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Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice / Edition 4

Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice / Edition 4

by David MosseDavid Mosse
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Development agencies and researchers are preoccupied with policy; with exerting influence over policy, linking research to policy and with implementing policy around the world.

But what if development practice is not driven by policy? Suppose that the things that make for 'good policy' - policy that legitimises and mobilises political support - in reality make it impossible to implement?

By focusing in detail on the unfolding activities of a development project in western India over more than ten years, as it falls under different policy regimes, this book takes a close look at the relationship between policy and practice in development.

David Mosse shows how the actions of development workers are shaped by the exigencies of organisations and the need to maintain relationships rather than by policy; but also that development actors work hardest of all to maintain coherent representations of their actions as instances of authorised policy. Raising unfamiliar questions, Mosse provides a rare self-critical reflection on practice, while refusing to endorse current post-modern dismissal of development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745317984
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 01/03/2005
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Edition description: 4th ed.
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Mosse is Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is author of The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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Introduction: The Ethnography of Policy and Practice

For 50 years 'development' has provided a remarkably stable framework within which the relationship between the affluent West and its 'others' has been understood. But at the start of the 21st century this framework is subject to unprecedented critical scrutiny. While radicals question the relations of global inequality and cultural dominance implied in the idea of development itself, agencies for international development devote their policy processes to constantly revising and re-framing development so as to shore up their legitimacy in a fast-changing political environment. No longer moored to the assumptions of the old colonial and Cold War world order and its 'science of development', notions of growth, progress, modernisation, aid or development demand constant conceptual work to remain politically and morally viable. Western agencies such as the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and their policy advisers direct huge energy to re-framing development, discarding the signs of a colonial past or present-day commercial self-interest (i.e. tied aid), finding new focus and political legitimacy in the international goal of reducing global poverty, in the language of partnership and participation, citizens' rights and democracy. An abundance of government White Papers, mission statements and strategic plans, 'joined-up' thinking, civil society consultations and policy forums all indicate a striving for coherence in development policy; and there are allied concerns with exerting influence over policy, linking research to policy and of course with implementing policy around the world. For many working in development, getting theory right is the key to addressing the failures and disappointments of development; although the policy process ensures that policies do not command loyalty for long. Better theory, new paradigms and alternative frameworks are constantly needed. In the development policy market place the orientation is always 'future positive' (Edwards 1999).

Despite the enormous energy devoted to generating the right policy models, strangely little attention is given to the relationship between these models and the practices and events that they are expected to generate or legitimise in particular contexts. The intense focus on the future, on new beginnings, is rarely moderated by an analysis of the past in development (Quarles van Ufford et al. 2003: 13). At best, the relationship between policy and practice is understood in terms of an unintended 'gap' between theory and practice, reduced by better policy more effectively implemented. But what if development practice is not driven by policy? What if the things that make for good policy are quite different from those that make it implementable? What if the practices of development are in fact concealed rather than produced by policy? What if, instead of policy producing practice, practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events?

This book asks such questions of international aid, in particular of British aid for rural development in India; and does so by examining the ten-year experience of one project as it falls under different policy regimes. It takes a close look at the relationship between the aspirations of policy and the experience of development within the long chain of organisation that links advisers and decision makers in London with tribal villagers in western India. Its purpose is not to produce a project overview, a commentary on appropriate approaches or 'best practice', nor make an evaluation, or pass judgement; it does not ask whether, but rather how development works. The approach is ethnographic; and this means examining the making and re-making of policy as well as the practices that policy legitimises as social processes.


Understanding the relationship between policy discourse and field practices has been hampered by the dominance of two opposing views on development policy. These can be caricatured as follows. On the one hand, there is an instrumental view of policy as rational problem solving – directly shaping the way in which development is done. On the other hand, there is a critical view that sees policy as a rationalising technical discourse concealing hidden purposes of bureaucratic power or dominance, which are the true political intent of development (e.g. Escobar 1995, Ferguson 1994; cf. Shore and Wright 1997). Neither of these views does justice to the complexity of policy making and its relationship to project practice, or to the creativity and skill involved in negotiating development.

First, from an instrumental view, the usual concern is how to define the problem and realise the programme designs in practice. Implicitly, policy makers and project managers are attributed a perfect hegemony over other development actors. In recent years the international development shift away from narrow technologyled micro-managed projects to the wider programme goals of sector and state-level reform has required more sophisticated models capable of dealing with development as a transactional process linking policy goals and outcomes (see Brinkerhoff 1996, Mosse 1998a); but the approach is no less managerial, no less concerned with bringing institutional reality into line with policy prescription. Indeed, the more complex development problems become, and the more uncertain the relationship between policy prescription and development outcome, the more necessary are simplifying models of change and detailed planning and management procedures (cf. Rondinelli 1983: 90).

