Anthropology and development

Anthropology and development

The long-lasting history of development has been studied intensively and questioned continuously through the different lenses of confronted or even contradictory theories. This paper presents and analyzes the most important lessons learned from the history of development. To fully understand these lessons, we first need define the most basic concepts of development, establish a common language and review each specific lesson to be remembered when designing development projects. 

Clarifying the concepts.

One of the first hurdles of development practice rests in its very own definition or, more accurately, in its plurality of definitions. Development has been used as a synonym of aid, help, progress, transformation, intervention, invasion, and conquest among others. Arturo Escobar is one of the most passionate opponents of the arbitrary definition of “development” as the ultimate transformation to a better world. As an anthropologist, he draws a parallel between the histories of anthropology and development and how both disciplines were born in the midst of a discourse to save the poor and the disfranchised Other. To illustrate this parallel, I will briefly describe the historical context presented by Escobar in Encountering Development and Susanne Schech and Jane Haggis in Culture and Development.

The post civil war foundation of industrial capitalism created a severe gap between a selected part of the society accumulating wealth and the remainder of society. Disparities and inequalities were rising exponentially and answers were needed to explain the extremes in enrichment and poverty. These questions were soon “elucidated” by anthropological research: there was a natural hierarchy of class and race where the civilized white man was at the top and the savage was at the bottom. In this environment of inequality, development became the solution to a worldwide problem of inequality and deprivation. Schech and Haggis remember how colonialism was often perceived as an exercise in development (7). Now, Escobar explains how, after World War II, development became a daily discussion. Statistics about poverty were drawn and redrawn and western politics focused on this new worldwide issue that required great priority, resources and all theorists’ attention in order to solve the problem of underdevelopment. Two players then were extracted from development conversation: the developed and the underdeveloped – the First and the Third World. He then defines development as a discourse and strategy to maintain domination that most of the time can do more damage than good (Escobar: 5).

I would like to use Escobar’s view to establish our definition of development. Not to keep the absolutely negative description of development practice, but to oppose the discourse of mainstream development in our definition. We will not treat development as a salvation practice of the third world by the first world and we will not focus on the western discourse of rescuing the poor from abroad while maintaining a distance but creating universal rules of salvation. Our definition will be a combination of certain aspects of the definitions of Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Amartya Sen and Schech and Haggis. First of all, development will be seen as a practice in social learning, not static and in constant evolution (Nederveen Pieterse: 37, 98). Development will also be, as Amartya Sen describes it, the expansion of choice and opportunities to promote local agency. And, as explained by Schech and Haggis, not only culture will be at the center of the understanding of development but also development itself will be considered as a cultural process.

1 – It should not be the West saving the Third World.

The first lesson is tied up with the misleading definitions of development discussed above.

“Half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap […] humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people” Harry Truman, January 20, 1949. (Escobar: 3).

The extract of the speech presented above illustrates the first oversight linked to a misunderstanding of the development practice: the syndrome of the hero. Aligned with Truman’s speech and the classical theory, development has often been applied an exogenous practice based on a dichotomous world: the Western World saving the Third World. Schech and Haggis illustrate this argument with Edward Said’s Orientalism: a discourse which both assume and promotes a sense of fundamental difference between a Western or Occidental “us” and an Oriental “them” that is often read as “us” saving “them” to make them more like “us”. This approach has been used in the reconstruction of both Afghanistan and Iraq and has faced enormous local resistance, as development is perceived as an intervention from the West with no local inclusion in the project. Schech and Haggis discuss the birth of a development crisis: after 60 years of development practice, often-unperceived results or even, more damage than good resulting from development, people receiving the aid are starting to be skeptical about development, and more about development coming from the other world.

Not the West vs. Third World. Why is this important?

The dual view of development has acerbated the confrontation between the west and the orient, the north and the south, the American and the other. As long as the development perspective maintains a distance between the developed and the developing, the role of the local in the project will remain at the margin. This reinforces the skepticism within the developing word blocking any positive initial objective of development practice. Schech and Haggis exemplify this by pointing out the inequality and poverty within the USA, which explains how, the “us” might not be so different to the “them”. The authors urge development practitioners to break with the pre-established dualities of the world and to emphasize the development efforts through an analysis of local diversities. Sending financial aid to help a poor country without contextualizing the help needed will only result in a waste of resources.

