Trust, Identity and Beer

When smallholder farmers in the village of Isunga in mid-western Uganda need extra labour, they choose helpers on the basis of qualities such as trust and repute. Local social norms and networks shape the informal “institutions” that are used in everyday life, and which often require the offer of “good” beer in return for favour. These are key findings of the thesis by NAI researcher Opira Otto, himself from Uganda, for the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the University of Uppsala.

The thesis describes the intricate and varying labour arrangements in Isunga, which are guided by strict rules about what one is expected to do, and not to do. For work that lasts a whole day, the host farmer is expected to offer “good” beer, Kwete, and lots of food in return, and the working day ends with a feast.
– They don’t drink beer to get drunk. You drink beer to connect, and at the heart of it is your attachment to the people who have brewed it, served it and share it. Beer has socioeconomic value beyond the supply and demand way of thinking.

The labour systems that Opira Otto describes have developed under the unpredictable patterns of weather, disease and income common in rural Africa, and are thus flexible to various conditions.
– The kind of labour arrangement you need depends on the wealth and the size of your family. If you are poor and old, you will get help. Even rich people need and share labour. If you don’t share, others won’t share with you – that’s how reciprocity works on the ground.
Opira Otto stresses that the main insight from his thesis is that we often overlook the importance of the social aspects of transactions costs.
– What should be clear is that social relationships always matter. Money is not enough, and that is why neoliberal economics are being more and more questioned, he says.

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