What development agencies really do

The Humanity Journal interviews anthropologist James Ferguson, starting with the origins of his book, The Anti-Politics Machine:

It began with my dissatisfaction with the very repetitive policy-focused discussions going on at the time (in the academy and outside it) concerning “development failure.” The question was always, “Why do development projects fail?” and “How can we do it better the next time?” But these did not seem to me very productive questions. Lesotho was knee-deep in “failed” development projects, and to come in and say that they were failing seemed to me to be not actually saying very much—that was obvious on its face.

So I instead found myself more and more interested in another set of questions, which was, “What is it that these projects are in fact doing?” I said, let us set aside these normative questions of success and failure, and let us be good anthropologists and be descriptive: what is going on here?

Once I started asking that question, I found that the intellectual work that was being done in these development agencies and development reports and in development discourse generally was quite substantial.

There was a tendency toward academic snobbery, I think, to look at these development intellectuals as people who were just being really bad anthropologists, to point out that what they were saying was not very well supported, and to pick it apart. What I wanted to say is that they are not doing good anthropology because they are not trying to do good anthropology—they are trying to do something else, and they are actually very good at doing that something else.

That something else has to do with constituting usable objects, meaning the objects that can be attached to programs that development agencies are there to set up. It has to do with creating the points of engagement with the knowable world that make it possible for them to do their jobs—that make it possible for these programs to build a case for why they need more money to do the next project, and why the next project is going to turn out differently than the previous one.

I wanted not only to say that this technical work is important, it is an action in the world—it is not just talk, it is a material practice that produces material effects—but also to open up the question of “what are those effects?”

The full interview is interesting, in spite of the fact the interviewers have the annoying habit of speaking in six-syllable jargon.

The book is is number one on my list of books development workers and academics should read, but usually don’t.

Here is an article-length version of the book.

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