Development and Anthropology
Summary and Keywords
International development is one of humanity’s most important global undertakings, but it is also a “wicked problem” characterized by uncertain and shifting priorities, disagreements, and unexpected outcomes. Created during and in the aftermath of World War II, the development industry of the early 21st century is large, complex, and highly influential. It is also relatively opaque to outsiders and largely independent of normal means of democratic control.
Anthropology has been involved in development from colonial times, but particularly so since the 1950s, and anthropologist practitioners have made several important contributions to development planning and implementation. The discipline’s influence overall, however, has been overshadowed to a large degree by other disciplines, such as economics, which still remains dominant in the industry. Anthropological influence has waxed and waned over the years, both as a response to development policies and priorities, and as a response to changes within the discipline itself.
Anthropological analyses of development, as well as detailed development ethnographies, have helped people inside and outside the industry understand why and how development efforts succeed and fail, and indeed, how to define success and failure in the first place. At the same time, anthropologists have enhanced our appreciation of the role of language, power, and agency in the development process. In the future, anthropology is likely to become more important and influential in development work, given the growth of disciplinary trends favoring practice and application and renewed focus within the development industry on poverty eradication.
Development as a Wicked Problem
This article examines the role of anthropology in international development.1 “Development” refers to intentionally induced attempts at improvement—“good change,” in Robert Chambers’ succinct phrase.2 Originally defined in terms of economic growth and measured by indexes such as gross domestic product (GDP) and GDP, the notion of development has expanded over the years to include indicators of living standards and well-being such as health, life expectancy, education, and opportunity (see, e.g., the UN’s Human Development Index).3 Chambers himself proposes five defining characteristics of good change: responsible well-being, equity, increased capabilities, sustainability, and livelihood security (Chambers 2005, 186).
This article looks at international development and anthropology from the end of the Second World War onward.4 This relationship presents two somewhat different aspects: anthropologists as development “practitioners,” on the one hand, and anthropologists as “analysts” of the process of development itself, on the other. Development anthropologists—the practitioners—largely work for, and within, development organizations. The “anthropology of development,” in contrast, is mainly done by people outside these structures, often working in academia. Whereas the first group is largely focused on making development more successful, the latter group is often highly critical of it.
There is not as wide a gulf between these two groups as many have supposed, however. Practitioners themselves have often been among the most vocal of development’s critics, while many academically based anthropologists, particularly in Britain, have moved with relative ease between the academy and the development industry. There is, in other words, a fairly wide continuum of anthropological involvement with development and considerable movement across this continuum on the part of individuals. The focus here is primarily on anthropologists as development practitioners.
After a brief look at how the concept of development arose and became a global undertaking, anthropology’s involvement with development is traced, noting some of the main contributions that anthropologists have made to development policy and practice. Some of the issues and controversies surrounding this involvement are discussed before concluding with a few thoughts about where things may go in the future.
International development, in its various forms and manifestations, is a veritable industry, touching, in one way or another, the majority of people on the planet.5 Development has joined the list of global grand challenges, along with such pressing issues as climate change, environmental degradation, population growth, resource competition, and human rights.
But over time, development has proven to be a much more complex and difficult undertaking than was originally thought. It is what is termed a “wicked problem.” Wicked problems share a number of common features (see Rittel and Weber 1973 for an early formulation): they are difficult to articulate and address and are interconnected in complex and ever-changing ways. The stakeholders involved are often in substantial disagreement about what the problem actually is, how it should be solved, and what success may look like. Every solution tried seems, eventually, to generate some negative consequences of its own. And wicked problems are significant, meaning that they cannot afford to be ignored.
The development arena is highly varied and indeterminate and recalls the image put forth by Donald Schön in his discussion of reflective practice:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.
(Schön 1987, 3)
The development “swamp” is messy, shifting, and at times contested. Schön argues that successful practitioners in these situations engage in reflective conversations with others in their surrounding environment, and by so doing, create shared and often original meanings, solutions, and frameworks. Along the way, surprises—or what Michael Agar (2006) calls “rich points”—appear, and in dealing with these, the participants develop a better understanding of the situation’s elements and their relationships.
Because the work involves people from different parts of the world interacting with one another, development has an overriding cross-cultural aspect. Most development efforts, at whatever level, are a form of cross-cultural conversation—a play where initially, at least, none of the actors really knows their lines.6 In such a situation, skill at rapid social learning becomes a priority.
The History of Development
The framework and structure for the development industry of the early 21st century arose at the end of the Second World War. The Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 laid the groundwork for both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank; soon after, the United Nations was created. One of the first development programs—the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan—was in fact a reconstruction effort, led by the Economic Cooperation Administration (1948–1951).
In the United States, development efforts could be said to have begun with the Truman inaugural speech of 1949, launching what came to be known as “Point Four,” a foreign aid and technical assistance program for so-called developing countries. The Technical Cooperation Administration (1950–1953) arose from this initiative, succeeded later by the International Cooperation Administration (1955–1961), and finally (in 1961), by the US Agency for International Development.
One result of the structures and activities created following the war was that economic investment and related activities were much more coordinated and managed than before, and on a global scale. The framework for development which took shape rested on several unspoken but quite fundamental assumptions. One was that the developing world was actually a real place, with largely uniform characteristics. Another was a belief in progress coupled with confidence in the West’s ability to promote change, and a moral justification for doing so. And finally, there was widespread agreement that development was essentially defined by economic growth enabled by technological innovation, and that this process was to be centered on and managed by the nation-state.7
Hart summarized it this way: “The protagonists of the cold war designated the poor remainder of humanity the ‘Third World’ and gave the name ‘development’ to their economic predicament” (in Edelman and Haugerud 2005, 6). Development was done, for the most part, through “projects”—bureaucratically convenient ways of organizing time, money, and materials—and benefits were “delivered” to “recipients.” This modus operandi was characterized by Hoben (1982, 350) as an “ethnocentric tech-fix orientation.”