Arguably, international development is characterised by a new managerialism, driven by two trends: on the one hand, a narrowing of the ends of development to quantified international development targets for the reduction of poverty, ill-health and illiteracy (OECD 1996); but, on the other, a widening of its means. Whereas until the 1980s technology-led growth or the mechanisms of the market provided the instruments of development, today good government, prudent fiscal policy, political pluralism, a vibrant civil society and democracy are also pre-requisites of poverty reduction. In the extreme, nothing short of the managed reorganisation of state and society is necessary to deliver on the enormously ambitious goal of eliminating world poverty (and ensuring global security, since underdevelopment is now dangerous; Duffield 2001). And as social life is instrumentalised as 'means' in the new international public policy, donor-driven ideas such as social capital, civil society or good governance theorise relationships between society, democracy and poverty reduction so as to extend the scope of rational design and social engineering from the technical and economic realm to the social and cultural, assisted, Fine suggests, by an imperialist economics freed from the constraints of neo-classical models (2002). While taking on the 'the burden of Atlas' (Eyben 2003) donors have a confidence in management through policy that has never been greater. The consequence is persistent optimism about the power of policy design to solve problems, evaluations that confirm self-fulfilling prophecies about viability, and the renewed support of failing programmes (precisely because they fail but still affirm goals and values, Long 2001: 35-7). Such confidence in policy is ensured in two ways: first by what Quarles van Ufford et al. (2003) call the 'morality of the black box' which conceals the relationship between development policy and effects; and second, by the logic of the project cycle which ensures the separation of planners and implementers (Biggs and Smith 2003). As the story unfolds in the chapters of this book, these themes will return. But at the centre will be the point that donor policy fails to recognise its own autonomy from events, and therefore misunderstands the significance of its pronouncements. My aim is to encourage reflectivity and to dislodge 'that unscrutinised sense of being in control' (Eyben: 2003: 2) among policy professionals.

The second, critical, view of policy works from opposite assumptions. It takes the failure of development interventions as self-evident. Here there is no surprise that management models which isolate interventions from the history and social and political realities of the 'third world', or bend these realities into the discipline-bound logics of diagnosis and prescription (whether in health, agriculture or education), do not achieve their stated ends (Long 2001: 32-4). However, the critics do not really dispense with the instrumentality of development so much as substitute a set of real, undisclosed or unintended ends or effects for the stated goals of development planning. A now extensive literature argues that, like those of colonial rule, development's rational models achieve cognitive control and social regulation; they enhance state capacity and expand bureaucratic power (particularly over marginal areas and people); they reproduce hierarchies of knowledge (scientific over indigenous) and society (developer over the 'to be developed'), and they fragment, subjugate, silence or erase the local, all the while 'whisk[ing] these political effects out of sight' through technical discourses that naturalise poverty, objectify the poor and depoliticise development (Ferguson 1994; see, for example, Cowen and Shenton 1995, Escobar 1995, Long 2001, Ludden 1992, Scott 1998, Skaria 1999, Tsing 1993).

Recently the critical eye has turned on policy which labels itself participatory, bottom-up or even indigenous (e.g. Chambers 1983, 1997, Chambers et al. 1989), which does not reverse or modify development's hegemony so much as provide more effective instruments with which to extend technocratic control or advance external interests and agendas while further concealing the agency of outsiders, or the manipulations of more local elites, behind the beguiling rhetoric of 'people's control' (Cook and Kothari 2001, Mosse 2001). 'Community', 'indigenous', 'local knowledge', 'people's planning' – these categories which promised keys to counter top-down technocratic approaches and to unlock the power of development for the poor turn out to be dangerous counterfeits, products of modernity, trailing colonial histories of bureaucratically invented custom and tradition and providing, as Li (2002) notes, 'exemplary [foci] for the exercise of governmental strategies' (although in relation to international discourses, national policies or local dynamics, poor people have also revealed a capacity to position themselves so as to acquire rights or resources by becoming 'communities' or adopting 'indigenous' identities; see Li 1996, 1999: 51, Karlsson 2002). Moreover, the techniques of participation themselves (such as PRA) turn out to be disciplinary technologies deployed to produce 'proper' beneficiaries with planning knowledge out of local people and their ways of thinking and doing. (These themes will be explored in some detail in the chapters that follow.)

In short, for the critics, development and its various discourses (that is policies and practices) have both institutional effects – maintaining relations of power – and ideological effects – depoliticisation (Ferguson 1994). Power manifests itself as the cunning of reason and populism (cf. Agrawal 1996: 470). Development is not policy to be implemented, but domination to be resisted. And such resistance is celebrated, for example in the activist documentation of social movements against resettlement schemes, or large dams, or the logging of the forest, or a multitude of smaller acts such as uprooting trees, pulling down fences or destroying irrigation ditches in order to protect rights to land, grazing or water.

