Evil Donors and ‘The Literature’: Is there a problem with the way academics write about aid?

November 7, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Since I dipped my toe in the waters of academia, I’ve been struck by two things: firstly, the number of my new colleagues (especially the political scientists and anthropologists) who appear convinced that aid is essentially evil – a neo-imperialist plot to defend the status quo.

Secondly the way people use the phrase ‘The Literature’, in a way no-one outside academia would – as in ‘What does the Literature say on this?’ or ‘There is no Literature on this topic’ (at which point academics start rubbing their hands with glee). I’ve even found myself saying it occasionally, and feeling very scholarly when I did so.

A recent exchange both got me to link the two observations and resolve never to use the phrase ‘The Literature’ ever again. It started when my LSE colleague Rajesh Venugopal sent over his new paper in World Development (ungated version here). According to the abstract:

‘Talk of failure is commonplace in development.  Drawing  on  a  wide  range  of  primary  and  secondary  texts  to  provide  illustrative  evidence,  the  paper  explores  how  failure  is  constructed,  and  advances  a  three-fold  typology  of  failures  that  vary  in  terms  of  their  positionality,  the  critical  variables  they  identify  as  responsible,  their  epistemological  stance,  and  the  importance  they  accord  to  politics.’

I must confess, I didn’t understand much of that, but I read it anyway (Rajesh is a friend) and was struck by the way the argument was constructed. I wrote to him:

‘You make a lot of assertions, but I don’t see much in the way of evidence. eg ‘contemporary representations of development failure play an important role in sustaining the idea of intervening to end it’. My own experience would suggest the opposite. No-one I’ve met in the aid biz thinks failure is the way to ensure continued funding – just look at the dollars the Gates Foundation is ploughing into proof of impact. Where do you guys dream up this stuff?!’

Rajesh replied: ‘You’re reading it a bit too literally as a rigorous critique of development. It’s more of a woolly discussion of why everyone in the world thinks development always fails and the tone of pessimism and negativity that we swim in, i.e. everyone from the Daily Mail to the angry activist anthropologists.’

Unconvinced, I replied: ‘Inside the echo chamber created by journal paywalls, and largely unnoticed by the grubby masses of practitioners who live outside those walls, scholars write pieces largely built on the musings of other scholars. Each piece may just be a ‘woolly discussion’ but over time they acquire weight, a bit like a series of Donald Trump ‘people are saying’ tweets.

Before you know it, they have become ‘A Literature’, which can be cited in support of arguments, without the need for additional evidence (see my rant about Nicola Banks & David Hulme’s largely evidence-free crit of NGOs).

Last night I was speaking to a bunch of post docs at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels, and had a similar experience – wasn’t it the case that the big Foundations’ main aim in life is to head off radical change by supporting reformists and token change? None of the students appeared to have talked to anyone from a Foundation or read their strategies but it was OK, they could cite ‘The Literature’…..

This approach very easily lends credibility to what are really unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and incoming students then ingest them as fact from their lecturers (I remember once, after I gave a SOAS lecture, a very confused student came up and said ‘so you don’t actually want to keep people poor then?’).’

Rajesh replied: ‘I do agree with you that there is a real problem because ‘critical insight’ in development is always about uncovering a dark conspiracy at work. In my tribe, you’re not doing your job unless you’re unmasking villains and showing the hidden hand of imperialism, neoliberalism, etc, at work. It’s somehow viewed as a capitulation if you say otherwise, or e.g. suggest that Gates may be doing some good.’

At which point, Rajesh suggested ‘cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war’, so here you are.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an apologia – there are plenty of examples of bad aid, political interference etc etc. But it is striking that academics are often quite content to rehash experiences and books from decades ago (e.g. James Ferguson’s wonderful The Anti Politics Machine, 1994; something they saw in Uganda in the 1980s) and assume that nothing has changed in the interim. Where’s the rigour in that?

My conclusion? If academics want to be taken seriously, they need to provide evidence (preferably from this century) for their assertions. rather than simply citing other academics, or ‘The Literature’. And please give me a slap if you hear me using the phrase ‘The Literature’. I will also continue never to link to gated publications, if I can help it, because the journal echo chamber is partly responsible for all this.

November 7, 2018
Duncan Green