Ep. #15 Designing agency: Vijayendra Rao talks development, anthropology, and making social change

“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 iTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com)discriminatory boundaries that exist in the world? … That’s where anthropologists can contribute: by thinking through those issues in a creative way.”

Subscribe on AndroidVijayendra 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.”


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

7 thoughts on “Ep. #15 Designing agency: Vijayendra Rao talks development, anthropology, and making social change

  1. Most of my life has been devoted to modeling ecological systems feedbacks, and seeking tipping points in the events leading to the domestication of plants and animals, and discovering critical links in the chain of those socio-economic changes culminating in the establishment of a number of centers of civilization around the world.

    These are some specific observations made during fieldwork during research within one of the “green revolution” institutes in West Africa, studying the economies and cultural ecologies of horticulturalists in the Sahel.

    I was necessarily immersed into an institutional environment of “development”. Our institute was working with the national agricultural “extension” sector to encourage the adoption of ploughs drawn by draft animals, the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and new varieties of cultivars offering higher yields with such inputs.

    My institute was dedicated to helping the “small farmer” – but addressed this goal as if this hypothetical farmer existed as an individual, rather than as part of a community. This is understandable as a common orientation of rural socialists and economists whose models derive from agricultural systems where farmland was privately owned.

    Moreover, and again, understandably, the promotion of “modern” technologies such as improved varieties, ploughs, tractors, mono-cropping, cash cropping, planting larger fields and de-stumping was done to increase the earning power of this hypothetical small farmer, not just his food supply. Cash crops like cotton and peanuts were encouraged. This diverted land from subsistence crops. Even the sale of surplus cereal crops – taboo in many West African tribal societies, was encouraged.

    Individualization of profit-oriented ventures, through cash crops, encouraged by a focus on each household as an income generating enterprise, has however had the unfortunate side effect of crippling traditional risk management systems, since it can create conflict between small farm cash income and the allocation of surpluses to granaries managed by the lineage elders and village headman. Pursuit of cash income from sale of livestock, of “bush meat”, of wild plant foods, medical herbs, and of firewood to markets outside the local area, meanwhile, undermines communal risk management of the “commons”, as individuals find their own interests in conflict with those of more traditional leaders.

    The task of managing risk, therefore, falls more and more on the individual household unit. Livestock are a common investment against famine, since they could be sold off in larger towns to buy food. Headmen find it difficult to enforce limitations on herd size when it even puts their own household at higher risk in the next drought. Under increasingly competitive conditions, higher stocking rates on the commons curtailed the establishment of pioneering saplings: fallow land can never entered stage three of the succession.

    Ecologically negative consequences, rural dependency on external cash economies outside local control, and socio-economic inequality are all patterns that take many years to unfold. By contrast, visits international humanitarian aid workers, development institutes, researchers, and extension agents tend to provide only short-term snapshots of situations in any one community.

    Those farmers, who adopted the Green Revolution model, appear to outsiders to be “early adopters” and entrepreneurial leaders. Rising household cash income and national figures showing increasing volume of agricultural exports testify to the benefits of modernizing farming systems, making possible government investment in national programs for things like education and transportation infrastructure.

    All of this is understandable, especially in the light of accompanying improvements infant and childhood survival rates, rising life expectancy, provision of safer and more secure water supplies, access to educational opportunities, and rising literacy.

    People cannot see what they not looking for.

    I remember in vivid detail the day I learned this. It was during a long series of interviews, as part of my inventory of granaries. This was done to get an idea of surplus food production in each village. All the lineage heads had many more granaries than did individual households, because every household gave a certain amount from their harvest to their lineage heads, who in turn were obliged to pass some on to the village chiefs.

    As I was being dragged over a series of enormous structures, in the compound of a village chief, I was thinking darkly about how he was enriching himself by exhorting tithes and extra work from each poor farmer in the village.

    The chief turned to me and announced – with a happy sigh: “I have here grain from eight years! I think I frowned at him. I thought – but did not say “…well lucky you.” Then he deflated my bubble of discontent, totally. Because the next thing he said was, “I have enough to feed the whole village now during the next drought!”

    Suddenly, I saw him; really saw him. He wasn’t this schemer who had “power” over these poor struggling villagers. He was the focus of all their hopes to survive famine. He was their risk insurance strategy. This tired old guy, who, even as I watched, was fussing over insect damage in one granary and checking for signs of mold and moisture damage; this gruff, gray-haired granddad, was in fact laden with the responsibility and working his heart out to live up to it.

