Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Anthropology and development: a feel-good essay

Development is dead. Or at least whatever it was we used to call development is on the way out. Post-hegemonic America and Europe are no longer the sole sources of aid to a so-called developing world. According to a recent article in The Economist, China is closing in on the US as the world’s main donor – Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia are also increasingly big players. Of course, the statistics do not tell the full story, particularly when the distinction between aid and trade is not always clear. But the fact remains that the world of development is hardly what it used to be back in the heady days of America’s Marshall Plan.

Consider China’s growing role in development. Looming on the horizon as the next super-power and already supplanting the US as key trade partner in many parts of the world, the role of China in development is challenging the rules of the aid game. In 10 years, China has achieved some of the economic development goals that Western aid has not been able to accomplish in 50 years. It could be objected that the trade of oil and minerals for loans, railways, hospitals and roads is a purely self-interested exchange, but the fact that China has framed its relations with developing countries as collaborative south-south alliances (e.g. Westad 2002, 162) dispels some local fears of neo-colonial domination. Given its own history, China can present itself to its new benefactors as an exemplary case of rags-to-riches(-and power) success while fostering apparently reciprocal, bilateral relationships. From the perspective of the beneficiaries, Chinas has not made its aid conditional on any ideologically-based reforms. Of course, this is not to say that Chinese development is bereft of problems. Reports of corruption, environmental damage, lack of transparency and harsh labor conditions are common. Just like Western development, the extent to which Chinese development is purely altruistic is debatable – natural resources flow in one direction, and the new infrastructure often serves the purpose of accelerating this unidirectional flow.

At any rate, one of the main consequences of the new competition over potential aid recipients is that there is no longer a monopoly over the supply and distribution of aid, nor over the way development projects are implemented on the ground. There is no question that, at least in some places, China’s new development regime is creating beneficial opportunities for the developing world. For instance, when the world’s copper prices slumped by 60% at the end of 2008, the presence of Chinese investment maintained local employment in Zambia’s mines. Additionally, local politicians are increasingly able to play off different donors against each other in order to reach more favorable deals. We’re not yet in a position to judge exactly what the changes on the ground will be, but there can be little doubt that the new development actors have the potential to create considerable social change.

Given this swiftly changing context, the world of development is increasingly fertile ground for anthropologists seeking to engage with the public sphere in creative ways. Here are two ways that we think anthropology can be put to good use:

1) As new development regimes change people’s lives in unexpected directions, anthropology can help us understand how this situation creates opportunities for positive social change. Many anthropologists will argue that they should remain as skeptical and critical of these neo-imperial projects as they were of the older ones. If nothing else, the shifts in the development field are sure to bring about a host of new problems.

But there are also new possibilities. Ethnographic fieldwork is ideally situated to capture not only the harmful aspects of new development regimes but also the opportunities for social creativity that may arise as the “ancient rĂ©gime” crumbles. Fieldwork lets us delve into the cracks and work at the interstices, revealing how development creates new aspects of social life as much as it destroys and dominates others.

For too long perhaps, anthropologists have smugly preached the idea that development is just an extension of neo-colonialism. Some of the most renowned anthropological works on Western development have made this point with the aid of post-structuralist theories, particularly Foucault’s. Most famously perhaps, Ferguson has shown how development discourse is deployed in such a way that poverty becomes a developmental rather than a political concern that reinforces and extends bureaucratic state power (1990). Speaking on a global scale, Arturo Escobar analyzed Western development discourse and its egregious effects on the Third World (Escobar 1984) while feminist scholars have criticized the iconic images of women that development projects convey (Cornwall, Harrison, Whitehead 2007).

Unfortunately, the anthropological tendency to look for domination in development has left out the other side of the Foucauldean coin, namely, the positive aspects that the practice of power contains. Later in his life, Foucault became concerned with “ethical projects: projects to make oneself a certain of person” (Laidlaw 2002, 322). For instance, in “Friendship as a way of life” (1997), Foucault encouraged his readers to discover the potential for new forms of sociality that have not even been discovered as a way of enhancing mutual responsibility and respect. Based on a close examination of socio-historical data, Foucault’s technologies of the self can actually be taken as a method for exploring new ways of understanding and conceiving of society.

2) Based on the ethnographic record, we should use our knowledge to propose alternative solutions to persistent social problems. If we extend the case of anthropology’s selective appropriation of Foucault to the anthropological project as a whole, we might say that simply denouncing and lambasting development actually cuts anthropology short of its full potential. Tellingly, Harry Walker recently observed in a review of anarchist anthropology that, “anthropology has an important role to play in revealing the diversity of existing worlds in the service of conceiving alternatives”. Some of the most stunning discoveries that anthropologists have made are stunning not simply because they’re theoretically sophisticated, but also because people in this world actually do them. In other words, we are all capable of leading different lives and creating different societies.

