastructure brings water from the Indus River to the fields of farmers, both smallholders and larger landlords. As in many of these state-controlled schemes, water distribution is highly politicised. Almost as a rule, tailenders suffer, while larger landowners are often found closer to the main canals. They also tap the main canals directly (and illegally; see also Indus Consortium 2015: 23). But the problem goes further. To be entitled to a share of water, a landowner needs to be a member of the Water Users Association along the canal he/she depends upon. To become
This concludes my critique vis-à-vis the analysis of rural livelihood challenges as portrayed in the (otherwise highly relevant) report under discussion. I strongly argue that these political economic issues around relations between different categories of social groups or classes, and between these and the various agencies of the state, structure the everyday life of rural households, providing opportunities, but in most cases producing and reproducing constraints and hindrances to people’s ability to achieve sustainable livelihoods. They also create vulnerabilities to climate change.
In the following paragraphs, I turn to the recommendations regarding interventions in the report under discussion, based on the research insights it laid out. In sum, the report concludes that there is a lack of stability and diversity of income, as is clear from the quote at the start of the second section. The key challenges are seen as being in the spheres of assets and access to assets, that is, access to health and education facilities, physical infrastructure (for example roads), agricultural extension and markets. These are the challenges facing local communities of small farmers, and within these categories, women in particular. Therefore, the report recommends improving access to health and education facilities for lower income groups and women, and road infrastructure. These improvements are to be addressed through state and ngo interventions. Thus, just as the problem analysis focuses on issues of access to assets by small farmers, its recommendations focus on providing assets and access to these assets. Of course, providing better assets to small farmer households is important though not easy, but it is, I would argue, the main thrust of most rural development interventions of the last decades, and thus much experience is available, in theory.
My point here is that issues of access to assets are important, but the larger question is ‘for whom?’. I argue that a more differentiated attention to the classification of social groups and to the social relations between these groups (haris, landlords, kamdaars, the field staff of the Board of Revenue and the Irrigation Department) would lead to a rather different set of recommendations for interventions (I will show these in one of the last sections). As illustrated above, the rural social universe in many regions of Sindh is characterised by considerable tensions. First, it shows that the category of small farmers exists, but that it needs to be understood in relation to other groups, above all the landlords and haris. The vulnerability of haris is not primarily
The next section engages with the question of whether the report by spdc (2015) illustrates an ‘apolitical’ application of the livelihoods approach or not.
The Livelihoods Approach and Power Relations: Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water
Ramakumar (2008: 5) argues that ‘livelihood studies lost their politics’. With reference to key authors that are often mentioned in the genealogy of the
be considered as a neo-liberal project … [and states that] it tended to focus much more on opportunities than on constraints, more on actor’s agency than on structure, more on neutral strategies than on failed access due to conflicts and inequalities in power.de haan 2012: 348
Finally, Green and Hulme’s (2005) critique hints at the same disconnect:
instead of bridging the gap between micro- and wider conflict economies, this ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’ forestalled a more diversified understanding of the mediation between individual coping mechanisms and overarching mediating structures, not because these links are impossible to verify … but because of the dominant requirement of the international aid structure to reduce political problems to negative market externalities.raeymaekers 2014: 33
Indeed, these and other critiques touch upon important limitations of how the livelihoods approach is being used by some researchers interested in the fate of marginalised people. In summary, most critics disqualify the livelihoods approach due to, first, its analytical insensitiveness vis-à-vis issues of
The widely used livelihoods approach … as a ‘toolkit’ for understanding how households, assumed to be units of production and consumption, come to have income deficits is useful for helping outsiders grasp the different components of income that rural people have to pull together in order to make a living of sorts. It is less able to grasp the external influences on these disparate components, the extent to which rural dwellers are embedded in regional and transnational economies and the dynamism and often fragmentary nature of ‘households’ as loci of accommodation, consumption and cooperation.green and hulme 2005: 868
But I venture to argue that these critics, though highlighting important concerns, risk throwing out the baby with the bath water. They gauge their reading of the livelihoods approach vis-à-vis one specific understanding of what political – and for that matter apolitical – means, of how power and politics is to be understood and how not. Again, facets of this critique are crucial. But it also risks reducing the livelihoods approach to a rather narrow interpretation. Thus, it falls short of its potential as a critical instrument for analysing social relations and power (as indeed highlighted by de Haan, 2012: 345). As a matter of fact, some of the early applications of the livelihoods approach were already rather sensitive to broader questions of power relations and political economy. Ashley et al. (2003) for example explicitly addressed issues of social exclusion in their operationalisation of the livelihoods approach for rural studies in India; and Start and Johnson (2004) – also using insights from India – discussed the relations between livelihoods and broader questions of the social relations of production and exchange. But it is important to take the critique serious. This requires renewed attention to underlying assumptions, and thus ontology. After all, the study on Sindh also introduced class, but missed some crucially important facets of class relations.
