Katine writer Ben Jones wins book prize

Ben Jones, a lecturer in development studies at the University of East Anglia and a regular contributor to the Katine website, has been awarded The Elliott P Skinner Book Award for his work on Uganda that questions the role of the state in rural development.
Jones’ book, Beyond the state in rural Uganda, which was published this year by Edinburgh University Press, is based on research conducted in the north-eastern Teso region, in which Katine is found.
The award is presented annually by the African section of the American Anthropological Association and recognises work “that best furthers both the global community of Africanist scholars and the wider interests of the African continent”. Special consideration is given to work that draws upon extensive research in the field or offers new methods for fieldwork in Africa.
Jones, who is also a research fellow at Roskilde University in Denmark, collected his award at the association’s AGM in the US last week.
In this book, Jones argues that academics too often assume that the state is the most important force behind change in African communities, when in fact churches and village groups play a significant part in social transformation.
Jones has drawn on the 18 months he spent in Teso researching his book to write a number of posts on the Katine Chronicles blog.
PraiseBetty Harris, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, who was on the awards committee, praised Jones’ book for its sensitivity. She said it was “very much in the spirit” of the Elliott Skinner award. Prof Skinner, America’s first African American ambassador, was a professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York and a keen advocate for Africa in policy making circles.
Jones said the book, his first, was difficult to research and write and took three years to complete.
“I had to set aside many of the opinions and ideas I had going into the Teso region,” he said. “At the beginning all I had wanted to do was a piece on how people responded to government reforms. By the end of the 18 months what was clear was that I was living in a place still coming to terms with a violent war. Much of the book is about the legacy of that war, and how people, through church, through clan and customary institutions, and through their village committee, make sense of the recent past.”
He said he wanted to write a book that was accessible and one that “people back in Uganda would be comfortable reading and commenting upon”.
He added: “Getting the award is a complete surprise. I have only recently completed my PhD and so this is my first book. I was not really expecting such an award and honour.”
Reviews of Beyond the state have been encouraging.
The Ugandan Daily Monitor said the book “celebrates the role and triumph of culture and religion and instruments of social cohesion which have become critical alternate centres of power in Uganda and thereby channels of social transformation”.
It added: “Ben Jones employs a simple, easy-to-read writing style, with plenty of humour, sarcasm and satire subtly hidden between the lines. Yet these devices serve not only to make a mockery of the assumptions that politicians and politically correct folks often entertain, but more importantly to enhance the reader’s understanding of how social transformation is taking place at the grassroots, in many instances in spite of the inefficiency, incompetence, inability and even nonchalance of the state.”
James C Scott a professor at Yale University, described Jones’ book as an “illuminating, astute, against-the-grain study of real-existing development”.
• Beyond the state in rural Uganda is now available in paperback. Read the book’s preface
• This article was amended on 14 December 2009. The original said that Betty Harris was at Ohio University. This has been corrected.