Cernea (2004, 5) recalls an unnamed World Bank official’s “sarcastic yet insightful” observation on how the Bank thought about development in the early days:
1. the Bank experts take as a model the economy of the developed industrialized country they come from, with which they are familiar;
2. they travel to a developing country and produce a description of its economic situation and backwardness;
3. they deduct the latter from the former; and
4. they identify the difference, calling it a “development program.”
Very early on, development took on three characteristics which were to influence, if not absolutely define the enterprise for decades to come. The first of these was dominance by a small set of empirical disciplines—chiefly economics, engineering, and finance—which determined what got looked at, and how.
The second characteristic of much development work and thinking—particularly from the US standpoint– was its close connection with military, diplomatic, and humanitarian concerns. The Mutual Security Act of 1951, which launched a major US foreign aid program, had two main goals, clearly stated: helping poor countries develop; and containing communism. This had the effect of directing development activities in particular directions and prioritizing certain policy directions over others.
The third characteristic of development was how quickly a handful of large organizations came to dominate the field. Figure 1 gives a few representative examples of the many hundreds of organizations involved in development work as of 2020. Of these, perhaps a dozen large multilaterals and bilaterals lead policy, programming, and finance. These organizations are highly bureaucratic, control considerable resources—money, people, and information—are largely opaque to outsiders, and are not under normal means of democratic control.
Changes in Development Policy
Since the 1960s, there have been numerous shifts in development policy within these large agencies involving changes in purpose, funding, and indeed, how development is to be thought of. Initially, development efforts focused on large national infrastructure projects. The success of the Marshall Plan, which had centered on national economies, provided the blueprint for much of the development activity during the 1960s. Large capital projects, it was assumed, would jump-start national economies, leading to the “take-off” predicted by the then-fashionable economic theorists.
Reality, however, proved to be considerably more complex. In the late 1960s, Robert McNamara became president of the World Bank, and began to move Bank priorities more in the direction of poverty alleviation. Attention shifted to “the poorest of the poor,” away from large capital projects to more modest efforts nearer the ground level. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) soon followed suit, announcing its New Directions policy in 1973 focused on “basic human needs” such as health, nutrition, and education.
By the late 1970s, another major change was underway. The second oil crisis in 1979, coupled with the generally poor results of aid efforts in many countries, led to a growing debt crisis, as countries struggled to repay development loans. The response from the development industry came to be known as structural adjustment, or “policy-based lending.”
No longer concerned with grass-roots efforts, structural adjustment lending targeted policy reforms at the national level, requiring changes in interest rates, subsidies, and patterns of public ownership in an effort to balance or at least improve national accounts. The “Washington Consensus,” which emerged in the 1980s among the large aid donors, emphasized the need for fiscal discipline, market-based reform, privatization, and more liberal trade policies (de Haan 2009, 75).
Structural adjustment was—and remains—enormously controversial. By the mid-1990s, with the crumbling of the Washington Consensus and the appointment of James Wolfensohn as World Bank president in 1995, the large agencies appeared to be rediscovering poverty reduction as a priority focus. Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRSPs) became the new buzzword, and agencies did more in collaboration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Structural adjustment did not disappear, but there was now increasing emphasis on matters of governance as a way to ensure the success of development efforts.8
In the past fifty years, since the 1970s, although development policies and priorities have come and gone, two major changes are significant. One is that for the past several decades, development has taken place at two quite distinct levels. On the one hand, the larger donors focus on national-level concerns, which are primarily economic and managerial in nature. On the other, an increasing number of smaller NGOs carry out a wide variety of programs and projects at the regional or local levels, aimed at meeting more basic needs in areas such as income, education, health, and shelter. The two strata of development are linked to the extent that a great deal of NGO funding today comes through larger donors.
The second striking change, for larger donors at least, is a generalized retreat from the field and a loosening of previously established safeguards. The larger donors as of 2020 have a reduced field presence, preferring to let local project development and implementation be carried out by others working under contract. The large donors’ focus on policy and governance involves discussion between elites in major world capitals, where the realities of life on the ground do not generally intrude. In this process, cultural details and local issues either evaporate or become occluded.
Despite this retreat from the field, larger development agencies probably exert more control now than ever over recipient countries. Mosse observes that development programs today “often involve an unprecedented level of intervention and social engineering in developing countries: this includes intrusive regimes of surveillance that monitor practices in public and private sectors against ‘universal principles’” (Mosse 2006, 4).
Three other developments are also worth noting. One is the increase, in number and importance, of NGOs. NGOs today have proliferated, and not just in the West; Southern-based NGOs are increasingly prominent in virtually all areas of development endeavor. As Korten (1988) pointed out years ago, many development NGOs undergo a developmental cycle of their own, progressing from humanitarian relief to broader community development activities, and finally, into advocacy and policy roles. De Haan (2009, 50) outlines this process for Oxfam. Many NGOs are financially tied to the major donors and carry out most of the field-based implementation of aid policy.
The second is the entry into the field of new bilateral aid players, notably India, China, Japan, and Russia. It is too soon to assess their impact, but it is worth noting that these countries have different histories, different core values, and different experiences with the West. It remains to be seen how this enlargement of the donor–financier field plays out in terms of how they approach development problems.
The third development is the entry of the private sector into the development business. The private sector is highly diverse, and their motives for involvement equally diverse. Crewe and Axelby (2013, 64) believe that this is now the largest sector in development, and also the hardest to study. Although private-sector (and particularly for-profit) development poses some important issues and questions—and not just for anthropologists—there may be considerable potential here. All of these shifts since the early 2000s will, no doubt, have the effect of changing how development is thought of and done. And all of them open up new possibilities for anthropologists.
Anthropology in Development
Where, in all of this, is anthropology?
Ambrose Bierce once said, “War is how God teaches Americans about geography.” The Second World War had brought Americans into intimate contact with hitherto remote and exotic areas of the world. With the success of the Marshall Plan and with the promulgation of Point Four and related initiatives, concerted efforts began to connect with some of these areas and to help improve basic living conditions there.
