Social-Anthropological Aspects of Development Research Paper

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In the years after World War II, development primarily meant economic development: directed change leading to greater agricultural productivity and industrialization. In later years, development moved from a preoccupation with economic growth to considerations of equity, sustainability, quality of life, and popular participation in decision-making. Development is in most cases funded and directed by external donors, governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

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1. Development And Anthropology

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the US introduced the ‘Point Four Program,’ which resulted in the employment of several anthropologists, especially in Latin America. Erasmus (1954) provides a good early account of the desirability of taking into account the needs and capabilities of people, versus the perceptions of planners and administrators.

The British Colonial Service employed several anthropologists to help with administration. Gulliver (1985) gives an honest and revealing account of his period in East Africa as a Government Anthropologist, showing that ethnographic research can be used to inform social policy in a manner that made it more appropriate to local needs, and thus more acceptable to local people.

Here we shall be concerned mainly with the period from the early 1970s, when there was a disillusionment with the development policies of the previous two decades, which had been characterized by huge projects and centralized planning and guided by theories of evolutionary modernization and the ‘trickle-down effect.’ As Hoben (1982, p. 350) wrote, ‘the ethnocentric tech-fix orientation of the dominant development paradigm’ was challenged. Many indices- —the rural quality of life, infant mortality and life expectancy, per capita GNP, food production—had not only failed to improve, but had often fallen. In addition, it was clear the gap between rich and poor—both between and within countries—was rapidly growing. This resulted in major shifts, in the early 1970s, beginning with two of the main donors, the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), redirecting their development projects more specifically at the poor (or even, ‘the poorest of the poor’). USAID introduced a series of measures, under its ‘New Directions’ guidelines, which required that all projects should have a Social Soundness Analysis, to examine the probable consequences of each proposed project for the supposed ‘beneficiaries’ (or ‘the target population,’ an infelicitous phrase that is sometimes used). Not all administrators welcomed these innovations, complaining that they wasted time and were superfluous; few administrators had training in the social and cultural dimensions of development, which they tended to ignore. The World Bank also introduced several sets of guidelines, e.g., for dealing with resettlement, where those resettled are supposed to receive ‘land for land,’ not a cash compensation. Host governments (‘the borrowers’), powerful players on the development stage, have often been slow to implement the guidelines.

With the new emphasis on development for the poor, who were the people who knew anything about the poor? The development ‘experts’—economists, lawyers, and administrators—

were far more accustomed to working with the aggregated data of national accounts then with the nitty gritty, nonquantitative, imprecise, fuzzy and seemingly subjective data of individual farms, household and small rural communities (Horowitz 1999, p. 12).

So anthropologists, who do have a good understanding of poor peoples’ lives, began to play increasingly significant roles on the development stage.

2. The Anthropology Of Development

Anthropology is involved with development in two quite distinct ways: (a) the anthropology of development, ‘an anthropological analysis of development as a cultural, economic and political process, rather than anthropology in action’ (Gardner and Lewis 1996, p. vii); and (b) anthropology in action, or ‘development anthropology.’ (Cochrane (1971) was one of the first to use this term in print). Grillo (1997, p. 11) summarizes seven main themes in recent work in the anthropology of development. These include: an increased focus on culture and social relations; ‘opposition to the marginalization of indigenous peoples and their knowledge’; emphasis on participation and empowerment; ‘cynicism about the aims and practices of development’; and ‘advocacy of alternative ways of doing both development and anthropology.’

Anthropologists have provided a critical understanding of the nature of development. This is illustrated by Scudder’s and Colson’s extensive, longitudinal studies of resettlement, among the Gwembe Tonga of Zambia (Scudder 1999), and by analyses of livestock and pastoralism by Baxter, Dyson-Hudson, Horowitz, Little and others (despite nearly one billion dollars having been spent on pastoral projects in East and West Africa, very little has been achieved, mainly because the planners ignored the detailed knowledge that pastoralists have of their environment, and failed to see the logic behind their transhumance). Similarly, numerous detailed investigations of agriculture have included explanations of the significance of household composition, non-farm income, adaptive strategies, decision-making, and mixed farming.

Anthropological analysis has also had a major impact on forestry. The Community Forestry Unit of the Forestry Policy and Planning Division of FAO has been directed by anthropologists (Marilyn Hoskins and Katherine Warner) for an extended period. It has provided global leadership on incorporating gender analysis, conflict management, participatory processes, and other social dimensions of development into natural resource management and policy. Other anthropologists, such as Michael Dove, have had a major influence on the social analysis of forestry.

The need for long-term research has been successfully demonstrated in a few cases, although there is still a long way to go to persuade all major agencies of the value of such studies. Where such studies have been promoted, they have led to clear and effective policy recommendations. Also, anthropologists are increasingly being appointed as team leaders of multidisciplinary teams, in examples of successful interdisciplinary cooperation. Such appointments have sometimes led to different emphases, more sensitive to the local people.