These contrasted instrumental and critical views have blocked the way for a more insightful ethnography of development capable of opening up the implementation black box so as to address the relationship between policy and practice. Instrumental views are only too obviously naive in relation to the institutional politics of development. But the critical turn in the anthropology of development is also an ethnographic blind alley, which merely replaces the instrumental rationality of policy with the anonymous automaticity of the machine. Development's effects occur, James Ferguson writes, 'behind the backs or against the wills of even the most powerful actors' (1994: 18). The relentless Foucauldian micro-physics of power occurs beyond the intelligence of the actors; although not, it seems, that of the decoding anthropologist. This is a 'new functionalist' sociology that, as Latour (2000) puts it, substitutes false objects with real ones – development with social function (for instance, the extension of bureaucratic power) – and therefore destroys its object. Once the substitution is complete, there is nothing to say. Little wonder that critics such as Ferguson apparently spent so little of their time talking to development workers. My aim in this book is to reinstate the complex agency of actors in development at every level, and to move on from the image of duped perpetrators and victims caught up in a sort of 'space- age juggernaut on auto-pilot' (Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003 [draft]; see also Grillo 1997: 21), as well as to revise the false notion of all-powerful Western development institutions (Cooper and Packard 1997, Watts 2001: 286). Indeed, in different ways both the critical and the instrumental perspectives divert attention from the complexity of policy as institutional practice, from the social life of projects, organisations and professionals, from the perspectives of actors themselves and from the diversity of interests behind policy models.


Recent ethnography of development has begun to blur the bold contours drawn by both rational planning and domination/resistance frameworks. Some has drawn on Foucault's notion of governmentality – 'a type of power which both acts on and through the agency and subjectivity of individuals as ethically free and rational subjects' (Shore and Wright 1997: 6) – to show how policy regulates social life and makes subjects and citizens, not by repression and overt control, but through a productive power which engenders subjectivities and aspirations (Foucault 1979a: 194, Li 1999: 296, 2002). Others, also arguing that the domination/resistance frame is too restrictive to grasp the nature of agency from below, point out that amidst even the most extreme forms of development imposition such as the forced resettlement of 'indigenous' people following dam construction, along with those who confront the contractors out of anger or frustration, there will be some who say 'This will mean a new day for us', 'We will be much better off' (Fletcher 2001). In a variety of ways the new ethnography of development is distinctly uncomfortable with monolithic notions of dominance, resistance, hegemonic relations and the implication of false consciousness among the developed (or the developers).

Michel de Certeau has added subtlety to the understanding of agency by alerting us to the devious, dispersed and subversive 'consumer practices' which are 'not manifest through [their] own products, but rather through [their] ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order' (1984: xiii, emphasis in original). In other words, while 'beneficiaries' (or project workers) may consent to dominant models – using the authorised scripts given them by projects – they make of them something quite different (1984: xiii). And it is in this sense that we can think with James Scott (1990b) in terms of the existence of 'hidden transcripts' alongside the 'public transcripts' of development policy. What is of interest is less the relationship between policy and implementation, or dominance and resistance, and more that between public and hidden transcripts; between the '"monotheistic privilege" of dominant policy models and the "polytheism" of scattered practices' surviving below (de Certeau 1984: 48).

Another thing the new ethnography of development shows is that governance brought by development schemes cannot be imposed; it requires collaboration and compromise. Reputation and legitimacy (upon which governance depends) are scarce resources for governments, donors, state development agencies or even NGOs operating in competitive environments (Li 1999). Claims to success are always fragile, and counter-claims about development outcomes are 'points of political leverage' (1999: 297). There is always 'the possibility of exposure and disgrace ... [there is an] uneasy sub-text of political jokes and cynical reflections on the pomposity of a speech, the tedium of a spectacle or the stupidity of a plan – reflections that, while they criticise another also implicate the self' (1999: 299). Since success is fragile and failure a political problem, hegemony has to be worked out not imposed; it is 'a terrain of struggle' (1999: 316). The critics of development, Li points out, emphasised the project of rule, but missed the political contests, the feigned compliance, the compromises and contingencies involved in the accomplishment of rule (1999: 295). Here 'policy' appears in older guise as the pejorative 'stratagems, trickery, cunning, deceit, or hypocrisy' (Shore and Wright 1997: 19). And this (pace Ferguson) makes development's promises and practices themselves deeply political (cf. Gupta 1998; Moore 2000). Amita Baviskar (2004) working on decentralised natural resource development in India shows how schemes work so as to secure political consent, while Tania Li studying state resettlement programmes in Indonesia reveals the inherent vulnerability of policy models and 'bureaucratic schemes for ordering and classifying populations [which] may be secure on paper, but are fragile in practice' (1999: 298). Programme success depends upon the active enrolment of supporters including the 'beneficiaries'.


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Table of Contents


Glossary and abbreviations
1. Introduction: The Ethnography of Policy and Practice
2. Framing a Participatory Development Project
3. Tribal Livelihoods and the Development Frontier
4. The Goddess and the PRA: Local Knowledge and Planning
5. Implementation: Regime and Relationships
6. Consultant Knowledge
7. The Social Production of Development Success
8. Aid Policy and Project Failure
9. Aspirations for Development
10. Conclusions and Implications

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