Disentangling Underlying Ontologies
In addition, I suggest that it is the respective conceptualisations of power that need far more critical scrutiny. This would then allow for a more differentiated interpretation of the livelihoods approach’s intersection with issues of power relations, the zeitgeist of neo-liberalism and its bond with development practice.
One of the recurrent criticisms of livelihood approaches is that they ignore politics and power. But this is not strictly true. Livelihoods approaches encompass a broad church, and there has been some important work that has elaborated what is meant, in different variants of different frameworks, by ‘transforming structures and process’, ‘policies, institutions and processes’, ‘mediating institutions and organisations’, ‘sustainable livelihoods governance’ or ‘drivers of change’ … These reflections have addressed the social and political structures and processes that influence livelihoodscoones 2009: 11
choices. Power, politics and social difference – and the governance implications of these – have been central to these concerns … Unfortunately, though, such debates remained at the margins.
The name of Henry Bernstein appears rarely in the genealogies of the Sustainable Livelihood Framework. Its main parentage is usually seen as being ideologically or practically linked, for example, through research contracts, to the uk’s Department for International Development (dfid) at the time of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ government (de Haan 2012: 346; Geiser et al. 2011: 258; Scoones 2015: 35f). Above, I have already referred to Freeman et al. (2004) and Ellis (1999), and its core founders of course include Chambers and Conway (Chambers 1983; Chambers and Conway 1992; for further details of these ancestors, see de Haan  and Scoones [2009; 2015]).
That, in a nutshell, is how the world out there is seen by a section of researchers and practitioners involved in rural development. Today, this section encompasses specifically the dominant neo-liberal school that mainstreamed most of the contemporary development debate and practice. Thus, I label this position in the following as ‘residual-mainstream’.
The residual approach views poverty as a consequence of being ‘left out’ of processes of development, on the assumption that development brings economic growth which, sooner or later, raises everybody’s income. This is termed the ‘trickle down’ effect: that the benefits of growth trickle down even to the poorest groups in society in the form of increased opportunities to earn (more) income. The implication for developmentbernstein 1992: 24
policy is to target the rural poor in order to integrate them into processes of development they have been excluded from. In practice, this typically means integrating them more deeply into markets and devoting more of their resources and energies to producing goods for sale.
In a relational approach, poverty results not from the persistence of subsistence production and lack of market integration (as in the residual approach), but from the persistence of exploitative social relations. To quote Bebbington (2007: 793): ‘Poverty endures because of the social relationships and structures within which particular social groups are embedded … Chronic poverty is a socio-political relationship rather than a condition of assetlessness’.
Relational approaches investigate the causes of rural poverty in terms of social relations of production and reproduction, of property and power, that characterize certain kinds of development … A relational approach thus asks rather different questions: are some poor because others are rich (and vice versa)? What are the mechanisms that generate both wealth and poverty as two sides of the same coin of (capitalist) development?bernstein 1992: 24
So far Bernstein’s typology of the residual and the relational (see also Geiser 2014) which, though schematic, helps and invites us to ask for the underlying assumptions within the livelihoods approach. At the same time, though, it invites us to reflect on the respective assumptions in the critiques of the livelihoods approach too. I shall therefore now discuss the links between Bernstein’s notion of residual/relational and the debates around the livelihoods approach. I distinguish in the following between those researchers/practitioners that stick to the assumptions of the mainstreamed residual perspective in the next section and those that stick to a more orthodox reading of the relational
The Livelihoods Approach of the ‘residual mainstream’
The objective of development is clear in the mainstreamed residual approach, and this in turn informs what livelihoods research needs to uncover.