It soon became evident that Western technicians, however expert they were, knew little about many of the regions of the world they intended to help. Enter the anthropologists. In the 1950s and early 1960s, many anthropologists became engaged, in one way or another, with development efforts.9 Early writings by anthropologists on development issues constitute, even today, a nuanced and highly useful literature on some of the basic issues with cross-cultural collaboration, planning, and development implementation.10
Such involvement did not last long, however. Anthropologists had always been marginal to early development efforts, dominated as these were by engineers, economists, agronomists, and others. While not exactly sidelined, anthropologists tended to be used either as “social anesthetists”—explaining to locals why they should support a proposed project—or as “pathologists”—brought in for a post-mortem on failed projects.
As the 1960s progressed, anthropological distancing from development increased for two main reasons: the Vietnam War and its associated social science scandals; and the rapid growth of academic departments. The war outraged and disillusioned many anthropologists. The controversies surrounding Project Camelot and later, counterinsurgency research in Thailand, led many anthropologists to avoid work for the government—and indeed, work with almost any non-university entity—on ethical grounds.11 Development, of whatever kind, came to be viewed quite negatively by a considerable number of influential anthropologists.
At the same time, the rapid increase in departments of anthropology in the United States provided employment for many anthropologists who may otherwise have gone into development work. Anthropology departments turned inward, preferring to focus on theory and “scholarly pursuits” rather than engagement with contemporary problems and issues. Partridge comments:
. . . almost all energies were [now] thrown into the proliferation of theoretical taxa. . . . The profession as a whole became increasingly oriented to the college and university setting, academic rather than practical matters, and teaching 18- to 24-year-old Americans as the only career of bona fide anthropologists. This institutional setting in which abstract anthropology thrived failed to demand a theory of practice from the discipline, by which anthropology could emerge as a politically effective and ethically relevant social science in other institutions of the modern world. (1985, 141)
By 1970, anthropologists had virtually disappeared from the development scene. In a few short years, however, this situation had changed again with the emergence of several key institutes whose mission was the application of social science for development purposes.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex began to organize focused research on development issues from a cross-disciplinary perspective, often incorporating anthropologists. Melissa Leach, head of the IDS in 2019, is an anthropologist. Today, the University of Sussex is ranked number one in the world for development studies.
In the United States, the mid-1970s saw the founding of the Institute for Development Anthropology (IDA) at the University of Binghamton by three development anthropologists—Michael Horowitz, Thayer Scudder, and David Brokensha. Its avowed goal, in the words of one of its founders, was to “produce social science research of such high quality that it could not be ignored” by the large development agencies.12 Over the next several decades, the IDA not only did such research, but functioned as a sort of incubator for an entire generation of younger anthropologists with interests in development.13
At the same time, changes in policy at the larger development agencies, including the New Directions mandate at USAID and the World Bank’s focus on poverty, meant that the demand for social knowledge increased dramatically. And anthropologists responded. The first social scientist (a sociologist) joined the World Bank in 1974; the first anthropologist in 1978.
Glynn Cochrane, a development anthropologist, was an early advocate for anthropology within development agencies. In the early 1970s, he carried out studies of both the World Bank and USAID and made a number of recommendations. Some of these formed the basis for the adoption by these agencies of social soundness analysis, as a tool for project planning and development.14
By the 1990s, however, large-donor shifts to policies of structural adjustment and austerity caused the pendulum to swing back once again, and anthropology lost much of the ground it had gained. One of the founders of the IDA observed:
[the current policy] invariably calls for decreases in public sector investment, subsidies, and employment, accompanied by currency devaluation, “privatization” across a variety of sectors, trade “liberalization”—providing, for example, for the expatriation of profits by foreign firms—and program, rather than project, funding. This is unfamiliar ground to many anthropologists. At just the time when we are most critically needed, when modest though increasing numbers of anthropologists in many countries are appropriately trained to work in development, the shift back to top-down planning and trickle-down economics threatens once again to marginalize us.
(Horowitz 1996, 341)
Mosse (2013, 234) estimates that by 2011, there were more than 450 social scientists (not all of them anthropologists) working at the World Bank, although economists still rule the roost there. Crewe and Axelby (2013, 40) note that significant numbers of social scientists have also been recruited into the IMF and various bilateral aid organizations. Little (2005, 43) believes that even more development anthropologists are employed by the large number of development NGOs. Despite this, there is some concern as to whether anthropologists have really had much of an impact on the agencies they work for (see Mosse 2011a, 2011b).
Anthropological Contributions to Development
Practitioner Roles in Development Work
Development anthropology never quite became a formal disciplinary subfield with a distinctive set of concepts and methods. It has, however, made substantial contributions to the development undertaking in terms not only of critical analysis, but practical inputs. Chief among the more practical contributions has been research on development planning, projects, and programs.
There is a fairly voluminous anthropological literature analyzing specific development projects, programs, and agencies. Cernea, for example, has written in detail about where and how social science can be used in development planning (Cernea 1987, 1991). Kottak (1991) analyzed over sixty projects in terms of how much the incorporation of sociocultural factors at the planning stage influenced later success. Grayzel (1986) provided a thought-provoking example from the field of how basic cultural patterns are often overlooked by planners. Mosse (2011, ed.) edited an entire volume analyzing the culture of “aidland” and its implications for development practice. Fechter and Hindman (2011) have looked in detail at the lives and activities of development workers.
Anthropologists have also looked at the development industry itself in terms of its organizational culture and operation. Hoben (1982), Boyle (1984), and Koenig (1988) looked at how the organizational culture of agencies impacts development activities. In his 1982 review of development anthropology, Hoben noted:
Its [anthropology’s] most valuable contribution to development work is to challenge and clarify, and hence to help revise, explicit and implicit assumptions made by those responsible for planning and implementing development policies about problems to be solved and about the institutional linkages between proposed policy interventions and their impact on income, asset distribution, employment, health, and nutrition. (1982, 370)
Anthropological contributions have re-emphasized the determinant role of social actors in development and drawn attention to the ways in which development activities (and “discourses”) are framed and manipulated by these actors (see Mosse 2013 for a review and analysis of current work).