If they are to be truly effective in development, anthropologists should be involved in all stages of the project cycle: project identification, project design, project appraisal, project implementation, project monitoring, and post-project evaluation. Normally project appraisal occurs after the donors and host governments have agreed that the project will go ahead. The anthropologist often becomes involved only at the appraisal stage, and is likely to be seen by administrators as a spoiler, threatening timely implementation by pointing out flaws in the original design.

Despite the above examples, it seems that the major donors have been stronger in rhetoric than in action. For example, in the year 2000, the fraction of World Bank spending devoted to rural development and agriculture, the arenas within which anthropologists have been most active, is down to 7 percent from an earlier high of 40 percent. This hardly signals a clear commitment to ‘poverty reduction.’

3. Should Anthropologists Be Involved In Development?

Grillo (1985, p. 28) notes three perspectives on development. First, there are the ‘principled rejectionists,’ who think that anthropologists should not be involved—period. For a presentation of this approach, see Escobar (1991). Using a Foucauldian style of analysis of discourse, Escobar argues that development, because of the unequal power relations and control of means of production, is hopelessly biased in favor of western donor nations, and that it does not, and cannot, meet the needs and aspirations of the poor. Escobar tends to treat development as homogeneous, ignoring the vast diversity that occurs. Little and Painter (1995) provide a good summary of Escobar’s views, with an effective rebuttal. Arce and Long (2000, p. 23) state that the postmodernists (like Escobar) argue ‘that development is no more than a discourse justifying control and surveillance of people’s practices by powerful institutions.’ See also Ferguson (1990) who concludes that development is ‘a puzzle,’ after teasing out the implications of a project in Lesotho. Hobart (1993) provides a measured critique of development; an edited collection of essays (Rahnema and Bawtree 1997) provides vigorously antidevelopment views. Second in Grillo’s classification are the ‘monitorists,’ those who study the anthropology of development, but do not wish to be actively involved. The last category is the ‘reformers’ (or ‘conditional reformers’) who are prepared to be directly concerned with development policies and projects.

The view from the academy has varied over the years. Until the 1970s, development anthropology tended to be marginalized, or ignored, at major universities. This attitude arose partly from a general conservative view that the proper business of academics was ‘pure’ research, and that applied work was somehow tainted. But all development anthropology contains some theory, even if it not explicit. In addition, some scholars shared Escobar’s views that development was a spurious neocolonialist plot, and to be avoided; these views hardened after the exposure of some very murky, clandestine anthropological collaboration by anthropologists with the US government, in Latin America and in South-East Asia in the 1960s.

By the 1970s, changes began in university anthropology departments, in part as a response to the failures of conventional development practices, and with the realization that anthropologists indeed had contributions to make. There was also a more general awareness that anthropology had an important part to play in dealing with current contemporary problems, including poverty, human rights, landlessness, environmental degradation, and, particularly, inequality of incomes, influence, and power. By now, most university departments have at least one, often several, faculty members who specialize in development, offer courses on the subject, and are engaged in actual development projects. A subsidiary reason for this change may be that development offers a good chance of employment (either at a university or with a development agency)—an important factor in days of a scarcity of academic appointments.

4. The Role(S) Of Anthropology In Development

Horowitz (1999, p. 14), who has written extensively on this topic, points out the major contributions that anthropologists have made to our understanding of involuntary resettlement, the informal economy, internal differentiation of rural societies by wealth, age, or gender and by a host of other important factors of rural communities.

Hoben (1982, p. 370), writing from his experience as an anthropologist and as a senior administrator with USAID, claims that

development anthropology has unique perspectives on development planning … it focuses on culturally patterned perceptions, goals, interests, strategies and/organization of the intended beneficiaries including elites and administrators, whose cooperation is a prerequisite to change.

Elites function at the national level, where they may have enough power to influence development aid in their favor; they also appear, albeit in more modest guise, at the local level, where again they have the influence to shape the direction of development projects, in order to benefit themselves.

Grillo (1985, pp. 6–7) presents a useful classification of nine types of development anthropology, ranging from fundamental research to revolutionary or liberation anthropology, and shows the possibilities and problems involved when anthropologists become involved with advocacy, or human rights issues, or when they become brokers.

5. Donors, Hosts, And NGOs

Both the multilateral agencies—The World Bank, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP), The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—and the bilateral ones—USAID, the British Department for International Development (DfID), the German GTZ and the significant Scandinavian organizations—are now employing anthropologists in increasing numbers. The World Bank, for example, employed 64 anthropologists in 1995 (Horowitz 1999, p. 10). Michael Cernea, until recently Senior Sociologist at the World Bank, deserves much of the credit for the hiring of anthropologists (Cernea 1991). In addition to the in-house appointments, many anthropologists are hired on short-term contracts as consultants. However, the numbers are not a true reflection of their influence: most anthropologists are in relatively junior positions; many function more as administrators than as anthropologists, although they may be able to use their anthropological backgrounds to influence decisions; and they often in effect become captured by the culture of the institution. Nevertheless, some anthropologists, in some situations, have been influential in changing the emphases of development programs and policies.

