The Bittersweet Taste of “Miracle Growth”: A Political Economy Analysis of Poverty, Labour, and Economic Growth in the Coffee Heartlands of Laos and Rwanda

Illien, Patrick (2022). The Bittersweet Taste of “Miracle Growth”: A Political Economy Analysis of Poverty, Labour, and Economic Growth in the Coffee Heartlands of Laos and Rwanda. (Dissertation, Universität Bern)

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Laos and Rwanda have recorded two decades of sustained and fast economic “miracle growth”. The nature of these processes and their impact on the livelihoods of the rural population are, however, strongly contested. This dissertation adopts a comparative political economy approach to examine the under-researched employment nexus as a key mediator between growth and poverty. It builds on extensive mixed methods fieldwork in the main coffee-producing zones of Laos (the Bolaven Plateau) and Rwanda (Nyamasheke district), including two household surveys, ethnographic methods, and over 100 qualitative interviews ranging from semi-structured to life history interviews and focus group discussions. The dissertation starts by developing a new framework to conceptualize pro-poor growth trajectories in developing economies (paper I). By integrating political settlements and pro-poor development strategy approaches, this framework not only accounts for the key mechanisms linking growth and poverty but also for the underlying political conditions. Its empirical application to Laos and Rwanda reveals that structural change has been limited in both cases and that most households continue to make a living in casual agricultural work or petty commodity production amid increasing land pressure. In Laos, inequality has risen, and growth has not been pro-poor in monetary terms, while in Rwanda, questions around official data do not allow a conclusive assessment. Nevertheless, non-monetary poverty has been significantly reduced in both countries, not least due to major investments in the provision of basic services. Using the two household surveys, the dissertation zooms in on the coffee heartlands in the Bolaven Plateau and Nyamasheke (paper II) and identifies key markers of non-monetary poverty by conceptually and empirically comparing the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) with the Extreme Deprivation Index (EDI) framework for the first time. Both locally adapted indices find that poor households are strongly characterized by lower levels of secondary education and literacy, rudimentary sanitation conditions, a relative lack of access to land, and a high dependence on casual agricultural wage employment. Additional regression and classification analysis shows that the EDI framework may be most appropriate in rural high deprivation contexts, whereas the MPI framework may be preferable in relatively low deprivation contexts. Quantitative stratification, however, is limited in its understanding of the processes through which economic growth can both reinforce and reduce poverty. This dissertation therefore argues for a relational shift in the study of social differentiation and poverty to overcome these limitations. It undertakes a literature review within agrarian studies (paper III) to outline the implications of such a shift. Drawing on detailed mixed methods data, a relational approach is then applied to a case study of class dynamics in Nyamasheke (paper IV). It shows that a focus on labour relations – examining underlying drivers, functions, and power relations – between and within land-poor households can uncover avenues of accumulation and exploitation that would otherwise remain invisible. Instead of the commonly portrayed mass of undifferentiated smallholders, households ingeniously construct piecemeal livelihood patchworks under intense temporal and commodification pressure in localized patterns of micro-capitalism. While the recent growth experiences in Laos and Rwanda have been astonishing indeed, it is a bittersweet success riddled with contradictions and mounting pressures on rural households. The integrated framework and relational approach presented here offer conceptual and methodological tools to help make sense of these processes both in the aggregate as well as in lived experiences on the ground. The dissertation further demonstrates that the MPI and EDI frameworks can be useful for beneficiary targeting as well as for programme or policy evaluation depending on the context, programme needs, and resources. Finally, it shows why safeguarding land access of the poorest and promoting policies to tighten rural labour markets should be key ingredients of any pro-poor development strategy.

Item Type:

Thesis (Dissertation)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography
10 Strategic Research Centers > Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

Graduate School:

International Graduate School North-South (IGS North-South)

UniBE Contributor:

Illien, Patrick


[1191] FATE 2 - Feminisation, Agricultural Transition and Rural Employment
[804] Socio-Economic Transition




Melchior Peter Nussbaumer

Date Deposited:

27 Jan 2023 10:15

Last Modified:

27 Jan 2023 23:27

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