Another argument explaining the importance of the dichotomy break is that the western face of development is often tied up to the human right approach as discussed by Paul Gready and Jonathan Ensor. The authors draw important conclusions about the relationship between development and human rights and their most important argument is that there are different manifestations of rights. Context is important and people’s choices and beliefs are different based on different contexts. The most basic right for an American might differ tremendously from the essential rights of a Kenyan and, the most basic form of rights for a Kenyan might differ even more from the rights perceived by an Iranian.

Not the West vs. Third World. Proposed action.

I support Gready and Ensor’s proposal to effect changes from within by identifying local social forms, communal practices, “collective metaphors that will help change without an external coercion (273). In order to do that, it is necessary to create an engagement with local communities and local powers. What we see as underdevelopment from a western perspective might not be perceived as such by the local society. Development needs a collective approach. As Edward’s Said’ presents it: it is not “us” helping “them” but “us and them” helping “them”. Gready and Ensor’s propose a human rights based approach of development as a basis for a common dialogue where all parties can work together against one common target (279). One other important factor presented by the authors is that the mutual recognition of human rights will not be automatically achieved and vision has to be long term. Promoting the development of poor countries will not happen as fast as Europe’s recovery in the 1950s with the Marshall plan. It is a long-term project that will only be achieved by a collective action with the local.

2 – Eliminating the stereotypes.

Danielle Beswick and Paul Jackson study the work of Samuel P. Huntington regarding the difference among civilizations. They criticize the erroneous assumption that all Islamic countries are the same and can be treated as a homogeneous bloc for political purposes (52). As they explain, the diversity between Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan is enormous and generalizing these countries in one group has been a recurrent mistake of development practice. Grouping countries based on one characteristic such as religion without considering the context often creates stereotypes around this one characteristic. And these stereotypes around development practice are frequently unable to comprehend the cultural diversity. One of the recurrent mistakes of development practice is to essentialize the third world. The study of culture becomes the valorization of the differences that exists between the multiple ethnics or cultural groups within a society following the belief that cultural diversity needs to be invigorated (Schech and Haggis: 122). One example is the essentialism of women. Stereotyping has been at the center of the gender studies, hence at the center of gender and development. Maria C. Correia and Ian Bannon study this theme through the men streaming approach. Their argument is that gender and development have been erroneously studied with a female focus. They criticize this analysis based on women’s needs with no inclusion of men as part of the development issue. They explain how the argument behind this gender focus on women is the historical and factual disadvantage that women face. However, as the authors defend, gender is relational, and most of the interventions targeted to women will have no result without men cooperation (7).

Stereotypes. Why is this important?

“Emphasizing culture as an integrative mechanism shared by all fails to acknowledge the power dimension of cultural cohesion and uniformity” (Schech and Haggis: 24). This quote explains how stereotypes tend to establish universalities failing to see local power dimension where power remains in men’s hands in many cultures.

We have seen several development initiatives where the benefit is given to women, for example, but at the end, these same women are forced to hand back the benefit to men. Integrating women in development should not mean to treat them as a separate and isolated subject. Gender studies have been biased by a “two-dimensional women as victim, men as a problem” view. (Correia and Bannon: 8). These authors try to point out the dangers of labels, imposed categories and the society’s tendency of essentializing sex and gender. Janet Momsen exemplifies this essentialist view of woman by the pretended inclusion of woman in power through pre-established ratios. She mentions how increasing the political representation of women is often perceived as a manner of including women’s needs and running a more efficient government since women politicians are supposed to be less corrupt and more altruistic than men (222). This stereotypical vision of women, as the only possible representation of women’s needs is part of the same binary world that won’t permit progress. To explain this, Momsen presents the case of South Asia where discrimination against women is wide spread but where there are women political leaders as a result of elite status and family connections. The role of the women is then not only affected by gender but by class, culture, history and nationality among others.

Stereotypes. Proposed action.