The ‘host country governments’ are generally unenthusiastic about the involvement of anthropologists in development, preferring rather to see the funds flow, without any hindrance caused by social or environmental concerns. Professional development ‘experts,’ both in donor organizations and in host government service, tend to see anthropologists as tiresome and romantic figures, who delay development by their ill-considered wish to preserve a local conservative culture. In addition, anthropologists are accused (with some justification) of not understanding the mechanisms and culture of the institution, of having no regard for time, of being unable to write ‘useful’ reports, and of being poor team players. Having spelled out some main stereotypes held about anthropologists, it should be said that there are many honorable exceptions—professionals from other disciplines who fully understand the potential contribution of anthropology to development, and who strive to promote it. Administrators also tend to distrust the poor, the supposed ‘beneficiaries,’ who are often seen as superstitious peasants and the main obstacles to change. There is seldom an appreciation of indigenous knowledge, and of the finely tuned strategies employed by local people, simply in order to survive.

NGOs play an increasingly important part in international development, sometimes acting on their own, often acting on behalf of the major donors. Starting as charity or relief agencies, they have rapidly become effective professional development agencies. As part of this change, the NGOs have made much use of anthropologists, many of whom are employed fulltime, with others being engaged as consultants for specific projects. NGOs have at times become involved in advocacy, creating a delicate situation in terms of their legal charitable status. At present, there is some tension between the large ‘Northern’ NGOs, which have until recently dominated the field, and the increasing number of ‘Southern’ NGOs, which are challenging the older agencies. The latter seldom use anthropologists, both for lack of funds, and, more particularly, because the leaders claim that as local people themselves, they know their own culture, and have no need of outside advice. This may be questionable, when such officials are often separated by virtue of their education and background from the poor people who are the beneficiaries. However, some indigenous groups, such as the Cree Regional Authority of Canada, now routinely hire anthropologists to work with them on land claims and other concerns.

6. Domains

Development anthropology has been concerned with a wide range of topics, especially related to management of natural resources—agriculture, livestock and pastoralism, fisheries, forestry, wildlife, irrigation; settlement and migration; rural-urban linkages and markets; ethnicity and the resolution of social conflict; disaster prevention and relief; health and AIDS. In all these areas, the main emphasis has been on the alleviation of poverty, and on making development more effective, more relevant to people’s needs, and more sustainable.

Ethical dimensions are always present when a development anthropologist decides which project(s) s he should be involved in. Resettlement projects, for example, usually cause tremendous damage to the people resettled, including the ‘grieving for a lost home’ syndrome. But if an anthropologist is involved, their sufferings may be reduced, their concerns publicly aired. Is this adequate justification for taking part?

7. Participation

One of the main trends in development is decentralization, whether in the form of democratization, decentralizing or devolution of services and authority, comanagement arrangements, etc. This all increases the scope for local involvement, yet substantial barriers often exist due to gender, class, caste, race, or other variables. One of the enduring challenges for anthropologists is to widen the scope for participation. Coinciding with increased participation there is often increased conflict, with a growing involvement by anthropologists in conflict management.

Much attention has been paid to the need for local people to participate in development projects that affect them, which ideally means that they should be consulted about the design, implementation, and evaluation of projects. Formidable difficulties present themselves, apart from resistance from administrators, many of whom regard participation as a romantic fallacy. Communities are seldom homogeneous, so who is truly representative?

Pottier (1993) presents a collection of papers that ‘illustrate a variety of organizational responses to the discourse of participative development.’ Contributors favor a ‘client-focused, participative philosophy’ rather than a top-down western model. They emphasize the managerial capacity of the vulnerable groups, who lack access to and control over resources. Pottier stresses the need for flexibility and sensitivity; ‘the social worlds within which development efforts take shape are essentially fluid.’ And what is needed is an ethnography of the total project, not just of one group (Pottier 1993, pp. 7, 31).

8. Training

In addition to the standard academic training, anthropologists who wish to work in development need an awareness of a wide range of factors, most of which will best be gained with hands-on experience. Typically, they will need to have, first, a sound knowledge of the region where the development is proposed. Topical general expertise must be grounded in detailed knowledge of one people and their area. Inevitably, development anthropologists work in many regions, making up in their broad comparative knowledge what they lack in detailed local information. This has led to their being accused, by more conservative antidevelopment anthropologists, of not being qualified to advise on projects outside their own specialized geographical areas.

