Polly Hill Discussing Cocoa Farmers and Academic Inequity
Speaking of equity, or the lack of it, consider the experience of leading economic anthropologist Polly Hill (recounted in a video interview by Alan Macfarlane):
I was automatically debarred from keeping every term thereafter by the dreadful rule that one could not be a research student unless one had a first. I got a 2.1 in economics, and only one woman… had done better. So it was a cruel rule. In the event I was as a result to wait seventeen years until I entered academia through the back door of a colonial university.
[After relocating to Ghana, getting married, and being let go from a position as a journalist.] I was now freed to take up research, which I continued to do in Ghana until 1965… I felt secure in this work because the other two posts of Research Fellow in the University of the Gold Coast were always unfilled, people preferring to be lazy lecturers.
However, when pregnant in 1956 I was sacked again, this time by the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Gold Coast … his argument was that it would be so embarrassing for him if a young man wanted my post. He didn’t mention the two vacancies. I successfully though painfully fought this dismissal and was reinstated before the birth of my daughter in 1956, an event which enormously improved the quality of my professional work, a fact which I want to emphasize to the utmost of my ability. It is not the case that motherhood and intellectual work necessarily conflict with each other.
[Question: How did it help?]
I felt such a satisfaction in being a mother that I set out with somehow a renewed vigor into the cocoa country, and immediately saw the point of what I was doing. …
[Question: “So you think if [your daughter] hadn’t been born, your work would have been much worse?]
I would have stagnated. I mean I had been studying cocoa farmers for some time before this event, and had entirely missed the point.
The point was that the development… of the cocoa growing industry was due to the migration of cocoa farmers who bought large areas of land. This was not in the books, this was one of the great events in sub-saharan Africa which was altogether unrecorded. I was extremely fortunate in encountering this subject…
As a married woman I was employed on a monthly bases, everybody else was of course on a proper contract. But even so one took a long term view of one’s prospects. Nobody told me what research to do, no one took the slightest interest. And equipped with a mileage allowance and an eight horsepower Fiat car, I plunged into the cocoa fields Why cocoa? Because the Ghanaian economy was almost entirely dependent on that crop. …
My pioneering work on the laborers was wholly ignored for quarter of a century, when some Ghanaian academics did the word again, ignorant of what had gone before. …
Hill was treated unfairly in academia, and her work long ignored, because she was a woman, and I think in part because of her emphasis on the importance of property rights, entrepreneurship, and capitalism in economic development. Hill’s research documented the central role of African entrepreneurs, not British investors, merchants, or civil servants, in Ghana’s powerful economic expansion.
Ghana’s independence brought to power a leader who believed in government planning and management of the economy. And unfortunately, he was from a different tribe than the successful migrant cocoa farmers. So after independence, taxes on cocoa exports increased dramatically to fund misguided investments in manufacturing. Before long Ghana’s economy was in shambles.
Hill’s path-breaking work on migrant cocoa-farmers, and discussed in a number of her scholarly books, including Development Economics on Trial: The Case for a Prosecution.
From 1900 to 1960 West Africa’s population increased four-fold. And for anyone who thinks population growth a cause of poverty, consider that average income in West Africa over the same decades also increased four-fold.
There is much more to the story of economic development in Africa, and the ongoing debate over economic freedom, international investment, and foreign aid.