In regards to the specific essentialism just discussed, I support Momsen proposal to include race, class and history in gender studies. I take this approach to any development project that should consider all variables: gender, race, class, religion, geography and history. In a more general view, I support Beswick and Jackson method of analytic eclecticism, which consists in taking elements intentionally from different research traditions to illustrate and exemplify complex situations instead of simplifying a complex situation to fit a theoretical lens (Beswick and Jackson: 146). People tend to try the other way, to fit the reality with the theory but this can only result in an imposed policy that will not solve the problem. The eclectic approach prevents a developing approach to have a narrowed view by asking only one part of the question. The development practice should then in my opinion, go beyond the labels and categories to be able to see the real problems behind the category. Beswick and Jackson use a sophisticated concept to propose a very simple rule: ask more questions! Understand the whole to focus on the particular, not the other way around.

3 – It is not about more income.

For Deborah Eade and John Sayer development should be seen as the alleviation of widespread poverty, enabling the great majority of people to gain rights involving the creation of wealth and its distribution (Eade and Sayer: 4). Development is not only about financial accumulation but also about an equal distribution of wealth.

I concur with this view and would like to take it one step further in that development is not just about more money: Haiti is one of the top ten recipient of official humanitarian aid. The country received 23% of its gross national income as aid in 2011. And yet, almost 4 years after the earthquake, Haiti is still one of the poorest countries in the world. What went wrong with the rescue of Haiti? It is not about money.

The Marshall plan is often mentioned as a development success story. From 1945 to 1950, the United States sent $19 billion to the reconstruction of Europe and by 1949 the Marshall plan was already showing great success in the restoration of the European economy (Escobar: 33). Would $19 billion help Haiti to come out from poverty?

Not just Income. Why it is important?

Most developing countries cannot be compared with Europe, even in the widespread destruction of the post war situation, in that Europe had an important prior history of internal capabilities, efficient institutions, an international role and a good access to markets. In that context, yes, money was the missing piece for recovery. The developing world is not Europe and should not be treated as Europe and most importantly, the developing world is not homogeneous itself; it has intrinsic disparities and contextual differences. Eade and Sayer also point out how financial aid can be pointless without a complementary base for the development to happen. They present the example of the land of kiosks in Timor Leste where the microcredit initiative resulted in an oversupply of kiosks. The general idea made sense, the people of Timor Leste were provided with a microcredit to invest in a productive business to get out of poverty. However, with no according training, they all invested in the only business they knew, the kiosks. Competition was so strong they were not able to meet the expected sales to repay the loan, and ended poorer than they were before (Eade and Sayer: 179).

Not just Income. Proposed action.

Development is not only an economic practice but a social political and economic project. Its success will not depend only in the amount of money available for the practice but in the way it is used. Development is about health, education, training and the opportunities to get out of dependency.

As explained, Amartya Sen defines development as the enhancement of a population’s capabilities. Higher income can eventually lead to better living conditions, by facilitating social and economic opportunities in societies, but, focusing first on the capabilities will not only achieve economic growth but also a more equitable distribution of the additional income. In this sense, capabilities promoted through health, education and freedom of trade will positively influence economic indicators. Sen, while maintaining a capitalistic approach, turns the equation around. It is not enough to focus on economic growth, enhance the markets, with an “invisible hand” providing an equal and magical outcome for everyone, it should be the other way around. By giving the people the tools to be capable and free, a positive result will result in the global economy.

4 – Who is in charge of development?

“If development itself has become a problem, and has sowed the seeds of discontent and ethnic conflict, a corrective to development can only come from other worldviews, other visions” (Nederveen Pieterse: 33).

Who is and who should be in charge of development? Over the years development agents have taken numerous forms and shapes: the very people, the NGOs, development banks, private companies, governments, the UN, the World Bank, the US, etc. The multiplicity of agents has often resulted in a broken approach to one same problem. We already reviewed that development should not be seen only as an exogenous intervention, the west within the third world, however, who in the developing country should be in charge of promoting the development practice? Who from the international world? Should development be promoted by the private sector? The government? The roles of the private sector and the government in development have both been questioned and opposed. On the one hand, private sector intervention has been criticized by the unequal distribution of the benefits of growth (Eade and Sayer: 6). One could agree that the mission and objective of a private company can be focused on increasing one’s own profit and, that the length of a successful development project would be significantly longer that a company’s mission. On the other hand, State’s role has also been minimized by the neoclassical idea that good governance relies in little intervention of the state. (Gready and Ensor: 249). Developing countries have proven over the year to often corrupt government ruled by the countries elites that focus on their own enrichment. Gready and Ensor exemplifies the latter with the example of malnutrition in Brazil where the main obstruction for a successful development program was the elite of São João de Meriti that controlled the local power impeding any influence on local public policy (137).

