“What economists obsess about is equality of opportunity… What they miss is equality of agency. How do we make equality of agency happen? How do we bridge those discriminatory boundaries that exist in the world? … That’s where anthropologists can contribute: by thinking through those issues in a creative way.”
Vijayendra Rao, lead economist at the World Bank in the research department, talks to our own Ian Pollock about the role that anthropology and ethnography could play in helping poor or disempowered people engage with powerful institutions, and his frustration with a discipline that only critiques, and won’t commit to promoting the development project. We also get into the cultures of development itself: the faddishness of ideas, the reliance on scale and quantification, the bureaucratic inertia, and the ways that ordinary people–their cultures, struggles, and aspirations–can be missing from the picture.
Just before our interview, Dr Rao gave a talk at ANU’s Development Policy Centre, on the World Bank Social Observatory: “integrating the social sciences for adaptive practice.” You can listen to it here: https://soundcloud.com/devpolicy/the-social-observatory-integrating-the-social-sciences-for-adaptive-practice
“As social scientists, we’re not writing novels. We’re trying to represent, quote-unquote, ‘the truth’ in some way.”
“There is a lot of qualitative work done, a lot of quantitative work done, that doesn’t meet standards of rigor from any discipline. There’s also a lot of great work that meets wonderful standards of rigor. Because the imperative is not scholarship, the imperative is either some sort of packaging, or selling a product, or getting funders interested, or whatever.”
“Creating goals for change, creating processes to achieve those goals, so that it leaves something behind, and it doesn’t just leave some money, which can be very badly misused; how do you make that change happen, how do you make it happen over the long term? That requires, in my mind, a process of co-production. It’s a process of dialogue. How do you bring dialogue into interventions, is really what I think our goal should be as development practitioners, and development researchers even. Which is not yet the common practice.”
“The notion of a ‘best practice’ is the most unhealthy thing in development.”
“We need to get to a post-post-post-structuralist point, where we’re not constantly interrogating everything.”
“The complex debates around cultural change, and trying to induce cultural change, or norm change, that anthropologists have been debating for a very, very long time, are not part of the economists’ lexicon. They don’t read that stuff.”
“What anthropologists do that bugs the heck out of me is critique. Be constructive for a change. … Why can’t an anthropologist learn how to contribute towards design? Learn how to contribute towards processes of co-production? Learn how to make human beings actually matter in the process by which decisions are made?”
“If you don’t want to be associated with failure, how are you going to learn from failure? If you don’t learn from failure, you’re not adapting. You can’t just adapt from success.”
“The Catholic Church thought they were making people better by saving them for God. Development professionals think they’re making the world a better place by giving them agency or opportunity.”
“To me, you will not get there if all this ‘adaptive’ stuff is just about changing how bureaucracies work. Adaptation, at the end, has to involve the millions of people we are supposedly trying to help. They have to be part of the process. If that doesn’t happen, this remains a kind of colonial enterprise, it has the hallmarks, similarities, to colonial enterprise. The big difference between colonialism and development should be that, quote-unquote, ‘beneficiaries’ are being facilitated to have a voice in how they are being, quote-unquote, ‘helped.’ And I think how you do that, where you do that from, how all that comes in, how you change processes to make that happen, how you institute change to make that happen, that’s where anthropologists could play a very important role. And they’re not doing so.”
CITATIONS and LINKS
Appadurai, A. (2004) “The Capacity to Aspire.” In Rao, V., & Walton, M. (2004). Culture and public action. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Social Sciences.
Freire, P. (1996;2001;). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Rev. ed.). London: Penguin.
Gupta, A. (2012). Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in india. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hirschman, A. O. (1967). Development projects observed. Washington: Brookings Institution.
The Jeevika project: http://www.jeevika.org.uk/
On Indonesia’s KDP program, a critique by Scott Guggenheim, a designer of the project, and another from Tanya Li: Li, T. (2007). The will to improve: Governmentality, development, and the practice of politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mansuri, G., & Rao, V. (2013;2012;). Localizing development: Does participation work?. US: World Bank Publications. doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-8256-1
Open access link: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/11859
Mosse, D. (2005;2004;). Cultivating development: An ethnography of aid policy and practice. London;Ann Arbor, MI;: Pluto Press.
Rao, V., Ananthpur, K., & Malik, K. (2017). The anatomy of failure: An ethnography of a randomized trial to deepen democracy in rural India. World Development, 99, 481-497. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.05.037
Rao, V., & Walton, M. (2004). Culture and public action. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Social Sciences.
Srinivas, M. N. (1962). Caste in modern india: And other essays. New York;Bombay;: Asia Pub. House.
This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Show notes by Ian Pollock
Image: Ian doing some of his first development fieldwork, Sulamu, West Timor
Development, Globaldev, India, World Bank, economics, research, ethnography