Entries tagged with “James Scott”.


While development – thought broadly as social/economic/political change that somehow brings about a change in peoples’ quality of life – generally entails changes in behavior, conversations about “behavior change” in development obscure important political and ethical issues around this subject, putting development programs and projects, and worse the people those programs and projects are meant to help, at risk.

We need to return to a long standing conversation about who gets to decide what behaviors need changing.  Most contemporary conversations about behavior change invoke simple public health examples that obscure the politics of behavior change (such as this recent New York Times Opinionator Piece). This piece appears to address the community and household politics of change (via peer pressure), but completely ignores the fact that every intervention mentioned was introduced by someone outside these communities. This is easy to ignore because handwashing or the use of chlorine in drinking water clearly reduces morbidity, nobody benefits from such morbidity, and addressing the causes of that morbidity requires interventions that engage knowledge and technology that, while well-established, were created someplace else.

But if we open up this conversation to other sorts of examples, the picture gets much more complicated. Take, for example, agricultural behaviors. An awful lot of food security/agricultural development programming these days discusses behavior change, ranging from what crops are grown to how farmers engage with markets. Here, the benefits of this behavior change are less clear, and less evenly-distributed through the population. Who decides what should be grown, and on what basis? Is improved yield or increased incomes enough justification to “change behaviors”? Such arguments presume shockingly simple rationales for observed behaviors, such as yield maximization, and often implicitly assume that peasant farmers in the Global South lack information and understandings that would produce such yields, thus requiring “education” to make better decisions. As I’ve argued time and again, and demonstrated empirically several times, most livelihoods decisions are a complex mix of politics, local environment, economy, and social issues that these farmers weigh in the context of surprisingly detailed information (see this post or my book for a discussion of farm allocation in Ghanaian households that illustrates this point). In short, when we start to talk about changing peoples’ behaviors, we often have no idea what it is that we are changing.

The fact we have little to no understanding of the basis on which observed decisions are made is a big, totally undiscussed problem for anyone interested in behavior change. In development, we design programs and projects based on presumptions about people’s motivations, but those presumptions are usually anchored in our own experiences and perceptions – which are quite often different from those with whom we work in the Global South (see the discussion of WEIRD data in psychology, for example here). When we don’t know why people are doing the things we do, we cannot understand the opportunities and challenges that come with those activities/behaviors. This allows an unexamined bias against the intelligence and experience of the global poor to enter and lurk behind this conversation.

Such bias isn’t just politically/ethically problematic – it risks real programmatic disasters. For example, when we perceive “inefficiency” on many African farms, we are often misinterpreting hedging behaviors necessary to manage worst-case scenarios in a setting where there are no safety nets. Erasing such behaviors in the name of efficiency (which will increase yields or incomes) can produce better outcomes…until the situation against which the farmers were hedged arises. Then, without the hedge, all hell can break loose. Among the rural agricultural communities in which I have been working for more than 15 years, such hedges typically address climate and/or market variability, which produce extremes at frequent, if irregular, intervals. Stripping the hedges from these systems presumes that the good years will at least compensate for the bad…a dangerous assumption based far more on hope or optimism than evidence in most places where these projects are designed and implemented. James Scott’s book The Art of Not Being Governed provides examples of agrarian populations that fled the state in the face of “modernization” efforts not because they were foolish or backward, but because they saw such programs as introducing unacceptable risks into their lives (see also this post for a similar discussion in the context of food security).

This is why my lab uses an approach (on a number of projects ranging from climate services evaluation and design to disaster risk reduction) that starts from the other direction – we begin by identifying and explaining particular behaviors relevant to the challenge, issue, or intervention at hand, and then start thinking about what kinds of behavioral change are possible and acceptable to the people with whom we work. We believe that this is both more effective (as we actually identify the rationales for observed behaviors before intervening) and safer (as we are less likely to design/condone interventions that increase vulnerability) than development programming based on presumption.

This is not to say that we should simply valorize all existing behaviors in the Global South. There are inefficiencies out there that could be reduced. There are things like handwashing that are simple and important. Sometimes farmers can change their practices in small ways that do not entail big shifts in risk or vulnerability. Our approach to project design and assessment helps to identify just such situations. But on the whole, we need to think much more critically about what we are assuming when we insist on a particular behavior change, and then replace those assumptions with information. Until we do, behavior change discussions will run the risk of uncritically imposing external values and assumptions on otherwise coherent systems, producing greater risk and vulnerability than existed before. Nobody could call that development.

I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…

Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress).  Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does.  There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense.  There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.

Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.

Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.

Well, not me.

I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation).  All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.

The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.

Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences.  Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.

Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation.  Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.

So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo.  This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die.  We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.

In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.

I am in the midst of (finally) reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.  The book is a fascinating exercise in anarchist political geography – basically, examining how state power was limited by/shaped by various geographic factors in upland Southeast Asia.  As with many Scott books, it is a readably huge, sweeping view of a long timespan and a lot of diverse people, but thus far it hangs together well.

I was struck by a particular passage in chapter 3 that speaks rather directly to a lot of food security/agricultural development work being done in the world today, not least under Feed the Future.  The passage comes in a section where Scott is reviewing the historical efforts of various tenuous states to consolidate their control over the surrounding population, but contains an important message for those who are pushing the newest era of agricultural modernization (I call it part II, but there are compelling arguments for this being part III, or IV, depending on how you parse the history of development):

At about the same time as the Peloponnesian War, the early Chinese state was doing everything in its power to prevent the dispersal of population. Manuals of statecraft urged the king to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands “in order to increase the involvement of the people in the production of grain.” . . . The objective of this policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons.

There is no leap at all from this ancient Chinese case to what the inadvertent outcomes of much of our “efficiency-driven” food security and agricultural development work might do.  By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.  The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).  So, at least for Feed the Future, perhaps now would be a good time to call the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance folks (they’re just one floor up!) and have them take a look at this?

Not everyone wants a resilient population, folks.

The larger message here: incorporating people into agricultural markets is about much more than economic efficiency – there are much broader considerations, from state-level political economic issues to sub-household gender roles, that come into play when we radically rework existing agricultural systems and the livelihoods that go with them.  I seriously doubt we are doing enough to capture the wide suite of challenges that comes along with market engagement to ensure that our agricultural development programs are not enhancing vulnerability and stripping resilience from some of the most marginal people we are working with.  Output per hectare is not the only relevant metric. It’s probably not even the most relevant metric, given the fact we are not suffering from a production crisis at the global scale (despite what you hear from various outlets).

Incidentally, if you are at all interested in rural development, you should buy every book James Scott has ever written and get to reading.  Now.  Links below.

Weapons of the Weak is a classic – shame on you if you do rural development/community-based development and are not familiar with it. Or, shame on the people who taught you…

The Moral Economy of the Peasant is Scott’s most underrated text.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance is Scott’s first “meta” text – huge topic, giant sweep, really interesting.

Seeing Like A State shows up on everyone’s must read list…pretty much because you should read it.