Thu 7 Jul 2011
In part 1, I argued that most academics who study development and aid have a very weak understanding of the processes they critique and seek to influence . . . and the only real way to build that understanding is to engage more seriously with development agencies. Why, then, have so few academics in the social sciences sought out such engagement – that is, why do so few academics work in development agencies as part of their training/research/practice? I think it has something to do with an unachievable desire to alter development practice and outcomes without unsettling ourselves. For example, many academics limit themselves to the critique of development practice to preserve some distance between themselves and the messy world of practice and policy. However, limiting oneself to critique still invokes an ethics of engagement, for if these critiques come too late to be acted upon, or do not speak to the institutional context from which these practices spring, the end result will be writing accessible only by other academics that has little if any benefit to those with whom we work in the Global South. This de facto extractive knowledge industry can hardly be seen as progressive, and its existence should upset us.
At the same time, holding ourselves apart from development practice out of a concern for being co-opted by (or used to legitimize) problematic political-economic agendas only makes sense if we treat development organizations as largely unchanging monoliths. This is a terribly ironic failure for a body of critical scholarship that otherwise spends so much time identifying and celebrating difference. Development agencies are not monoliths. For example, within these agencies are individuals deeply concerned about the rights of those affected by new forest carbon programmes, who object to the framing of development objectives in terms of economic growth, and who lament and struggle against the historical amnesia that marks the cyclical re-emergence of problematic and failed development initiatives. When we see development organizations as sites of contestation, unsettling questions arise. What is the point of critically-informed scholarship if not to provide support to individuals in their struggles to reshape policy, budget and programming into something more productive? What good will the most progressive, community-level effort come to if it can be plowed under by a single bad Country Development Cooperative Strategy (USAID) or Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (World Bank)? What is the point of studying development, if not to intervene?
We cannot alter development without unsettling ourselves, as development requires us to think about the ideas of change and progress, and our role in both. I wrestle with this when I find myself arguing that the application of critical social theory to ‘development challenges’ can result in different and arguably more productive empirical understandings of events in the world (see here, here, here and here). This struggle helps me evaluate of my own positionality, motivations and expectations for such interventions. It is not a struggle that will come to a neat resolution. If indeed the path of the critical development geographer is between the equally untenable poles of uncritical self-justifying judgement and self-promoting intellectual resource extraction, then it is a path that is constantly fraught with tension. If you are unsettled, it means you are paying attention to this tension and trying to address it. If you are uncomfortable, you are probably doing it right.