Through observation and critical analysis, anthropologists both inside and outside the development industry have been able to develop an in-depth understanding of the processes at work within the development industry, as well as extensive documentation and analysis of the operation and outcomes of development initiatives in the field, particularly in terms of how these affect local populations. In typical anthropological fashion, the research done by anthropologists has not simply provided “answers” to some key development issues, but also has drawn attention to other important questions. Development anthropologists and anthropologists of development, while antagonists at times, have succeeded in creating a highly useful set of perspectives and understandings with regard to current development practice.
Social Soundness Analysis
As anthropological involvement with development projects increased, anthropology made several specific and important contributions to improving the way projects are planned and implemented. One such contribution involved the development of frameworks for assessing social feasibility, to be used at the initial stages of project design. Glynn Cochrane was instrumental in persuading USAID to adopt such a framework in 1975, and in 1984, the World Bank also adopted sociological criteria for project appraisal. Today, in the 21st century, some form of sociocultural feasibility is used by most development agencies, large and small. Although the details of these frameworks have changed and evolved over the years in various agencies, they have now become a standard part of development planning.
Social feasibility frameworks, although they may differ from one agency to another, generally attempt to ascertain the degree of “cultural fit” between a project and its intended beneficiaries. These frameworks attempt to ascertain the compatibility of development activities with existing cultural practices and the likelihood that new practices will spread across the population in question. The frameworks also try to estimate how changes (positive and negative) will differentially impact different groups within the local community (i.e., the degree of risk and benefit). In recent years, analysis has also included gender impacts. Answering these questions requires a relatively high degree of local social knowledge. As these frameworks began to be used, more and more anthropologists were brought into the development effort.15
Social soundness efforts can, of course, be badly done or treated as a box to be checked off on a project proposal. Social feasibility studies are rarely published, but rather are incorporated (or often summarized) in overall project documents, appearing—if at all—as “gray literature.” One rather illuminating account is Green’s from the 1980s (Green 1981) detailing a consulting trip for a major aid donor, highlighting some of the issues encountered.
Another important contribution was rapid assessment, which goes by a variety of names, including rapid rural appraisal and participatory rural appraisal. This approach, arising originally from collaborations between anthropologists and agricultural scientists, was developed specifically to cope with the relatively short timelines for project development. Rapid assessment is not a single method but a collection of techniques that allows interdisciplinary teams of planners, working closely with local people, to assess the salient characteristics of a community or region, quickly and comprehensively. The data and insights gathered over a period of from two to six weeks thus provide the groundwork for initial planning, in addition to providing important information about what may need to be looked at in more detail.16 As with social soundness, rapid assessment is not always done well.
Perhaps the most important—and contentious—aspect of anthropology’s involvement with the development industry has been the discipline’s impact on high-level policy. As anthropologists continued to work with the development industry, they became more than part-time consultants. Many anthropologists “went inside” as full-time agency employees. Eventually, these anthropologists gained leadership positions and began to be involved in long-term policy decisions. (See Davis 2004 for a detailed history of social science within the World Bank.) Some of these policy initiatives have had significant effects on agency operations, in particular on policies relating to involuntary resettlement, indigenous populations, gender, NGOs, and participatory development.
One of the most well-documented of these concerns focused on the results of large dam resettlement projects. Anthropologists like Thayer Scudder, Elizabeth Colson, Michael Horowitz, and others conducted longitudinal research, sometimes over decades, to document and understand the effects of resettlement on human populations.17 Michael Cernea and others at the World Bank have documented the slow and patient process of discussion and research that led to eventual policy changes of a significant nature (Cernea 1988).
Issues surrounding resettlement policies are far from settled, however, and discussion among development anthropologists continues. The 1995 meeting of the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement, held in conjunction with the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Pittsburgh, for example, featured a dozen different sessions on aspects of resettlement and donor policy. In recent years, there has been a relaxation of some of the hard-won policy gains promoted by anthropologists and others, most notably in the area of displacement and resettlement in the wake of major dam projects.18
As Stirrat (2018) has pointed out, the development literature is historically weak on ethnography, but this is beginning to change. What may be termed “development ethnography” refers to the thick-descriptive study through time of how development organizations, policies, and programs actually work. Tendler, an economist, provided one of the first insider accounts of a development agency in her study of USAID (Tendler 1975). More recently, anthropologists have focused on ethnographies of aid professionals and aid operations (see, e.g., Fechter and Hindman 2011; Lewis and Mosse 2006; Mosse and Lewis 2005; Mosse 2011).
Such studies focus on the interplay between agency and contingency, as real people make decisions in real time, with direct consequences for outcomes. Ferguson’s (1990) analysis of development projects in Lesotho was a landmark contribution to development ethnography, as was Wedel’s (1998) later examination of USAID operations in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
The value of what Wedel terms “studying through” to understand the relationship between policies, plans, and outcomes had been brilliantly demonstrated earlier in a study of a domestic US development project. Pressman and Wildavsky’s account of the Oakland Model Cities project (Pressman and Wildavsky 1973) was, in effect, an ethnography of the process by which a presidential executive order resulted, after several years and the expenditure of several tens of millions of dollars, in less than fifty minority jobs. In their study, Pressman and Wildavsky charted, almost day by day, how decisions were made, by whom, and with what effect. Rather than being an indictment of misguided governmental projects, the study highlighted the harsh reality of how and why local context matters so much for outcomes, and how difficult it is to actually get anything done of a non-standard nature.
In a way, it is rather odd that this approach to understanding development took so long for anthropologists to discover. For decades, development planning and research, in anthropology and other disciplines, resembled a form of Skinnerian behaviorism: “stimulus”—plans, resources, and personnel—went in at one end, and “response”—results, outcomes, impacts—emerged at the other. Typically, very little was known about what had actually gone on in between:
Opening up the black box between policy intention and social effects, and asking how development works, has produced descriptions of the inner working, organization practices, and discursive repertoires of state and nongovernmental organization (NGO) bureaucracies.