the assumption is that the end point, with agriculture as a business, driven by entrepreneurship and vibrant markets, linked to a burgeoning urban economy, is the ideal to strive for.scoones 2009: 15
My argument is that this mainstream-residual perspective on livelihoods is not per se power-blind, but has a specific understanding of power. To illustrate my point it is interesting to interlink with de Haan’s (2012: 350) recollection of older discussions on power that proposed to differentiate, among others, between ‘power over’ (i.e. to control something), ‘power with’ (‘a collective power based on mutual support’), and ‘power to’ (a creative power that ‘allows actors to exercise their agency’). One could argue that it is ‘power to’ that is central in the residual’s take on livelihoods. Following its neo-liberal ideology – or ontology for that matter – the strengthening of individual and household capacities to interlink with wider market forces is central and thus rural producers are to be ‘empowered’ to become innovative entrepreneurs. ‘Power with’ has become important as well, as the intensive engagement of this particular livelihoods approach with issues of participation, community-based organisations (cbos) or state decentralisation indicate (Geiser and Rist 2009). However, ‘power over’ is not on the radar, and thus critical relational issues, including the role of the state or ngos, are not part of the analysis. Therefore, for this group of livelihoods researchers, the approach is not apolitical at all, but indeed politicised. Even the World Bank realises that the poor
strengthening the business environment … to improve competitiveness and expand investment, improve productivity of farms and businesses, and make cities more growth friendly to create productive and better jobs (especially for youth and women) … [supplemented with the strengthening of] safety nets.World Bank 2014: iii
Others, though, do not agree, as they have a very different take on power and politics. This is shown in the next section.
face specific governance problems in rural areas, such as deeply entrenched political and social structures, that are often linked to unequal access to land, which perpetuates severe inequalities and can lead to violent local conflicts.World Bank 2007: 245
The Livelihoods Approach of the (Orthodox) Relational Perspective
This structuralist relational analysis of root causes informs how the problem might be overcome. At the overall level, people need to take control of the state: ‘The new politics is not an “end of the state” but the affirmation of the state as an instrument of people’s power, people’s democracy and people’s empowerment’ (Tariq 2010: 4). In Sindh, there are general demands for the abolition of feudalism and calls for land reform. One major practice is to organise rallies and demonstrations. Several organisations in Sindh, ranging
country’s political and administrative system is dominated by the powerful feudal lords … Sindh is a province characterized with high land concentration and dominance of feudal lords. Hundreds of thousands of peasants work on lands belonging to these feudal [lords].npcp 2014
In actual practice, and beyond these demands for structural change, however, there are few details given of exactly how feudalism is to be abolished and land reform implemented, or who ‘the peasants’ are. At times, there is mention of the plot size that might be required for peasants to operate a viable entity (e.g. Ercelan et al. 2013: 3). Thus far I have come across no study that attempts to draw differentiated lessons from Pakistan’s earlier attempts at land reform in the 1950s and 1970s. Therefore, other concerned activists and organisations are rather critical about this kind of demand and action. Although they too recognised that the underlying problem is feudalism, they argue that events such as demonstrations remain ‘sloganeering’ (see also Akhtar 2012: 28) and that rallies hint at problems but seldom bring improvements to those they speak for.
Indeed, ngos are often seen as being a proxy for critically engaging with the livelihoods approach. This practice of accusing ngos of being apolitical has also become a field of intensive debate in itself within academia. I just hint at the notions of ‘participation as a new tyranny’ (Cooke and Kothari 2001), and the more recent critique of participatory endeavours as being ‘post-political’
[Civil society] has become ‘projectised’ by external donor funding and is prey to whims and fads of development aid … ngos are busy in welfare or service provision, and have yet to perform a transformatory role for society. They are also bound by donor agendas, lack of funds and cannot make an impact.sattar 2012: unpaginated
equality, solidarity and democracy, held together by the fidelity to the conviction that these can be realised geographically through continuous and sustained political struggle. The realisation of the practices of these principles involves the self-organisation and self-management of the people, and will eliminate the state as the principle organiser of political life.swyngedouw and wilson 2014: 304
Critical Relational Debates on Livelihoods
A brief summary of points discussed so far: to underpin my argument that the how of linking analysis with action in the livelihoods approach deserves more attention than just blaming it as apolitical, I introduced in the previous sections the residual as well as the relational take on rural issues, and I illustrated this around evidence from Pakistan. I argued that both these ontological positions in their mainstreamed or orthodox gaze address issues of power and politics. As a consequence of the residual ontology’s emphasis on ‘power to’, it stresses the agency of rural poor, and their lack of assets. As the Sindh report under examination writes, it is crucial ‘to support the ingenuity and resourcefulness, of both men and women to negotiate the challenges they are facing and will face’ (spdc 2015: 94). The relational perspective emphasises ‘power over’, and thus focuses its analytical take on structural dimensions. The definition of distinct, homogenous classes comes centre stage. Thus, the abolition of feudalism is, for example, an objective at intervention level. One emphasises ‘power to’, the other ‘power over’. Therefore, both positions highlight power-related aspects of why people stay poor.