With that in mind here are a few thought experiments for those of you that are so inclined - what might happen if we tried to think of a microfinance project that made use of Marilyn Strathern’s idea of the partible person? What can Janet Carsten’s ideas on relatedness and kinship tell us about the Heifer project? How can Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s description of perspectival societies in Amazonia inform development projects concerning environmental concerns?

In sum, few disciplines have the ability to produce nuanced, subtle and profound accounts of real, flesh-and-blood, social alternatives in the way that anthropology does. We lose too much when we dismiss development as wrong-headed utopianism or intentional neo-colonialism. This is not to say that anthropologists should not criticize power imbalances and the darker sides of the development Death Star, but perhaps it would be advantageous for all concerned if anthropologists took as close a look at the productive sides of social change and power as they do to its negative ones.


Development is anthropologically problematic – it challenges the relativism that many of us would uphold from the safety of our offices even as it holds forth an ethical program that many of us might actually feel comfortable supporting. How should anthropologists feel about supporting campaigns against female genital cutting? Perhaps the very complexity of this type of question leads us as anthropologists to a sort of paralysis – caught, as we are, between a universalizing discourse we’ve been trained to denounce and an often-times stifling ability to look at things from the native’s point of view. Perhaps the question worth asking, then, is whether there will ever be room for an emic view of development to emerge, or is development necessarily a project that concerns alienable “others”?

In the first issue of this blog Ryan Anderson wrote of anthropologists that, “we are mired in the past, slogging through stereotypes, and ridiculously misrepresented. And it's our own fault, mostly because we have refrained from public debate and conversation for some reason or another”. If this essay has digressed into the murky waters of post-structural theory, it has done so with the intent of reminding us that anthropologists have the analytical tools and ethnographic knowledge to engage with pressing public matters in creative ways. That development can and should often be criticized is a valid point. But it is disappointing to many anthropologists, and frustrating to most everyone else, that we’ve been extremely loathe to think of, let alone talk about, alternatives.

As our world rushes into a new century, one where many of our assumptions about the way things should be are beginning to unravel, it may be worth thinking about why we got into anthropology in the first place and what we might be able to offer everyone else.

Agustin Diz, Fred Radenbach, and Sabina Rossignoli 

worldwise was started in 2009 by a group of anthropology students at the LSE who felt (and still feel!) that anthropological knowledge can truly enhance the design of development projects and their implementation on the ground. Our hope is to bridge this gap by making anthropological knowledge and expertise more accessible to development practitioners. 


Cornwall, A., Harrison, E., Whitehead, A. (2007) Gender Myths and Feminist Fables: The Struggle for Interpetive Power in Gender and Development. Development and Change 38(1): 1 – 20.

Escobar, A. (1984). Discourse and power in development: Michel Foucault and the relevance of his work to the Third World. Alternatives, 10(3): 377-400.

Ferguson, J. (1990) The Anti-politics Machine : "Development," Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. ( 1997) ‘Friendship as a Way of Life', pp. 135-40 in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Michel Foucault. New York: The New Press.

Laidlaw, J. (2002) For an anthropology of ethics and freedom. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8: 311-332.


Scott M said...

Great essay. I appreciate the perspective that anthropology and anthropologists can (and should) be attentive and contribute to documenting and conceiving alternatives. With all the critiquing we tend to do, there needs to be more room for hopeful and positive contributions.

The question of shifting global relationships and the emergence of new donor states is a fascinating one. It could be interpreted as revealing a changing global balance of power, the end of old empires and rise of new ones. I wonder though, and would be grateful for references to people writing on this, whether new state "partners" like China are primarily funding other states, where established "donors" have gone grassroots and are paying more attention and spending more money on non-state organizations like NGOs and CBOs. To me this situation creates all sorts of fascinating political possibilities.

More likely, the established donor areas are working with both states and civil society, probably resulting in particular interests and factions supporting opposing sides of local struggles in recipient areas (e.g., bilateral aid greasing the wheels of extractive industry concessions and contracts while NGO money goes into environmentalist and local rights movements against such concessions). These complex webs of finance and influence may underwrite different topographies of power, leading to any number of conflicts and compromises at many different scales. The challenge, then, is to be able to understand local dynamics (whichever locality that entails) in the context of these larger-scale processes and relationships.

Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece!

Agustin diz said...

Scott, glad you liked it!

I haven't got any references on the specific topic you mention (the state-state/state-civil society connections). But I think you're right that these kinds of differences would have important implications. I've asked one of my professors at the LSE, Hans Steinmuller, for further references and here are some he shared in case you're interested in following up:

Ching Kwan Lee has written on labour relations in China, and is now doing research on labour relations in Chinese invested companies on the Chinese copperbelt

Yan Hairong and Barry Sautmann are also doing research on the Chinese in Zambia.

I think there are quite a few scholars based at the Chinese studies department of Stellenbosch university who work on the Chinese in Africa.

Two films on the Chinese in Africa:

I absolutely agree with you on your comment about "topographies of power", also, I feel that as anthropologists we're ideally situated to understand how this all plays out in specific times and places, with real people involved. Really, the possibilities for future research on the subject seem promising.