(Mosse 2013, 232)
In another sense, however, it is not surprising that we have so few ethnographies of development efforts. Development projects are not really suited to classic ethnographic fieldwork conducted by lone researchers who remain outside, looking in. It is much easier to “study” these situations through quick snapshots focused, for example, on initial rapid assessments, needs analyses, or, later on, final evaluations. Such studies, however, tend to miss the contested and ever-evolving dramas that take place as projects and programs unfold through time, and which have major consequences for how things turn out.
Ethnographic accounts are extremely helpful in understanding how and why development occurs as it does, but the undertaking is complex, time-consuming, and not without risk. Mosse has written insightfully about the difficulties he encountered after the publication of his ethnographic study of an NGO project in India (Mosse 2005, 2006), largely stemming from the NGO’s resentment at having had the curtain, so to speak, pulled back on their activities.
Controversies and Criticisms
The Ethics of Engagement
In one sense, anthropology is preoccupied with ethics. Our discipline relies for its validity on relations of trust and honesty with those with whom we work. If we violate or abuse that trust, our entire enterprise is called into question. Numerous books by anthropologists discuss ethics and ethical issues in nuanced detail (e.g., Fluehr-Lobban 2013; Plemmons and Barker 2016; Le Compte and Schensul 2015) and all major anthropological organizations have codes of ethics.
At the same time, the discipline has paid remarkably little attention to the specifically ethical issues of non-academic practice, as they concern the anthropologists involved. Most of the discussions within the discipline (and this is reflected in their codes) are nested within a fieldwork and research context, with little if any attention given to how practice—and development practice in particular—may present different issues and possibilities not normally found within traditional academic preoccupations and pursuits.
But there has always been a wide spectrum of opinion among anthropologists concerning the development undertaking, ranging from staunch “rejectionists” at one end to “activists” at the other (see Grillo and Rew 1985, 28–31 for more discussion). Most anthropologists—in and out of the development industry—have played the role of critic to one extent or another (Crewe and Axelby 2013, 28).
Over the years, two fairly distinct literatures have grown up, one examining development processes with a view to improving them, the other highly critical of them. The sharpest debates took place in the 1990s, exemplified by Escobar’s blanket condemnation of the development industry as a form of hegemonic Western domination (Escobar 1991, 1995) and Ferguson’s attack (1997) on development anthropology as the discipline’s “evil twin.” These brought sharp rejoinders from anthropologist practitioners (see, e.g., Little 1999; Little and Painter 1995; Gow 2002). But little in the way of change in development policies, operations, or outcomes has happened as a result of these debates.19
At issue, of course, was the question of whether development harms more than it helps, and if so, whether anthropologists should be involved at all. Ferguson (1990) has claimed that development operates as a sort of “anti-politics machine,” obscuring deep-seated structural inequities and turning political decisions into neutralized “technical” ones. If development, far from improving things, actually destroys cultures in the process of changing them, then it is clearly an immoral enterprise.
Others have argued that development is essentially a moral obligation. Horowitz says:
[I]t is morally necessary for anthropology to become centrally engaged in today’s critical issues—poverty, powerlessness, environmental degradation, and national, class, caste, gender, ethnic, religious and racial oppressions—and that anthropology has important contributions yet to make about the kinds of formations that will characterize human social life in the twenty-first century. (1996, 328)
In this statement, he appears to echo the earlier thoughts of another anthropologist. Writing in 1984, Estroff (a medical anthropologist) predicted that the years to come:
. . .will present us with choices we have avoided making explicitly and with intention for a very long time. The fabric and values of our culture will be stretched and revealed in many ways. Who is deserving? What will we value most? Will we choose to be comfortable or comforting? . . . . None of these agonizing choices can be made humanely without the kind of understanding of these “different others” and their worlds that anthropologists can provide.
(Estroff 1984, 369)
Most anthropologists with experience in development fall somewhere in the middle. Sillitoe writes:
The idealists criticize those who co-operate with development agencies. They claim we should seek to change, even overthrow, them, rather than co-operate with participatory approaches and “indigenous knowledge,” which such agencies incorporate while continuing much as before. The pragmatists argue that poor populations demand help now and wish somehow to assist. They may agree that we should try to change the terms of development but believe that we cannot wait for more utopian times before mucking in.
(Sillitoe 2007, 160)
Scudder, one of the founders of the IDA and an outspoken and influential critic of World Bank policy, is also a pragmatic and clear-eyed development practitioner. Asked why he participated in resettlement planning, he replied:
The point is this: regardless of its ideological stance and the nature of a nation’s political economy, large-scale river basin development projects are going to continue. The options, therefore, are to stand on the sidelines complaining about the negative impacts of such projects but having relatively little effect on their number, location, design and purpose, or to try to influence—both from within and, where necessary, from without—their planning, implementation, and management in ways that incorporate local populations in project benefits in an environmentally sound way.
(Scudder 1988, 373)
It is only relatively recently that anthropologists have begun to discuss in a serious way the principled application of their discipline to global grand challenges and to look closely at the ethics of doing so in collaboration with flawed institutions. We can therefore expect the ethics debates to continue for some time.
The Postmodern Turn
The postmodern–poststructuralist period in anthropology also had a marked effect on development debates within the discipline. Despite the fact that for the most part postmodernism as an academic fashion is now largely out of date, Escobar’s (1991, 1995) landmark indictments of development—and of development anthropologists—have remained one of the most influential of the critiques within the academy. He and other postmodern critics accused development anthropologists of complicity in a worldwide program of imperial domination, which uses language and discourse to define and subjugate the non-Western world. The development discourse, in this view, manages and controls the Third World and needs to be dismantled (Friedman 2006, 202–203).
While many of these perspectives have been useful to critics and practitioners alike in understanding how development “works,” there has been considerable pushback from some anthropologists regarding postmodern claims. They have pointed out that sweeping critiques such as Escobar’s—which look at development from an elite, top-down perspective—ignore the highly varied nature of development agencies and development work. These critiques also ignore the process of negotiation and contestation which underlies all development endeavors, where stakeholders, far from being passive, exercise a large degree of agency. The development industry, in reality, is not monolithic, does not share a common ideology, and does not have a common discourse (Friedman 2006, 204; Stirrat 2000, 33).