However – and this leads me on to the next point in my argument – both neglect to address, in a differentiated manner, the relation between ‘power
In doing this, they link up – again, implicitly or explicitly – with a range of debates within social sciences that inspired the sphere of development studies. A few hints: of early importance was the actor-oriented perspective by Long and Long (1992). Long and Long’s work in turn was inspired by Giddens’s conceptualisation of agency-structure through his structuration theory (Giddens 1984). Somehow, though, this particular theory has lost its lustre, and Scoones, for one, calls it ‘cumbersome’ (Scoones 2009: 17) without, however, explaining why. Other critical social science debates have unfolded around different takes on agency and structure, the most prominent of which are attempts to engage with Bourdieu’s concepts, for example, social capital. Thieme and Siegmann (2010) challenge the residual mainstream’s hype with social capital. They show that women’s livelihoods can suffer, and their vulnerability increase, from being incorporated in male-dominated social networks. Others build and expand on the notion of ‘institutions’ to grasp the relational. Steimann (2011) uses, among other things, the notion of legal pluralism to analyse how agro-pastoralists are affected by and cope with the post-socialist transformation in Kyrgyzstan. In their reviews of the livelihoods approach, both de Haan (2012: 349–352) and Scoones (2015: 46–60) add other references to these approaches. They also refer to studies emerging from more differentiated agrarian studies as well as to political ecology and its sub-schools. Indeed, there is an inspiring, lively, at times confusing but always engaging array of research taking place on how to analyse livelihoods. All these studies pay due attention to the centrality and complexity of how social relations work.
In the remainder of this section, I shall illustrate the implications such differentiated takes can have on our understanding of rural challenges. I specifically address this around the issues that I criticised in the study report on Sindh; that is, first, the ways in which the involved actors are categorised; second, how the social relations between these actors are addressed; and third, how the role of the state and ngos in poverty alleviation are discussed.
Categorising Rural People/Actors
While examining the Sindh report in the third section, I highlighted the challenge of stratifying the rural social universe. The report identified small farmers, communities, the state and ngos as actors. This stratification guided the understanding of the problems and potential of each group. Based on my own research, I then showed that the category ‘small farmer’ conceals and makes invisible crucial differences between farmers with little land and those who have a lot of land, and that it completely misses the haris or sharecroppers, who are often bonded labourers. This critique of the ‘small farmer’ category is received wisdom, but it needs reiterating again and again.
I also criticised the understanding of ‘the state’ as a homogeneous category and as external to small farmers’ problems. I showed that, on the contrary, unequal access to land and water is substantially caused by the de facto actions of proponents of the state. Another example is the ineffectiveness of the state’s Tenancy Act, which helps to reproduce the fate of the haris.
Not all who are objectively members of a class may recognize that position; not all who recognize their location in a class structure will find that particular dimension of inequality most salient, or most amenable to change; not all who seek to alter the terms of their class position will find sufficient colleagues to make collective action feasible; and not all class-based collective action will be effective: much will be suppressed, bought off, tactically flawed, or ignored by political actors with alternative support bases.herring and agarwala 2006: 333
Conceptualising and Addressing Social Relations
This critique speaks to the residual reading of rural livelihoods discussed above, but I suggest that it also holds for the (more structuralist and orthodox) relational perspective. As I illustrated above using examples from Pakistan, both tend to engage with rather static social categories (the ‘small farmers’, the ‘peasants’). They also base their take on the relations between these categories on what the respective ontologies prescribe (either functionalist relations between producers, the market and the state, or antagonistic relations between labour, capital and the state). What is missing from both perspectives is attention to the nitty-gritty of the relational (between a multitude of social groups) per se. This is a sphere that needs detailed empirical investigation. Only then can a more dynamic, process-oriented, constructivist and contingent understanding of social groups and their interactions emerge. I will illustrate this below around how the role of the state and of ngos vis-à-vis the ‘poor’ is discussed in Sindh.
class, not as an institutional context variable, but as a relational concept, is absent from the discourse of livelihoods. Accordingly, political space is very limited – focusing mainly on ‘empowering’ the poor, without beingo’laughlin 2004 quoted in scoones 2009: 186
clear about how this process takes place or who might be ‘disempowered’ for it to occur. A more explicit theorisation of politics, power and social difference is thus required.
