Annapia Debarry on the agricultural transformation in northern Ethiopia with an intersectional view through feminist political ecology and ethnographic methods

What is your doctoral thesis about?

In my doctoral thesis, I take an intersectional look at agricultural transformation in northern Ethiopia, using feminist political ecology and ethnographic methods. In Ethiopia, water resources are at the center of the government’s development visions as part of ambitious growth plans. These developments are causing profound changes in the lives of many people. Agriculture is not just a job, but a central cultural and identity-forming element. I ask, among other things: How are social practices changing in this context? What social innovations are emerging? How do different social categories such as gender, age or wealth interact? Due to the predominance of patriarchal social systems, female perspectives still have a particularly important place in my research. For example, I critically examine the “women’s empowerment” approach, which is now used in many contexts to quantify and measure empowerment in projects. Although empowerment is an internal process that does not happen through a specific project within a short period of time and is then measurable. My research therefore focuses more on the biographies of people from different contexts and asks which moments and experiences have shaped a particular social reality. So far I have investigated these questions mainly in the context of a large-scale irrigation project. However, the effects of the corona pandemic in rural contexts will also play an increasing role in the future. In addition to these aspects, I also deal with epistemological questions, i.e. how knowledge is produced: What role does my own identity play in the production of knowledge? How does my positionality in the field influence my research? Such questions are an important part of feminist research.

What is the most astonishing finding for you?

With regard to the topic of sustainability, I am always astonished how poorly gender-sensitive and intersectional perspectives are still integrated into both research and development practice after more than two decades of attention to the topic.  It is true that we find terms such as “gender equality” or “women’s empowerment” on many agendas, for example in the Sustainable Development Goals. But overall, gender is still seen far too little from a holistic perspective. It is comparable to a box – either you are in it or not. This means that gender is not perceived as a cross-cutting issue, but is very often packed into this box – and the researcher with it. I sometimes find it difficult to be heard and taken seriously with what I do. That is a pity, because gender is not a niche! The dismantling of patriarchal structures is essential and can only be achieved if we stop putting gender issues into a box. In my view, the increased use of intersectional perspectives could help to solve this problem. Intersectionality explicitly deals with the interaction of different social categories and the mechanisms that cause social inequalities. In this regard, intersectionality would contribute to a more sustainable approach to gender issues as it moves beyond gender as a stand-alone category.

What do you think needs to be changed/improved?

In addition to a more holistic perspective on gender, I would like to see epistemological issues being taken out of the (feminist) niche and increasingly discussed in practice-oriented research and in development practice. In my experience, knowledge production in these fields is rarely questioned. Too often “the white European” is still considered the expert. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian literary scholar, speaks in this context of “epistemic violence” – through one’s own (e.g. white) perspective other perspectives are suppressed. This is why I consider it so important to accompany my own research process epistemologically.

What is the practical benefit of your work?

The aim of my doctoral thesis is to combine social science theories with elements of practical relevance. Theories are too often rejected as “high theory”, although they can be very relevant for research in the field of developmental practice. I often have the impression that there is a gap between theory and practice – that is why I want to build bridges. Especially postcolonial, intersectional and feminist-epistemological perspectives can show ways to a more sustainable research. I have already mentioned the example of “epistemic violence”. I would like to contribute to an increased visibility of such concepts in practice-oriented research. In addition, I hope, of course, that the outcomes of my doctoral thesis will also be perceived a little outside of research, specifically in Ethiopia. Here I am thinking more of the practical aspects, e.g. improving the planning and implementation of gender-sensitive agricultural projects.

What is your very personal contribution to sustainability?

Due to the Corona pandemic, I can’t return to Ethiopia in July as planned. Now I am developing a digital concept for data collection together with my field research assistant. In ethnographic research this is not so easy, after all I cannot observe or interview myself.  But through the change of perspective that is now emerging, I notice how positively my research is influenced. I also see this as a contribution to the decolonization of knowledge – and in the end this is also part of a more sustainable global development.

The interview was conducted by Verena Hammes and Yana Adu