Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development
(edited by David Mosse)
Adventures in Aidland is a collection of articles by anthropologists looking not so much at the social effects of development policy on “beneficiaries” in the developing world, but more at the knowledge producers themselves. The book provides fascinating insights into the construction and constructers of knowledge about global poverty. It concerns the lifestyles and dilemmas of development practitioners in “the field”, a generic term encompassing locations across the entire developing world.
Given the authors’ background, the broad field of study and the structure of such an academic reference book, the ten chapters presented cover a diverse range of subjects. Naturally a sense of coherence is lost, but this is a book for non-specialists to dip into and enjoy passages of illuminating analysis.
In his introduction the editor David Mosse illustrates how “field”-based development professionals’ identities, if at all visible, are rendered homogenous by the universalizing content and transmission methods of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’, the orthodox approach to global poverty reduction. Mosse also explores the paradox of development practice that, under donor pressure, claims to promote unprecedented levels of community participation and local ownership and yet simultaneously makes itself increasingly ‘technicized’ – and therefore removed from those communities – in order to fulfil donors’ demands for accountability.
Rosalind Eyben, a former head of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) country office in Bolivia, describes her need to take ‘reality checks’ to parts of the country to actually learn about Bolivian people and their social and economic institutions at the local level. But this mildly anthropological approach to enhancing her professional work made her expatriate co-workers suspicious, vaguely reiterating the same doubts that surrounded those colonial administrators who spent time in the bush a hundred years ago, whispered by colleagues to have ‘gone native’.
Dinah Rajak and Jock Stirrat’s chapter, titled ‘Parochial Cosmopolitanism and the Power of Nostalgia’ illustrates the complex, yet banal, lifestyles of many expatriate development professionals. Their argument is compelling: that while outwardly, “their peripatetic existence, their continual exposure to varying and ever-changing cultural and political milieux” and their international agenda would make development workers appear to be ‘cosmopolitan’, in reality, their insulated, isolated expatriate worlds, and the standardizing effect of neoliberal thought, which denies difference and historical specificity to countries, makes them somewhat parochial. In extension to this, as Renato Rosaldo has argued, we learn that development professionals “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”, bringing an “imperial nostalgia” to their imaginings of the countries in which they work.
The disillusion which many aid workers feel is caused by an acknowledged epistemic disconnect between centralized, universalizing development bureaucracies and their diverse recipient clients. By denying developing countries history, culture and specificity, aid agencies arrogantly perpetuate their own insularity. Further, they deny their cohorts on the ground two key motivations which can make them effective: humanity and curiosity. This is fascinating and under-explored territory for anthropologists and development theorists alike, making this an important collection.
Times Literary Supplement