'People are willing to fight to the end': romanticising the ‘moral’ in moral economies of irrigation

Harrison, Elizabeth (2020) 'People are willing to fight to the end': romanticising the ‘moral’ in moral economies of irrigation. Critique of Anthropology, 40 (2). pp. 194-217. ISSN 0308-275X

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This article is about the continued salience of a particular understanding of moral economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the fact that a significant body of anthropological theory argues against simplified binaries of market and moral economies, such binaries persist. These either romanticise or vilify moral economies and exist in both policy and academic contexts. Thus, moral economies are said to drive corruption or shape anti-market cultural stances. Meanwhile, a romantic fantasy of a non-capitalist rural economy oriented by morality rather than economic rationality continues to animate areas of development policy and to direct funding. My argument is not with the concept of moral economy itself, but with how it is marshalled in support of both romantic and sometimes negatively essentialised conceptions of people and places. The article sets out the case for the persistence of these ideas, focusing on the their application to irrigation development and the problems with this. I then use an example from southern Malawi to illustrate how moral ideas of fairness and reciprocity interplay with processes of differentiation in access to (and exclusion from) land and labour and influence how people manage scarce resources. Whilst there are moral discourses and a mutual embeddness of the moral and economic, these reflect a range of ethically-informed positions which are influenced by social position and power. However, this emic perspective is largely absent from the more romanticised models. I conclude by reflecting on the politics of their persistence.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: moral economy, irrigation, Malawi, Africa
Schools and Departments: School of Global Studies > Anthropology
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Depositing User: Elizabeth Harrison
Date Deposited: 23 Aug 2019 11:58
Last Modified: 20 Jan 2021 13:30
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/85554

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