The “indebted peasant”: human capital, development and neoliberalism in Sudan’s Gezira Scheme

By Hengameh Ziai
Submitted to Session P4978 (Water Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
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My project investigates attempts to produce neoliberal subjectivity amongst the peasants in the Gezira Agricultural Scheme—the largest irrigated farm in the world under a single management—in northern Sudan. Following falls in global cotton prices in the 1960s, it examines attempts by the World Bank to increase agricultural efficiency on the Gezira Scheme in the 1980s by producing farmers as “entrepreneurs” through the enactment of newly-dominant neoliberal ideas about agricultural development (particularly those proposed by the Chicago School). Following these World Bank reforms some 40,000 farmers have found them themselves in debt; the entire Gezira Scheme is on the brink of disintegration. Through a combination of ethnographic and archival work, I investigate how mass indebtedness emerges as—not just an economic relation but—a mode of political subjectivation, notably an ostensible political quietude in a region known for decades for its strong unionisation and communist activity. But this political subjectivation has in turn engendered its own forms of resistance. I place this subjectivation and resistance in the context its long-standing echoes in Sudanese history and, particularly, its traces in the late 19th century Mahdist uprising which, too, was predicated on new forms of indebtedness emerging following the Ottoman-Egyptian occupation. In doing so I seek to situate the “neoliberal moment” in terms of a longer history of credit and debt relations on the Gezira plain. My project also presents an alternative genealogy to present-day understandings of “human capital” as the homoeconomicus of neoliberalism. Largely portrayed as a Western figure, with incomplete and distorted translations and iterations in non-Western settings (including the Middle East and Africa), I investigate how the concept of human capital originally emerged within the field of development economics and in relation to theorising the role of poor farmers in development. In doing so, I ask how ideas about the peasant as “human capital” were subject to early experimentation by the World Bank through the agricultural reforms it implemented on Sudan’s Gezira Scheme in the 1980s. I investigate the ramifications of these experiments—and the mass indebtedness produced—as they have played out in the Gezira plain today, producing the counter-point to the West’s “indebted man”: the “indebted peasant.”