Most tellingly, postmodern critics appeared to have no real alternatives to recommend. By the mid-1990s, post-structural critique appeared to have produced an
. . .impasse, a stark choice . . . between a disenchanted, rational “development machine” . . . and an equally dystopian future in which ideas of justice and democracy are abandoned.
(Yarrow and Venkatesan 2012, 2)
Friedman observed: “Today, the anthropology of development is represented by a large contingent of anthropologists who continue to deconstruct ‘development’ without constructing anything in its place” (2006, 205). And later: “There is little evidence to suggest that the post-structuralists have contributed much to the improvement of the material realities of the world’s poor and disenfranchised” (Friedman 2012, 24–25).
Postmodernism in anthropology may have waned in influence, but important insights remain. The postmodern and post-structural critique rightly drew attention to the relationship between power and language and the ability of discourse to shape and frame our notions of global poverty. Postmodern perspectives rightly question the superiority of Western knowledge and Western practice, helping us better understand how development activities help create and influence our world, making certain views dominant and hiding others.
Critical scholars have
. . . revealed how ostensibly neutral technocratic and market-based discourses have acted to depoliticize and hence justify the often partisan interventions of economically powerful states. . . .In a related way, various post-development scholars have shown how development organizations define “problems” in ways that justify their own forms of “expertise” and thereby marginalize the insights and understandings of other groups of people.
(Yarrow and Venkatesan 2012, 3)
The postmodern debate has drawn much-needed attention to these issues. As a result, ethical debates have become more nuanced and focused, and anthropologists have developed a much better understanding of the role of discourse and power in development.
Part of this increased understanding now includes a heightened appreciation of the role of non-Western anthropologists in development, of whom there are more and more. Anthropologists from other countries who work within agencies and structures still largely Western in character bring valuable and much-needed perspectives to the development enterprise. Their anthropological training is in many cases significantly different from that of their Western counterparts. Their understanding of anthropological application and practice may also be quite different. Many of them engage in different sorts of roles in development and for longer periods of time. They may have significantly different types of relationships with local beneficiaries and participants as well as with local governments. And of course, they may be focused on significantly different sets of ethical issues. This story is yet to be told, but the demographic shifts now taking place within the discipline will not fail to have a marked effect on development practice.
What Have We Learned?
We’ve been at development, in one way or another, for over half a century. What have we learned? Three things seem to stand out: the importance of organizations in development; the importance of individual agency in the development process; and the primacy of culture.
Most of what happens in development is done through organizations of one sort or another. And these organizations not only plan and implement, they organize and interpret experience, shaping the parameters of what is possible and what is not. In many ways, organizations can be said to do our thinking for us regarding development (cf. Douglas 1986).
First, the industry which has grown up now dominates most development work of any significant scale. The larger development agencies hold—or define—much if not most of the data used in development work. They employ most of the experienced development professionals, and they control a significant share of the money available for development. In a more fundamental sense, they can also be said to control development ideas, bringing certain approaches, concepts, and perspectives to the fore, and relegating others to the background. The policy documents and operational manuals of the large agencies, as Stirrat notes (2000, 36), are templates or frameworks for learning about the developing world while at the same time, they embody and affirm a particular view of that world. Anthropologists need to continue to examine and analyze development organizations in order to build not only their understanding of them, but their capacity for working effectively within them for change and reform.
Second, although organizations may dominate development processes, they are not determinant: individual agency matters, and development outcomes are always a process of extended negotiation among a diverse set of stakeholders. “Development is not a coherent set of practices but a set of practices that produces coherence” (Yarrow, in Mosse 2013, 231). Speaking of her work in Eastern Europe, Wedel (2001) remarks:
I came to view the aid process as a series of “chemical reactions” that begin with the donor’s policies, but are transformed by the agendas, interests, and interactions of the donor and recipient representatives at each stage of implementation and interface. Each side influences the other, and the result is often qualitatively different from the original objectives. (2001, 155–156)
The Primacy of the Social
Finally, we have come to appreciate the extent to which deep-seated cultural factors underlie almost every aspect of development work. Just as weather provides both the context and the limitations within which a pilot must fly, so too does culture constitute an enveloping environment within which development efforts unfold.
Development teams that lack social expertise often perceive project participants as no more than a collection of people—potential beneficiaries, to be sure—rather than as structured groups of actors, individuals with their own strategies, organizational patterns beliefs, perceptions of needs, motivations and desires to help plan and implement changes that will affect their own lives and those of ensuing generations. (1991, 431)
Simply put, development efforts that fit with their surroundings will do better, everywhere and always, than those that do not (Nolan 2002, 25). The problem, of course, is defining what “fit” means for a specific place and time. Anthropology’s approach illuminates the local, rendering the development context three-dimensional, making more explicit the fit—or lack thereof—between plans and people. Anthropologists must therefore continue to focus on the details of place, people, and circumstance in development undertakings so as to understand and document culture’s influence more fully.
Why Haven’t We Done Better?
As several writers have pointed out, most development projects fail, by one measure or another (Edelman and Haugerud 2005, 2). Why have we all done so badly? Why have development agencies continued to repeat their mistakes? Why have anthropologists not had more success at helping them do better? The answer involves looking at how anthropology approaches situations of practice and application, on the one hand, and how development agencies learn—or fail to learn—on the other.
Part of the problem with getting anthropology into development is the very character of the discipline itself. Although all anthropologists are trained in quantitative methods, they favor qualitative inquiry, open-ended analysis, and highly contextualized, sharp-focus investigations. These proclivities render them fundamentally unsuitable for much development work. Or, to put it another way, anthropology has not yet managed to institutionalize a regard for qualitative approaches within development structures.
