Back in April, I participated in a session on the role of geographers (and indeed academics more broadly) in development agencies.  Though many outside of academia do not seem to know this, engagement with development agencies by those of us working in geography, anthropology and sociology tends to provoke both strong feelings and some controversy.  Given geography’s and anthropology’s historical connection to colonialism, many academics fear that engagement with these agencies risks a return to these old relationships, where the work of academics serves to legitimize or even further neocolonial efforts.  I thought the session was outstanding – the discussion was probably the most spirited I’d seen at an AAG, but it never degenerated into name-calling or other unproductive behavior.

Due to the success of and interest in the session, the participants in my panel decided to put together a forum of brief position pieces to be published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, hopefully later this year (screaming fast by academic standards).  In my short piece, I took up the argument that we should be engaging with agencies more (probably not that surprising, considering where I work these days) – a position I supported in a distressingly well-read email exchange on a few big listservs this past fall (see a related blog post here).  Before I submitted it, I had to get it cleared by Legislative and Public Affairs (LPA), which led to several people reading it.  It was cleared without comment, which I believe only serves to support Bill Easterly’s claim (made in the context of the World Bank) that nobody really cares what we write in the academic journals, because they don’t think anyone reads them.

Along the way, though, my office director read it.  Or, more to the point, he read it three times, because, as he put it, it was “impenetrable.”  He did not say this dismissively, but instead to point out that the jargon in which I engaged in the piece (and I fully admit that my piece is very, very jargon-laden) made it nearly impossible to follow for the non-academic.  To his credit, he read it three times to get my point . . . how many people do you know who are willing to do that?

So, in the spirit of his intervention, I offer a translation of my piece, in two parts.  This is part 1.

Engagement with international development is fraught with tension.  On one side lies a belief in improvement that carries with it judgment of the lives of others.  At its worst, this judgment can become a justification for the lifestyles and foreign policy of “the developed” by placing both at the top of a pyramid of human progress to which everyone should aspire.  On the other side is the peril of an extractive intellectual industry.  When academic research and writing on development has no impact on policy and practice, it serves only to further the career of the researcher who gains from those s/he researches.  It is not possible for an academic to engage development and remain unsullied by one, the other, or both.  I see the job of the academic in development as walking between these extremes, balancing the risks of each. Therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to evaluate critically the path we walk between them.

It is very difficult for the contemporary academic to make such a critical evaluation.  Critical development studies are often based upon a surprisingly thin understanding of the object of research.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the development geographers who have worked in a development agency (receiving a contract from a development agency as a consultant or subcontractor does not count, as in that case one is only seeing the end product of a long process of policy building, budgeting, programming and contracting). Yet without an understanding of mundane bureaucratic moments such as budgeting, contracting and monitoring and evaluation it is simply impossible to understand why agencies do what they do, or reliably to identify points of intervention that might change practice in the world.

Though it was a book that brought me to critical development studies, Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine is exemplary of this problem.  Ferguson’s analysis of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Thaba-Tseka project is constrained largely to the reports and field programmes that are the outputs of this complex process.  There is no doubt that he is correct about the ways in which CIDA’s representation of Lesotho and its challenges bore little resemblance to events on the ground.  However, without a link to the institutional practices and structures that are inextricably bound up with these (mis)representations, Ferguson’s explanation for development failure comes to rest on a vague sense that language/representations (largely reflected in documents related to development projects and agencies) shape action.  But this language, and these representations, are produced and reproduced in the often-byzantine interplay of policy, budget, programme and contracting that currently happens outside the scope of analysis for the bulk of academics.  Pointing out the problematic character of CIDA’s representations of Lesotho is not in itself a productive intervention – we must know when this construction was put into play, by whom, and to what end.  This information cannot be inferred from an organizational chart or a history of organizational actions.  Instead, it requires ethnographic attention in its own right.

A very large proportion of critical development studies rests on this sort of incomplete analysis, resulting in critiques and questions that often have limited relevance to the experience of development practice.  The mismatch of the products of such analysis with the experiences of those who occupy positions in development institutions is a source of the widening gulf between academic studies of development and the work of the development agencies we criticize and seek to influence.  This suggests that productive critical interventions require greater direct engagement with development agencies.

Next up, Part 2: Why does this failure of understanding prevent serious engagement?