The Role of the State and ngos
Many social activists and their organisations in Sindh share the relational mainstream’s framing of core challenges – feudalism, the plight of the haris, the need for land reform, and a critique of the state. But they want to go beyond rallies and sloganeering. In doing so, they venture to share some thoughts with the residual mainstream: peasants with a little land can produce little and, in addition, many lack adequate inputs (water, proper seed, implements, levelled fields, credit) to use their land productively. Some activists argue that these challenges would remain even after radical land reform.
Interestingly, several interviewees mentioned that some sections of ‘the state’ do provide laws and special schemes that do, in principle, address issues of poverty and inequality. However, many of these are either not implemented or are difficult for the marginalised to access. These activists then argue that what is ‘the need of the hour’ in this specific political-economic context, is not to just blame the state as such, but to demand the implementation of such laws and schemes from the state agencies involved. They also argue that people have the right and are entitled to access such state provisions. They thus engage in a critical interaction with these state institutions, based on a differentiated and in-depth analysis of their mandates as well as their actual performance.
The following is an example that emerged during my own research in Sindh. In 2008, the government of Sindh launched a project to distribute, through its Board of Revenue, ‘212,864 acres … land among landless haris, preferably amongst the women workers in almost all the districts of Sindh’ (Dawn, 6 October 2008). In all, 13,300 families were to benefit. The objective of the scheme was to ‘reduce poverty, access of landless to the basic livelihood sources and ultimately to ensure the food security’ (Legal Rights Forum [lrf] 2013: 5). Micro credit, skill training, and seed were to be provided in addition to land. Programme implementation was to be done through state-affiliated rural support programmes. The revenue officials then declared 85,199 acres as available for distribution, much less than initially foreseen. The project itself was implemented in two phases up to 2010.
A subsequent review of the scheme by the Legal Rights Forum (2013) lauds the government’s efforts, but finds, based on a very differentiated analysis of the scheme’s everyday nitty-gritties and with a clear focus on issues of social relations, severe problems in its implementation. Similarly, taking stock of the programme, Participatory Development Initiative (pdi) and Actionaid (2013: 6) report that 24% of the land grantees ‘are yet deprived of the access to the land granted to them’. In order to understand this anomaly, pdi and Actionaid carefully followed the scheme, and disentangled its various procedural steps. They found that in a first step, the available land was to be announced by the Board of Revenue of the Sindh province through the print media in order to seek applications. This first step thus already excluded many marginalised from even knowing about the scheme, as haris in particular have a low literacy rate.
Out of the applicants, ‘genuine landless hares’ were then to be identified by the authorities and given land. The review found that between 2008 and 2010 in total, 55,439 acres were distributed to 4867 women and 1266 men (pdi and Actionaid 2013: 6). One source argues that initially the size of allotted land was to depend on land quality (16 acres in irrigated areas, 25 in non-irrigated areas; Dawn 13 January 2014), but that smaller plots were actually distributed. Much of the distributed land was uncultivable, for example, due to salinity, being unlevelled, waterlogged, a graveyard or disputed. The initial identification of allottees was to be done through transparent and open Kacheries (i.e. open sessions or meetings where applications for land are scrutinised by state officials and the concerned public), but were often done at the ‘residence of the political influential’. Many potential beneficiaries were even not aware of these Kacheries. The reviews also claim a lack of ‘participation of civil society and local representation in identification and distribution of land’ (lrf 2013: 7).
Once haris were allotted land, they had to visit the Board of Revenue’s office at the district headquarters to request a document called an ‘allotment order’; again, many found these procedures difficult. Also, those entitled to land (the allottees) had to pay an initial ‘deposit’ of pkr100 and then an annual ‘documentation fee’ of pkr100 for the coming 15 years. The report claims that many were not aware of these conditions and thus lost their entitlements.
Next, allottees were to receive ‘support economic packages’ to enable cultivation, mainly through rural support programmes. Many of these packages came late because of conflicts around the criteria of eligibility. The rural support programmes followed the ‘Poverty Score Card System’ designed by the World Bank (Participatory Development Initiatives [pdi] and Actionaid 2013: 10), whilst the Sindh government used another system. Finally, allottees were meant to receive proper ownership documents, notably the crucial Form No. vii (lrf 2013: 11). For this, however, they required the ‘allotment order’ mentioned above as well as other documents, again opening a vast field of conflict, (mis)information and contestation.