Easterly has written about the differences between “planners” and “seekers” in development work:
A planner thinks he already knows the answers: he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A searcher admits he does not know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A searcher only hopes to find answers to individual problems by trial and error experimentation. A planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown. (2006, 4)
Anthropologists, in Easterly’s terms, are searchers. Anthropologists contextualize; development planners universalize. Planners simplify; anthropologists ramify. We work slowly, producing “thick description” often deemed unusable for crisp and clear decision-making. We tend, as a group, toward “disassurance” and are often seen as bearers of bad news. We are used to working independently, often unfamiliar with the collaboration and co-thinking required of most development workers.
One of anthropology’s greatest strengths is its ability to surface—and examine—issues that may not have been visible at the start of a development project. Agar says:
Human social science is more accurate and useful if we stop pretending that it can only occur along the guidelines of a laboratory science. . . . The most important thing learned in human social science is probably going to be a pattern rather than a number, a pattern that a researcher didn’t know existed until he was well into a project. The best way to show an audience what was learned will probably be a metaphor rather than an equation. (2013, 17)
Unfortunately, such insights are too often viewed as “discrepant data” slowing down the process of project formulation and approval rather than as reasons to re-examine and rework plans.
Another reason for anthropology’s relative lack of influence is the fact that support from the discipline itself for its practitioners has remained fairly lukewarm. The controversies of the 1960s may be behind us, but a significant portion of the academy still worries about the purity of the discipline and about whether activities like development work are “real” anthropology. One practitioner had a clear and succinct reply: stop worrying about whether something is an anthropological problem. There are only people problems out in the world, and rather than worrying about whether or not it is sufficiently “anthropological,” try to think instead about how anthropology may be used to help solve it (van Willigen 1986, 215).
Unfortunately, purity is still a consideration in some quarters. Mosse observes: “While a career in the World Bank can place an economist at the centre of his or her academic discipline, the same career can virtually disqualify an anthropologist academically” (2006, 6).
Difficulties with Organizational Learning
On the organizational side, it must be said that the development industry, with its empiricist, economics-driven framework, has little if any room within it for the kinds of complex, context-based, and “fuzzy” data that anthropology provides: “Development’s modus operandi rarely, if ever, accommodates the needs of a vigorous anthropology” (Friedman 2012, 23–24). The large agencies operate within a knowledge environment that prioritizes theory, quantification, prediction, and—ultimately—uniformity, all of which make things run more smoothly for the most part. Differing perspectives must be smoothed out and harmonized, discrepant data must be tucked away out of sight.
In such an environment, organizational learning becomes difficult. Individuals on the ground may learn a great deal about what happens as a development project unfolds, but the organizations for which they work seem to learn far less or fail to learn at all. The development literature has a kind of timeless character—the problems being discussed today are very similar to those appearing in reports thirty years ago. Crewe and Axelby (2018, 5) remark: “Development policy and practice are constructed on unreliable memories of the past and vivid dreams about the future.” They continue: “The failure to look at history means that projects are rarely designed or managed with a thorough understanding of what has taken place economically, politically, institutionally, technologically, and culturally within specific locations.”
Somewhat cynically, it may be said that large development agencies do not learn because they do not have to learn. As arbiters of development meanings and goals, it is their job to inform and direct others. The feedback they receive is largely attenuated, aggregated, and homogenized, and there are no real consequences for failure. In addition, the development industry today is an essentially collusive relationship between donors and recipients where too much harsh reality may disturb arrangements. And finally, the large donors, mainly by intention, are far away from those realities in the field.
The Way Ahead
Two somewhat contradictory tendencies characterize development in the 21st century. On the one hand, programs focused on macroeconomic and governance issues seem to require less and less from anthropologists. On the other hand, the renewed emphasis on poverty alleviation has prompted calls for precisely the type of social and cultural insight and analysis that is development anthropology’s stock in trade.
In 1995, Julia Chang Bloch, US ambassador to Nepal, predicted that how people of different backgrounds learn to work together was likely to be the prime human resource challenge of the coming century (Institute of International Education 1995, 8). International development could have been—should have been—the way to achieve cross-cultural collaboration. Instead, we have a contested, confused, and largely inadequate situation. It is easy to criticize the development effort at almost every level of scale and focus, from the World Bank down to the most modest NGO small-village initiative. The glass may indeed be half full, but it remains—stubbornly—half empty.
Retreat is not an option for international development any more than it is for any of our other contemporary “wicked problems.” What could—or should—define our disciplinary agenda in the future? If we want anthropology to be a more influential force for change and improvement, not just in international development but for societal grand challenges in general, what may some of the next steps be? Three specific tasks come to mind.
The first task is that of promoting a more serious engagement on the part of anthropology with the development enterprise. Development is arguably humanity’s first global undertaking, and it is faltering. If anthropologists are sincere in their belief that their discipline can provide guidance and insight, then it is time to seek a more prominent place at the table. To accomplish this objective, we will need to learn to work across disciplines and to co-think with others, many of whom do not necessarily share our views.
Until quite recently, anthropology has been reluctant to engage meaningfully with global grand challenges. It is as if, as someone once observed, some of the best minds in our society were somehow disconnected from some of our biggest problems. In 1997, James Peacock, former president of the American Anthropological Association, outlined three possible futures for anthropology (Peacock 1997): it would either stay very much as it had been; it would decline and eventually disappear; or it would gather itself together and become more fully engaged in contemporary societal issues. Happily for all, it is Peacock’s third option—engagement—that seems to have carried the day. Anthropology inside and outside the academy is increasingly involved in meaningful and influential ways with critical societal issues, although the discipline still has much more to learn about how to engage in ways that have real impact.
As difficult as the disciplinary relationship with development is, anthropologists have the ability, and indeed, the duty, to continue to participate in this major global undertaking. “Engagement with impact” does not simply mean pointing out all of the different aspects of development that seem to be broken. It also requires the critics to come up with practical and effective suggestions for fixing things, and then to actually pitch in and help do the hard work of repair.
A Focus on Policy
The second task ahead for anthropology is the acquisition of experience and skill with policy matters. Traditionally, anthropology has been uncomfortable with power and its uses. If the development experience has taught anthropology anything, however, it is that policy matters. The ability to influence key development policy decisions is one of the main things that will change outcomes on the ground.
