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  • Beyond the State in Rural Uganda
  • Michael Whyte
Ben Jones. Beyond the State in Rural Uganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2009. xv + 199 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $105.00. Cloth. £22.99. Paper.

In 2002 Oledai village had no NGO projects, no clinic, no local school. This village, deep in Teso District, Eastern Uganda, was not merely undeveloped. The parish chief visited twice in a year; there was not even a concerted effort to collect taxes. Ben Jones argues that what we see in Oledai is state withdrawal—he speaks of "extraversion"—a process that began decades earlier in Uganda. Ever increasing donor support in the 1990s allowed the Ugandan state to pull ever more resources out of local government; by 2002 [End Page 200] there seemed to be little compelling reason for the state to engage with those living in the countryside.

Oledai is a subparish, the lowest unit in the Ugandan administrative hierarchy, and the social unit that often corresponds best to the face-to-face community. The physical remains of a more prosperous—and less marginal—way of life are still visible in the village and the region, reminders of the long decline from the well-established cotton and cattle economies of the colonial and early postcolonial days.

Drawing on eighteen months of field work (in 2001-2) and extensive historical research, Beyond the State in Rural Uganda is an empirical, grounded challenge to the notion of "state-sponsored development." In his introduction Jones identifies several themes (seniority, prosperity, propriety) that will shape the analysis to follow and serve to frame his interest in the interplay between social institutions and the role and scope of individual actors.

Jones starts his study with the colonial construction of Teso society, drawing on a wealth of historical literature and the reflections of Oledai residents upon their own immediate past. He shows us Oledai as a village in decline in a region that has been in decline for more than thirty years; prosperity is a thing of the past. There are three interwoven histories here (perhaps not fully discussed in relation to one another): the longue durée from precolonial times to the present Teso districts; the economic decline in the Teso region that began with the destruction of the cotton economy in the 1970s; and finally the more immediate catastrophe of the Insurgency (1988-94), when seniority and propriety were brutally challenged.

In the next chapters Jones's focus shifts as he examines in more detail changing community life "beyond the state." Since the late 1980s decentralization and democratization have been key parts of the Ugandan reform program, attracting significant donor interest and adding to Uganda's reputation as a progressive African state. In chapter 3, "The Village Court and the Withdrawn State," Jones skillfully blends ethnographic insights from Oledai with a historical analysis of the role of village courts in Teso, and more generally in Uganda and Africa. He argues that the continuing relevance of village courts has little to do with decentralization and much to do with historical continuity.

The village courts, established in colonial times to deal with local problems in relative autonomy (at least in comparison with practice elsewhere in Uganda), continue to function at village level. Jones observed all thirty-six "official" cases reported for 2002 (many other cases were decided informally) and interviewed participants. Brief case studies of disputes show that the largest single group of cases had to do with enforcing male seniority and that localized lineages played a large role in the decisions. Litigation in the village court, where decisions can be referred to the sub-county court or the police post, remains the principle remaining link between Oledai and state institutions because it is useful to villagers. This is a valuable discussion [End Page 201] of the complex role of the village council chairman, who both represents the village and is referred to as the "eye"of a government that Jones insists is largely uninterested in performing its seeing function—though his claim could have been strengthened by more case material. More recourse to the methods and analyses of legal anthropology would have allowed Jones...


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