Mary Tiffen obituary

Gill Shepherd

Tue 26 May 2020 

My colleague 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 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 30s 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 to wealth generation improved road networks and market access have been. 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 (ARP). 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.

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.

Mary Tiffen in Nigeria; her research there focused on the ingenuity of farmers making a living in difficult environments
 Mary Tiffen in Nigeria; her research there focused on the ingenuity of farmers making a living in difficult environments

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 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 .

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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