So, today I was challenged by an old friend, and a very well-known senior scholar in my field, about working for USAID.  He did so on two of the largest listservs in my field – admittedly, because I had just posted an offhand follow-up to some AID job postings to the list inviting people to apply.  Ben is great guy, and one of the founders of what might be thought of as hazards research – he’s also got his own political positions (which are evident below).  I like him a lot – he pushes me all the time, which I find very, very productive (and that is his intent).  I think his challenge, and my reply, help articulate why more people ought to be straddling the academic and practice worlds in development.

First, Ben:

Dear Ed,

I am sure all of us involved in Africa specialty group as well as the CAPE discussion list would benefit by hearing more detail about why you feel that the land tenure team at USAID has “an outstanding reputation” and why you believe “USAID is dead serious about its goal of becoming an intellectual leader in development…”.  Furthermore, if you are correct about the agency’s dead seriousness, what are the constraints and obstacles that have to be overcome?

From my point of view, until USAID is removed from its current position within the Department of State and made an independent agency like DFID in the UK or GTZ in Germany, everything done in the development field by anyone, alas, even you dear comrade, falls under the shadow of US geopolitical special interest.  There is also a case one could make that, in particular, all research on issues of resource access, land tenure falling into this category, needs to be free of ALL national and international development assistance agencies because of their usual commitment to what UNDP calls “alignment with host country interests.”  So, for example, to follow up on the World Bank’s recent report on land grabbing, it is doubtful if any development assistance partner (USAID, DFID, GTZ, UNDP, FAO, etc.) would criticize the corrupt practices in many countries leading to land grabbing.

Those seem to me to be macro and meso challenges to your optimism and jolly invitation to join you.  Finally, at the micro scale, it would seem, a fortiori, that those of us who work in the mode of participatory action research, something as you well know from your excellent past work demands a great deal of trust, can ask our friends and informants in various parts of rural Africa to put aside generations of mistrust of the great powers that ravaged their continent with surrogate conflicts during the Cold War and which continue to prop up corrupt regimes with development assistance.

Your scholarly credentials and intelligence are so obvious to those who know you, I am sure you must have good reasons for your sojourn at USAID and for your widely disseminated invitation to others to join you there.  Please share them with us.

All the best,


Dr. Ben Wisner

Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London, UK

Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA

And my reply:

Hi Ben (and all):

One of the things I love most about Ben is his ability to pin me down – whether arguing about the modeling community or agreeing about the tragedy that was the Spanish anarchists in Catalunya during the Spanish Civil War.  There’s no such thing as an offhand invitation!  So I am happy to elaborate, at least as much as I can in a generally-circulated email – and please note, I am speaking for myself here.  No official agency messages coming from my mouth . . .

First, I am at USAID out of a serious desire to bridge the absurd and growing gulf between the academic and practitioner communities in development – we all know that the practitioner community is not reading the academic lit (and indeed they are not, though the reasons for this are complex, and include the fact that the agencies do not have subscriptions to the journals because they have difficulty justifying the expense [yes, this is absurd]), but the academic community does not spend a heck of a lot of time reading the practitioner stuff either – except mostly to throw (intellectual) stones without actually understanding the institutional context of the various documents they are critiquing.  Let’s be honest, the number of development geographers out there that have actually worked in a development agency (not just consulting, but actually in the organization) is tiny, which means that most of us (including me, at least until about 6 weeks ago) are critiquing something we understand very poorly, at best.  The result: two parallel literatures, and very little productive interplay.  So I am learning about how to translate between these communities to facilitate greater communication and cooperation.  It seems there is tremendous mistrust on both sides of this divide, for good reason and for not so good reasons.  I suppose I am trying to parse through those reasons as well.

That said, you certainly can call the “authenticity” of my experience into question.  I occupy a unique space here at USAID.  I am a fellow, which gives me freedom to move around beyond my obvious job description and to challenge things that I see as problematic.  Further, I am on leave from South Carolina – I did not surrender my position or my tenure.  So, I have a lot of security – I don’t worry about speaking up in a meeting (or responding to an email) in a manner that might have repercussions for my career – the worst that can happen to me is to be sacked before my fellowship is up and sent back to my tenured position.  So I cannot say that I fully understand the pressures that some of my colleagues must feel on a day-to-day basis.  Then again, I know my positionality and, trained as a poststructuralist, I’ve long thought that authenticity was sort of crap, anyway . . .

