Is the Anti-Politics machine still a good critique of the aid business?

January 11, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Just been re-reading a great 6 page summary of James Ferguson’s 1994 classic critique of the aidjames-ferguson industry, The Anti-Politics Machine. Read this and ask yourself, apart from the grating use of the term ‘Third World’, how much has changed?

‘Any question of the form ‘what is to be done?’ demands first of all an answer to the question, ‘By whom?’ The ‘development’ discourse, and a great deal of policy science, tends to answer this question in a utopian way by saying ‘Given an all-powerful and benevolent policy-making apparatus, what should it do to advance the interests of its poor citizens?’

This question is worse than meaningless. In practice, it acts to disguise what are, in fact, highly partial and interested interventions as universal, disinterested and inherently benevolent. If the question ‘What is to be done?’ has any sense, it is as a real-world tactic, not a utopian ethnics.

The question is often put in the form ‘What should they do?’, with the ‘they’ being not very helpfully specified as ‘Lesotho’ or ‘the Basotho’. When ‘developers’ speak of such a collectivity what they mean is usually the government. But the government of Lesotho is not identical with the people who live in Lesotho, nor is it in any of the established senses ‘representative’ of that collectivity. As in most countries, the government is a relatively small clique with narrow interests. There is little point in asking what such entrenched and extractive elites should do in order to empower the poor. Their own structural position makes it clear that they would be the last ones to undertake such a project.

Perhaps the ‘they’ in ‘what should they do?’ means ‘the people’. But again the people are not an undifferentiated mass. There is not one question – What is to be done? – but hundreds: What should the mineworkers do? What should the abandoned old women do? And so on. It seems presumptuous to offer prescriptions here. Toiling miners and abandoned old women know the tactics proper to their situations far better than any expert does. If there is advice to be given about what ‘they’ should do, it will not be dictating general political strategy or giving a general answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ (which can only be determined by those doing the resisting) but answering specific, localized, tactical questions.

anti-politics-machine-coverIf the question is, on the other hand, ‘What should we do?’, it has to be specified, which ‘we’? If ‘we’ means ‘development’ agencies or governments of the West, the implied subject of the question falsely implies a collective project for bringing about the empowerment of the poor. Whatever good or ill may be accomplished by these agencies, nothing about their general mode of operation would justify a belief in such a collective ‘we’ defined by a political programme of empowerment.

For some Westerners, there is, however, a more productive way of posing the question ‘what should we do?’ That is, ‘What should we intellectuals working in or concerned about the Third World do?’ To the extent that there are common political values and a real ‘we’ group, this becomes a real question. The answer, however is more difficult.

Should those with specialized knowledge provide advice to ‘development’ agencies who seem hungry for it and ready to act on it? These agencies seek only the kind of advice they can take. One ‘developer’ asked my advice on what his country could do ‘to help these people’. When I suggested that his government might contemplate sanctions against apartheid, he replied with predictable irritation, ‘No, no! I mean development!’ The only advice accepted is about how to ‘do development’ better. There is a ready ear for criticisms of ‘bad development projects’, only so long as these are followed up with calls for ‘good development projects’. Yet the agencies who plan and implement such projects – agencies like the World Bank, USAID and the government of Lesotho – are not really the sort of social actors that are very likely to advance the empowerment of the poor.

Such an obvious conclusion makes many uncomfortable. It seems to them to imply hopelessness; as if to suggest that the answer the question ‘What is to be done?’ is: ‘Nothing’. Yet this conclusion does not follow. The state is not the only game in town, and the choice is not between ‘getting one’s hands dirty by participating in or trying to reform development projects’ and ‘living in an ivory tower’. Change comes when, as Michel Foucault says, ‘critique has played out in the real, not when reformers have realized their ideas.’

For Westerners, one of the most important forms of engagement is simply the political participation in one’s own society that is appropriate to any citizen. This is perhaps, particularly true for citizens of a country like the US, where one of the most important jobs for ‘experts’ is combating imperialist policies.’

23 years on, is this sceptical view of the politics of aid becoming more justified? Should I stop seeking allies and common ground in USAID or the World Bank? Is all that stuff about adaptive management, empowerment and ‘doing development differently’ either PR spin or wishful thinking? Or has something substantial moved on (and if so, why)? I’d be interested in your thoughts.


January 11, 2017
Duncan Green