Who is in charge? Why is it important?

Eade and Sayer explore the role of the private sector in development practice explaining that in the correct context it can foster equitable development. The basis of the argument is that it is a fact that corporations are expanding and exert influence on a global scale; the combined sales of the world’s top 200 corporations, they explain, are larger than the combined economies of all but the 10 largest nations (Eade and Sayer: 1). The participation of the private sector in development is then not negotiable anymore, it should be a given. However, it should not be seen as the only promoter of development. As explain with the Brazilian case, without the involvement of the government it can be impossible to consolidate a public policy to promote education or health improvement. An opposing government will slow down any development project, as successful as it can seem to be. Gready and Ensor emphasize the importance of government in achieving a tangible local change and in breaking up the dependency by letting local institutions to take control of a reconstruction process. However, it should not be seen as one or the other, the state or the private sector, it should be a collective approach.

Who is in charge? Proposed action.

Who is then in charge of development? Everyone: the government, the private sector, the international sector, the NGOs and the local communities. Without considering all the agents of change in one specific country, no change will be achieved. One of the actors of change I support as an important solution to any fragmented approach is described and explained by Eade and Sayer: the Public-Private Partnerships. These, by including the word of the state and the funds of the private sector can bring a balanced approach to development issues. Another strong actor of change can be the social entrepreneurships, registered as a business but with a social mission as objective. These can put more effort to achieve the company’s social goals since there are monetary benefits resulting from this social objective.

5 – Let’s find the perfect solution and replicate.

Sixty years of development projects have one common conclusion: there is no magic solution. Over the years, there has been a constant drive to design a perfect framework to apply to a general underdevelopment issue. However, the history of development has proved there is not one perfect ten-step model to fix poverty.

No perfect solution. Why it is important?

“Overreach is a common consequence of the despaired goal of finding a global solution to poverty”. (Gready and Ensor: 29). Facing the lack of one generalized humanitarian solution, development practitioners tend to defeat themselves by going too far and trying to solve too many issues at once. We studied the toolkit of the cultural diversity programing lens that tries to provide a schema to define development projects but the reality is that in practice, schemas won’t work and too many resources are going to the consolidation of these frameworks instead of using them to study the local problems, the local cultures, the government and the society. Cultural diversity is the only universal factor of development. The eternal debates around female genital mutilation or the use of burqa, the opposed views between different cultures and religions are clear examples of the indispensable cultural analysis as part of any development project. The only magical solution can be to study the local context to have an impact and to achieve the goal of development without imposing one’s view but to give people the information and means to make a choice.

No perfect solution. Proposed action.

If there is no perfect solution how do we proceed? The 5 lessons learned illustrate these actions:

1)    Test the project before applying through a feasibility study in order to avoid the expenditure if the project is not feasible in a specific context. Monitor its development. (David Gow: 29).

2)    Think long term. Use the eclectic analysis to understand each case.

3)    Focus on the context: the people, the communities and the local government should be an essential part of the project.

4)    Include the private sector, resource for private companies should be implemented in development: the importance of the PPPs.

5)    Understand the local culture that should be seen as “an inseparable notion of development” (Schech and Haggis).

6)    Use technology to both study and understand the culture and to reach more people.

7)    Development should be about providing information so people can make the final decision with an informed perspective. People make the final choice.

I would like to conclude with this quote that summarizes the most important lesson of development practice. “A prerequisite for reconstructing ethnicity is deconstructing it, in the sense of recognizing its constructed character and not recycling static notions such as natural communities and blood and soil politics” (Nederveen Pieterse: 98). Reconstructing by deconstructing means to study the difference without invigorate the difference or minimalize the difference. Reconstructing and development will only happen if we deconstruct the universalities impregnated in development practice to focus on a common project to improve people’s well being.

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