Although anthropologists have often been policy critics, they are rarely policymakers. Today, with increasing numbers of anthropologists working within the development industry as careerists, there is every reason to expect that some of them will be in a position to make policy decisions at high levels. To take but one example, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank from 2012 to 2019, was in fact an anthropologist.
As anthropologists become wiser about what works, what does not, and why, they have an obligation to put that knowledge to use in ways consonant with the discipline’s ethical traditions. Typically, policymakers are not transient residents of an organization, but long-term insiders. Typically, too, research—particularly of the anthropological kind—is only part—and sometimes a small part—of what policymakers consider when doing their work. Gaining a seat at the policy table and participating effectively in the policy conversation will not require anthropology to abandon either its methods or its principles, but it will require practitioners to learn how to work cooperatively and constructively with others (something that we have not always been either willing or able to do), and through dialogue, engage in some fundamental rethinking of the entire development enterprise.
The third important task involves changing the way anthropologists are trained. Robert Chambers at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) has maintained for years that the way to get different development outcomes is to change the way development specialists are trained in the first place. This includes how anthropologists are trained as well. Anthropology today is undergoing a significant sea change as the academic employment landscape dwindles and extramural opportunities proliferate. Anthropologists have proven themselves extremely valuable in a wide range of applied positions, but their training still leaves them relatively unprepared for the demands of practice.
Anthropologists who work outside the academy are engaged in constructing and defining an alternative practice, a different way of being an anthropologist in the world. Development anthropology is thus connected to a much broader change sweeping, slowly but surely, through the discipline.
The discipline is also changing, albeit slowly, the way it trains people for development activities. Although the elite universities of the West still continue to produce academic theoreticians and “critical analysts” who comment from the sidelines, an increasing number of excellent training programs in applied anthropology have sprung up since the 1970s and are turning out practitioners in increasing numbers. More anthropologists than ever before work in development or in development-related areas; increasing numbers of them now occupy positions of leadership within development agencies, both large and small. The growth of practice in anthropology has made it possible for anthropologists to work constructively and with great effect out beyond the confines—physical and mental—of the academy. There is every reason to believe that this extramural engagement, in all of its diverse forms, will help define and guide the discipline to an increasing extent in the future.
Discipline to Profession
International development, and anthropology in development, is very much a work in progress and will continue to present problems, dilemmas, and opportunities. Anthropology’s contribution to the resolution of one of our biggest challenges will depend in large part on how effectively anthropology is able to make the transition from being a relatively pure discipline, aloof and apart, to a more engaged profession.
Poverty is not going away anytime soon, and neither are the structures we have in place—however flawed they may be—for confronting poverty. Reform of the development industry is indeed a priority if we are to create and sustain the good change that Robert Chambers envisions. Anthropologists can, if they so choose, make a significant contribution to that effort.
Development will not be achieved easily or quickly, but we cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged. Development is an extended cross-cultural conversation, playing out in its various forms all around the world. We will either succeed at learning how to have this conversation in a mutually productive and sustainable manner, or we will all face a very uncertain future. It is easily worth a lifetime of effort. After all, as the political journalist I. F. Stone once remarked, if you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply haven’t asked a big enough question.
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(1.) The emphasis here is on international development rather than domestic activities within Western industrial nations. Domestic development efforts unfold and operate in many ways within a very different framework. Anthropology’s role in these efforts, although notable, would require a separate article all its own.
(4.) Prewar, and particularly colonial development efforts, are not discussed here. Most of these differed appreciably from 21st-century practice in terms of goals and procedures, and virtually all were carried out by individual colonial governments. Although colonial-era anthropologists were sometimes involved, their role was almost always a minor—and sometimes contentious—one. In the United States, the Smithsonian’s Institute for Social Anthropology, in existence from 1943 to 1952, carried out some applied work in Central America (see Castro 2010), while in Africa, the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, begun in 1938 under the leadership of Godfrey Wilson, engaged in a great deal of what may today be termed “applied research” (Brown 1973 and Schumaker 2001 provide detailed accounts of its activities).
(5.) Development today is an “industry” in much the same way that aircraft or auto manufacturers can be said to constitute an industry—a distinct group pf organizations or enterprises with a high degree of interconnection, specialized activities, and a common (although not uniform) set of procedures and processes for carrying out their work. As with autos or airplanes, although the range of development “products” may be quite wide, similarities rather than differences characterize the endeavor.
(6.) See Bohannan 1966 for a hilarious and thought-provoking example of this, when a Western anthropologist engaged her West African informants in a discussion about the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
(9.) Interestingly, this appears not to have been the case in the United Kingdom, where there was some reluctance on the part of senior anthropologists to get engaged with applied work. No anthropologist, for example, appears to have been involved in the setting-up of Britain’s ODA in the 1960s (deHaan 2009, 66).
(12.) Michael Horowitz, personal communication.
(15.) Social soundness analyses are not always incorporated into the design of development efforts, however. Crewe and Axelby (2018) estimate that USAID used such findings only about 25 percent of the time.
(16.) Varieties of rapid assessment have been presented in the literature, most notably by Chambers (1991, 1994a, 1994b, 2007) and Beebe (1995, 2001). Chambers in particular has written, taught, and trained extensively on the related themes of rapid assessment, local participation, and learning on the part of development workers.
(17.) There is an extensive literature on the anthropological aspects of involuntary or forced displacement projects, many associated with large dams. See, for example, Cernea (1996, 1997), De Wet (2006), Downing (1996, 2002), Oliver-Smith (2005, 2009), Partridge (1989), Rew et al. (2000), Scudder (1996, 2005), Scudder and Colson (1982), and Tilt, Braun, and He (2009).
(19.) Criticisms of development abound in the academic literature, but seem to have had little effect, if any, on the operation of most development agencies. An admittedly unscientific survey of the syllabi for courses on development in US anthropology departments which I conducted several years ago revealed that almost all of these courses featured articles and books by prominent critics, but few resources written by actual practitioners. As a result, it seems possible that anthropology students may graduate without a clear understanding of how their discipline can contribute positively to the development enterprise.