Remembering Mary Tiffen, a drylands pioneer

Article, 01 June 2020

Gill Shepherd reflects on the life of the late Mary Tiffen, who conducted groundbreaking research on the African drylands over three decades.

Mary Tiffen headshot

Mary Tiffen, who carried out pioneering African drylands research over 30 years. She has died aged 88

Mary Tiffen, the distinguished economic historian, who has died aged 88 from COVID-19, will best be remembered for the groundbreaking African drylands research she conducted from the 1970s to 2000, successfully demonstrating how much farmers’ own skills and capacity to innovate had been undervalued.

Her 1976 monograph on Northern Nigeria, 'The Enterprising Peasant', the work she led on Kenya in 1994 ('More People Less Erosion'), and the final comparative studies she undertook around 2000 comparing dryland areas of Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and Niger, all focused on the ingenuity of the farmers who made a living from these difficult environments. Her research in Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and Niger was carried out jointly with the human geographer professor Michael Mortimore, and is available at drylandsresearch.iied.org.

Her research challenged, and continues to challenge, careless assumptions about the causes of desertification and appropriate policy responses.

Mary’s arguments were always derived from the analysis of many decades’ worth of data. She was thus able to show how population growth turned labour constraints into land constraints, and gradually made land investment and conservation more economic.

Particularly in the Kenya study, photographs from the 1930s to 1990 vividly show the same locations turning from arid degraded landscapes into fertile, tree-covered, terraced farms, as that balance changed.

Her work also demonstrated how vital improved road networks and market access have been to wealth generation. These open the door not only to greater income, but also to education and to better intelligence about new crops and techniques. The capital investment increasingly needed for farming innovation would earlier be derived from cattle sales, and later from the urban employment of some household members.

Mary’s work made an impeccable policy case for the most successful government interventions often being those which simply remove barriers to trade, and which trust and support the capacities of local resource managers to respond. Top-down schemes have usually failed.

The daughter of Gwendolen (nee Carrall) and Horace Steele-Perkins, Mary was born in Farnborough, Hampshire. Her father was an RAF officer and worked during the Second World War in Hong Kong in air raid precautions. After the war, Mary and her mother moved to India, then Mary finished her schooling in Devon, and took a history degree at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1952.

Her research challenged, and continues to challenge, careless assumptions about the causes of desertification and appropriate policy responses

After a period of teaching and NGO work, she met and married Brian Tiffen in 1960. He worked for the British Council and Mary began her research career as she accompanied him to Nigeria, Malawi, Iraq and elsewhere. Her doctorate (from the LSE in 1974) and first book were based on her northern Nigeria research.

In Iraq, Mary became interested in ancient irrigation systems, and this was the experience that led to her taking a post running the Irrigation Management Network at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, where she worked from 1983 until 1994.

In retirement she produced two self-published family histories, 'Friends of Sir Robert Hart' (2012) and 'Testimony to Love' (2017), and had recently begun a memoir for her children about her own life.

Brian died in 2014. Mary is survived by their children, Martin and Jenny; grandchildren Lucy, Hannah, Rachel, Finlay and Jake; and by her half-brother, Chris.

Gill Shepherd, a former colleague of Mary Tiffen at ODI, is a visiting professor of development practice at the LSE. This article was originally published by The Guardian.

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