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By Barbara Black
Amy Poteete is a political scientist, but her research on policy in developmental countries has strong links to geography. Since her doctoral dissertation in the mid-1990s, she has been studying environmental policy in the landlocked southern African country of Botswana.
Once considered an economic basket case, Botswana had an opportunity when diamonds were discovered there in the early 1970s, and made the most of it. Mining revenues were poured into infrastructure, education and other improvements, and while it is still a poor country by Western standards, Botswana has a brighter future.
As a student in the southern United States in the 1980s, Poteete was part of an environmental protest against her school’s plans to cut down trees for a new building. At one of their meetings, a faculty advisor told the students they should think about including environmental issues in their academic work, and it was as though a light had been turned on.
When she started graduate work at Duke University in North Carolina in 1991, she looked to Africa for a suitable subject, and found Botswana.
She knew Botswana’s government was planning to privatize large tracts of land that were held in common by rural communities, usually for grazing. She expected grassroots opposition, and wanted to study it up close. When she arrived, she found that the project hadn’t yet been launched. There was controversy, but it was within the government bureaucracy, so that became the subject of her dissertation.
“It has given me an appreciation of the potential influence of the bureaucracy that I did not have initially,” she said.
She was able to get funding for two years of field research in Botswana, and spent much of it traveling to administrative offices in outlying districts, asking questions. Botswana is a functioning democracy, al-though the same political party has held power since independence from Britain in 1966. Political currents in the largely rural nation are complex, based on rivalries and shifting allegiances.
Poteete disagrees with those who claim that Botswana’s wise use of its diamond revenues was due to a strong colonial legacy of democratic government. “It was the result of successful formation and maintenance of a broad and stable coalition that brought together groups from different regions of the country.”
Since her dissertation, she has steered her research back to her original interests. “I get more excited about distributional issues, the wellbeing and empowerment of the most disadvantaged groups in society, and how these outcomes are influenced by efforts to consolidate or challenge authority.”
Botswana is a “developmental state,” defined as a state that adopts policies that serve the public good rather than special interests and is expected to foster economic development.
“The polar opposite is a predatory state, in which the state extracts resources from society in a manner that enriches the political class while undermining the prospects for future economic development, obviously with negative social and political consequences as well.”
Poteete knows about environmental deprivation and negligent public policy first-hand, because she was teaching at the University of New Orleans in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept through, followed by a devastating flood that drowned hundreds, displaced thousands, and brought shame to the regional and national government.
“We were renting a duplex in a neighborhood where the flooding was some eight to nine feet deep,” she said. “We were able to salvage some things, but lost most.”
The young family lived with her parents for five months and launched a job search that brought her to Concordia. She says she welcomes “the greater priority that public policy in Canada and Quebec give to equity and social welfare.”