So the question now is how one should intervene in this complex situation after such an analysis based on a differentiated understanding of both the ‘small farmers/peasants’, and ‘the state’. I generally argue that differentiated analyses of rural development challenges complicate the definition of development-oriented interventions. The above description suggests that the original land allocation scheme in Sindh was inspired by a residual ontology – in a nutshell, the poor were to be given assets by the state and related ngos. The differentiated reviews above, however, highlighted that this mainstreamed approach could founder on the iceberg of social relations.
It is interesting to analyse how activists in Sindh cope with this challenge when faced with the question of how to translate such critical insights into concrete interventions. In the case of the scheme under discussion, some smaller local organisations supported the allottees by helping them through the complex administrative procedures and by translating official government forms into local languages. They also supported them directly through ‘better support packages’. But they also agitate by means of rallies through a local network. For this, they develop close links to the media. They even support allottees in filing suits at the courts in charge. Of special importance is their support to allottees in obtaining the aforementioned Form No. vii, as well as proper receipts for the pkr100 they pay annually. They also support court cases around land that was allocated but not suitable for cultivation.
Indeed, these are just brief references to several very active local organisations in Sindh that engage specifically with the plight of haris and very small
Again, these are just examples of activities that go beyond ‘sloganeering’ or the distribution of assets. On the side of the analysis, they are based on in-depth understandings of the actual and everyday working of social relations. On the side of the definition of interventions, they are innovatively addressing social relations. But this is not simple, to say the least, and requires long-term involvement and dedication, and at least some funds. Such funds are, of course, not coming from the state.
This brings me, briefly, to the social relations in which these local-level activists and their non-governmental organisations are enmeshed themselves – social relations that, by the end of the day, can impinge on the faith of the poor as well. I learned through my interviews that most international donors will not provide funding for the above kinds of rather political activities, as such actions are considered too sensitive. Some larger Pakistani non-governmental organisations (more precisely, some concerned staff within these organisations) try at least to squeeze some support for haris into their more mainstreamed projects that do receive international funding. Such mainstreamed and ‘politically correct’ projects include food security, climate change adaptation, or gender mainstreaming. But I found that many local activist organisations are reluctant to enter into these arrangements, mainly because they are usually limited/projectised to a few years only, and feared distracting attention from core relational issues. These activists insist that issues of social relations are central, complex and in need of explicit and dedicated long-term commitment. To recall – the study summarised in the second section, dealing with ‘climate change’, did not consider the fate of haris as well.
For a Critical Relational Livelihoods Perspective: Conclusion
The above examples illustrate that how power and politics are conceptualised in a livelihoods approach, and how power and politics are then addressed in the sphere of interventions is crucial. They also illustrate that more differentiated understandings, especially regarding the stratification of the rural populace, the social relations between them, and the role of the state and different types of ngos, complicate clear-cut answers on how to intervene for a more ‘constructive engagement’ (Raeymaekers 2014: 41). It is not that easy to identify ways out of power imbalances and their consequences for the everyday lives of millions of people without falling back on the clear-cut templates of either the residual mainstream or the relational orthodoxies (see e.g. the quote from Swyngedow and Wilson  further above), and accusing each other of being apolitical or sloganeers.
It is through the engagement with more contemporary and critical social science theories beyond individualistic or structuralist positions that a much more dynamic understanding of ‘[access] to livelihood opportunities [which] is governed by social relations, institutions and organizations, and [which] includes power as an important explanatory variable’ (de Haan and Zoomers 2005: 44) becomes possible. These approaches indeed emphasise power, but understand the emergence and everyday working of power in much more relational and dynamic ways (see especially Harriss 2007; Mosse 2010). This necessitates nuanced and contextualised analysis, qualitative for that matter. Questionnaires can show class as a category of people, but not as a relational concept. Interestingly, a lot of such nuanced analyses emerge from outside academia, out of the experiences of social activists like the ones I had the privilege to meet in Sindh.
Differentiation, though, implies complication too. Power is understood in much more nuanced ways; the zeitgeist is differentiated as well; and the issue of ‘so what’ after the critical-radical-differentiated analyses becomes a field of contestation of its own. Simply blaming the state or the development industry does not help any longer. In conclusion, I fully agree with Scoones (2009: 14) who states that ‘what is needed is a re-energising of the livelihoods perspectives’, but this can complicate the livelihoods of researchers and development practitioners themselves. After all, which of the big players in the development industry is ready to finance a critical analysis of the fate of haris, or court cases by haris against landlords and the state?
I am grateful to Nicolas Martin, Hussain Bux Mallah and Muhammad Ismail Kumbhar for detailed readings of the paper and for many constructive comments. Responsibility with remaining shortcomings, of course, rests entirely with me.
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