Second, they will need an appreciation of the major technical aspects, so that at the least they can communicate with the technical specialists.

Training is also desirable for aid administrators, many agencies having organized successful workshops to heighten sensitivity to basic social issues. Government employees also benefit from such training; for example, FAO has arranged a series of workshops to demonstrate to forestry officials why they should take into account the culture and knowledge of local people, before planning any forestry projects. This means dealing with key issues of poverty, gender, land rights, and tree species preferences.

9. Accomplishments

What has development anthropology achieved? Although there is a long road ahead, significant contributions have already been made since the 1970s. Regarding development, anthropologists have succeeded, at least partially, in persuading those who direct development at the major agencies that projects will be more likely to attain their goals if they are planned, implemented, monitored, and evaluated with attention to—and, if possible, with the participation of—those local people who are intended to be the beneficiaries. There is a greater awareness of the strengths of local people, of their knowledge, their adaptive capacities, and the diversity and richness of their cultures. More attention is now paid to poverty and inequality, and to the interplay between local level and global factors. Both development planners and anthropologists now have a clearer and more sophisticated idea of how power relations affect people at all levels. Planners have been encouraged to challenge basic assumptions, and to look at alternative approaches. Institutions like the donor agencies are conservative, so the challenges and alternative approaches must be handled with delicacy, so as not to upset the guardians of tradition in the agencies. Anthropology is by now an integral part of development, both in theory and in practice.

Anthropology itself has also been changed, with a widening of the horizons to include not only particular local communities, but looking also at the macro aspects, seeing how global issues reach out and affect the furthest corners of the modern world. More emphasis is placed on modernity, nationalism, ethnicity, power, and, essentially, on class relations.

10. Future Directions

It is difficult to predict what lies ahead for development anthropology in the twenty-first century, or for anthropology itself. Periodically, the major anthropological associations organize conferences to discuss (usually gloomily) the future of anthropology, but past pessimistic forecasts have seldom been proved correct. Whatever future the discipline of anthropology has, an emphasis on development will certainly be a major component. ‘… the cutting edge of scientific anthropology today is the anthropology that is being practiced by persons who are passionately committed to human rights, cultural pluralism and environmentally and socially sustainable development. For anthropology to survive as meaningful discipline, it must focus on the very issues that engage those of us who identify our work as development anthropology. Both academic and practical social anthropologists must understand the process of incorporation of agrarian societies into the world of political economy’ (Horowitz 1999, p. 11).

It is more difficult to predict what future directions development will take. In the 1990s, there has been a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for development aid, with many national contributions falling to dangerously low levels. Africa, in particular, which has been the recipient of a large proportion of all development aid, has been dismissed by The Economist as a hopeless case—because of the seemingly endless series of intractable wars and conflicts, natural disasters, weak administrations, and corruption on a large scale.

In order to achieve their potential, development anthropologists need to sharpen their methodology, aim for greater analytical clarity, be more rigorous, and be more theoretically sophisticated—which entails proceeding along the paths already used and expanding the vision. ‘What is needed is a more systematic way to bring these experiences into an empirically informed version of critical theory that advances our understanding of the human species and its diverse wants and needs’ (Horowitz 1999).

Arce and Long (2000, pp. 24, 27) advocate an actor-oriented approach, which emphasizes ‘the intricate interplay and joint appropriation and transformation of different bodies of knowledge … the critical task of development anthropology is to develop methodologies and theoretical interpretations of different knowledge interfaces inherent in intervention processes and local0global change.’ Researchers should adopt a reflexive approach, to include their own encounters with other actors in the development arena.

Finally, Scudder (1999)—probably the most effective contemporary development anthropologist, as far as influencing policy is concerned—draws from his own views and those of 53 other anthropologists to ask the question: ‘The emerging global crisis and development anthropology: Can we have an impact?’ Scudder concludes by making ‘five proactive suggestions as how we can put our knowledge and discipline to work’:

(a) identify the key problems that we have the expertise and responsibility to address—for example, among Scudder’s respondents, the most important topics were poverty, globalization, and increasing marginalization;

(b) better integrate development into the curriculum of anthropology departments;

(c) ‘bring our expertise to the attention of the public and policy makers’; this should include emphasizing the limits as well as the potential of development anthropology;

(d) ‘include more generic research that addresses major global problems and the linkages between them’;

(e) cooperate with ecologists in public education, and in influencing local, national and international policy makers. Scudder hopes that ‘anthropologists— with their peerless awareness of cultural diversity in time and space, and their understanding of how symbols can influence behavior—(can) work with ecologists to translate what we know into a vision for the future.’

Most writers on development anthropology agree that this is an exciting juncture in the world of development, and that despite the formidable problems posed by the nature of development, anthropologists do have much to offer in this field.


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