At another level, I fear that I (and perhaps many on this list share this feeling) was at risk of becoming the new extractive industry.  Speaking for myself, I found that I was going to various places in the world, doing serious fieldwork, writing it up and trying to push the literature forward . . . only to watch that work gain no traction at all in the policy and practice world. The same mistakes just kept happening.  So, all that my research really did was get me promotions and pay raises.  Going to a place in the Global South, gathering a resource (in this case knowledge and information), and then redistributing that resource in the Global North to my financial benefit?  Sounds like extraction/expropriation to me . . .  I found that untenable, and I am actively looking for ways to make my research “do something”.  Yes, this is fraught and intellectually dangerous territory.  But I found the alternative unacceptable.

Second, your critique of USAID’s position vis a vis US foreign policy is to the point – we are absolutely constrained by State’s vision for the world, and this does limit us somewhat.  That said, there is a lot of critical awareness of these limitations at USAID (much, much more than I’d expected), and significant efforts to push back and shift the views that are seen as problematic.  For example, there is excellent work on environment-conflict connections coming out of my bureau that aggressively challenges the absurd “water wars” mentality that seems to drive some corners of our foreign policy, referencing really good academic work on the nuanced, difficult connections between environmental change/resources and conflict.  Hell, they have Homer-Dixon thoroughly beaten.

At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the position of arguing from one end of a continuum (“thoroughly compromised”?), with academic research implicitly at the “free and untainted” other end.  There are a hell of a lot of unacknowledged politics in academic research (though I know from our conversations you are quite aware) – for example, NSF sets priorities all the time which are shaped by Congressional funding and partnerships with various agencies in the executive branch (CNH sound familiar, there CAPE-ers?), and we all run off to apply for these funds as if they were apolitical – a terribly naive position.  Put another way, one could argue that it is much easier to be critically aware of one’s position, role and influences when they are clearly articulated in a memo.

To answer fully, and with illustrations, your concerns for issues like land grabbing and “alignment with host country interests” is impossible in a public forum.  First, I don’t speak for the Agency.  Second, examples would invoke countries, and that is a bad idea when you can be seen (incorrectly, in my case) as speaking for US foreign policy.  Third, there are really good people here in the Agency who are actively working to address the very things you are worried about in a lot of different ways . . . many quite subtle.  It is not fair for me to place them in the spotlight without their consent.  You will have to trust me on this – which is hardly evidence in and of itself, but you do know me well.

The desire to become an intellectual leader in development seems sincere.  Sure, broad public statements may or may not have much meaning.  However, I have been struck by the pride folks have in the mission of this organization – and the rage they feel over the ways in which the Agency was downsized and stripped of many of its best thinkers over its recent history.  This is not merely a front office “feel good” thing – I see this as a feeling that permeates the agency, from the administrator down to the line offices and the field missions.  To that end, they are staffing up – and they seem sincere about bringing highly qualified people in to develop cutting-edge programming.  How this will play out if those highly qualified people start pushing back against existing programs and policy, I have no idea.  But this agency is not a monolith, and a lot of people I interact with are very open to criticism and respond very quickly and positively to it – again, to an extent I have found surprising.

And it is from this that I issued the invitation – either to apply for these jobs, or to consider taking an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, or for you more senior types (am I more senior?  Nah) a Jefferson Science Fellowship, and serve a sabbatical or leave year at AID.  They want good people.  Most of the folks I work with want to be challenged constructively.  And if those of us who have the training, experience and critical faculties don’t apply for these opportunities, we cede the field to a bunch of people with MAs in Political Science who for their research likely ran massive regressions on the relationship between conflict and natural resources without bothering to contextualize either the type of conflict or the natural resource in question (yes, I have actually seen this very project proposal – structured because they could not get a large enough N to regress if they parsed by natural resource.  Mercifully, the researcher in question is not here at AID).

Finally, your point on addressing generations of mistrust is an excellent one, and one that I have no good answer for.  USAID is particularly challenged in this regard because it implements so little of its own programming – basically, most of the agency’s programs are contracted out, and AID staff are generally limited to monitoring the contractors and their products.  This creates a major problem for the agency – I think there is a real gap between what people in the agency know about what is really happening in the world, even at the level of the field missions, and actual events in the world.  This was a central point of my book <<plug alert>> (Delivering Development – forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in February, available for preorder at all major booksellers now!) and it seems to be borne out by my experiences thus far.  But given budgetary constraints, likely to be tightened starting roughly a week from today, USAID will never be allowed to staff up to levels necessary to implement its own programs, and therefore get that handle on what really happens in the world.  I will be interacting with country missions quite a bit over the next several months, and I suspect I might pick up some insights along the way . . . or at least I hope so.

I’ve spent way too much time on this response, and anyone still reading at this point probably wants the last 10 minutes of their lives back.  Ben, I am genuinely thankful for you and the challenges you pose – you make me a better thinker and person.  And one with less sleep, dammit.