SMGP Photo Exhibit Remarks

Ryan Vroegindewey, March 25 2015, College Station, TX

In their pioneering book Visual Anthropology, John and Malcom Collier begin with the astute assertion that: “We moderns are often poor observers…” Scientific advancement, technologies, and increasing specialization have arguably improved our lives. But they have also simplified our interactions with the real world. To the point where we often do not see the whole picture, and fail to observe the rich context around us.

My own disciplinary field, economics, is an example of this. Through strong assumptions and quantitative models, economists have made powerful insights concerning how actors in a market interact with one another. However, again, this approach is not without an analytical cost. In the words of the great institutional economist Ronald Coase: “Exchange takes place [in economics] without any specifications to its institutional setting. We have consumers without humanity, firms without organization, and even exchange without markets.”

In my own ongoing research on African agricultural markets, my goal and challenge is to ground my inquiries in sound economic theory while at the same time allowing qualitative exploration and observation to have a strong voice. The Student Media Grants Program has been a wonderful opportunity to do this. From my perspective, it is one of the few grant sources that elevates photography as a serious research tool in academic research.

Last year, SMGP allowed me to spend a summer in Mali, West Africa, where I examined farmers’ participation in markets, and related food security issues. You can read a description of this research on the poster board in the back, and I’m also happy to answer any questions about this study.

But here, I just want to take a couple minutes to offer you some themes that can help curate my photos, and reveal some linkages between my work and Michael’s, and with the wider SMGP goals. 

The focus of my research and photos is the concept of value chain coordination—very basically, it is the harmonization of interests and actions in a marketing system so that everyone’s welfare is maximized. One could say that economic conflict is the thing that constrains coordination, and which, unfortunately, often keeps smallholder farmers out of remunerative markets.

In Malian agricultural value chains, economic conflict can take many forms.

For example, I observed that conflict can be: 

·      Between Malian citizens, as has been the case with the ongoing war in Northern Mali, which has disrupted production, trade, and livelihoods since 2012.

·      Between farmers and government, as when policy instability and institutional inefficiencies fail to facilitate access to the agricultural inputs and stable markets that farmers need.

·      Between livelihoods, as when weak land tenure spawns land disputes among pastoralists, subsistence farmers, and more powerful individuals.

·      Between men and women within households, as when gender-related disparities limit women’s capacity to access, control, and profit from agriculture.

·      Between man and environment. This is perhaps the most visible kind of conflict across Mali’s diverse agro-ecological landscape, which annually experiences recurring droughts and floods.

And finally, conflict can be:

·      Between value chains actors themselves. Here, the problems are numerous: non-observance of quality norms and standards, weight disputes, late payments and loan repayment defaults, side selling, and asymmetrical information flows are some of the many examples of conflict that encumbers trade.

But my research does not just focus on the problems. Funding from SMGP has also helped me to examine innovative strategies that value chain actors are using—through farmer organizations, contracts, and other partnerships—to overcome economic conflict, and to bring farmers into value chains as active participants.

As I hope my photos convey, these themes are multi-orbed, and often subtle to Western “moderns” like myself. In my opinion, photography is one important research tool, among many, that we need to study such rich topics. I’m thankful that SMGP shares this vision.

In closing, I would like to thank once more the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and Texas A&M Center for Conflict and Development, for funding to conduct this research. In particular, I would like to thank Dr. Edwin Price, Melanie Balinas, Jennifer Braziel, and Leslie Ruyle for their steady support over the last year and a half.

Additionally, I would also like to gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Syngenta Foundation; the Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics Department at Michigan State University, and the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, which also helped make this research possible.

Finally, I would like to thank the hundreds of individuals in Mali who generously gave of their time in interviews, field visits, and photo shoots. My hope is that this work can make a small contribution to making their livelihoods better understood, and more profitable and resilient.

Thank you.