    I went back to my tent and looked back over the previous weeks of notes from all these interviews with lineage elders and village chiefs and just had a good cry. I suddenly loved them all very much.

    It was this risk insurance system that was falling apart as farmers began to permanently farm their land,

    Headmen, thus, may sometimes seem like rulers rather than public servants. But this is deceptive. For individual and households, risks arising from harvest failure, betrayal, interpersonal conflict, accident, fire, disease, or death; as well as for community-wide collective risks, of drought, epidemic disease, volcanic eruptions, severe storms, attacks, raids, and poaching, survival of the community may be down to the conscientiousness of a handful of people. No commercialized insurance companies need apply.

    Unless made explicit, the critical contributions that institutions of traditional leadership make to community resilience can be underestimated. Indeed, absent such information, no development agency or government policy maker can be blamed for overlooking logic of communal risk aversion strategies.

    Even local people find it hard to articulate this logic to outsiders: unlike the immediate benefits of food aid deliveries or windfall profits from selling elephant ivory or an orphaned baby ape, the long term advantages embodied in traditional political and kinship systems, in usufruct tenure systems, and in management of village commons, appear vaguely old-fashioned. Sometimes they might even be perceived as odious in curtailing individual profit-making opportunities. It is not always clear to people how the cost of such opportunities might be increased risk to everyone else. Risks due to conflicts between communities are also managed through a combination of diplomacy and occasional resort to violence. Tribal leadership has, historically, been instrumental in regulating warfare , a process that can result in long-term regional prosperity.

    Insofar as they used coercion, traditional tribal leaders enforced rules that permitted sustainable use of the communal resources. These consisted of the village land base, not just the small temporary clearings used for crops, but all the mosaic of secondary growth – the meadows, the shrubby areas where young pioneering trees were becoming established, the more mature forest, as well as the sacred groves of old growth forest.

    The use of the commons was carefully monitored in direct proportion to the conscientious care of lineage heads and village chiefs. Over-use, whether by over-grazing, excessive hunting, excessive harvesting of trees (or their fruits), was discouraged by means of public shaming and fines. The conditions that Elinor Ostrom had discovered, which permitted collective management of the commons, were met.

    Until they are not… and it is then that negative trophic flows develop. Serious ecosystem collapse follows. It is rare in social science to see this process actually unfold in real time. I did; it still takes my breathe away. The village, in our study, where new technology and cash crops was being adopted the most rapidly was in the most ecological trouble.

    Half of the village territory had been lost years earlier: a large area of forested land – part of which fell across this village’s territory, was declared an elephant sanctuary – a new national park. These villagers, no longer permitted to clear land in these forests, had to deal with a swift decline in soil fertility because their fallow period was abruptly halved. As crop productivity plummeted, many of these villagers took to chemical fertilizers like ducks to water. Since access to subsidized fertilizers and plough and draft animals was tied to the cash cropping of cotton, they also began to cultivate cotton for sale.

    The year following a cotton crop, soil fertility was sufficiently augmented to produce a cereal crop. This offset the declines and reduced the rate of field enlargement but did not solve the problem, since more land overall was cleared due to the addition of cash cropping. Meanwhile, water tables were falling as more forest were cut down to make way for these crops. The appearance of incentives, to supply an almost infinite outside market, caused many younger households to devote more land to the production of cash crops and set less aside to contribute to communal stores.

    Larger extended families, with the largest areas under cultivation, tended to have more of these “entrepreneurial” younger households. Since these larger families were frequently politically prominent, and lineage heads and village chiefs jointly authorized the land to be used by each family, poorer land – cleared after only reaching the first stage of succession, was often left to the smaller families whose households had not “invested” in plows or chemical fertilizers.. Headmen who tried to enforce the traditions were told – often by their own sons and nephews – that they were standing in the way of progress.

    These “adopter” families were getting wealthier and more influential due to cash crops, and taking over more and more land. As can be expected, they preferred land that had recovered the longest, leaving less for smaller subsistence farmers. Older and smaller households lost out; as the risks of poor harvests on the exhausted soils increased, some even found they got more regular meals if they worked for larger farmers than if they risked farming on their own. In other words, a landless class was developing. Meanwhile, traditional usufruct tenure was giving way to inherited “farm tenure” where sons inherited farmland from their fathers. The next logical step would be private property. Local extension services considered this village a great success story.

    This example from a small West African village highlights a set of interconnected processes. Increased effective population density, shortened fallow, soil fertility decline, the unfolding of the “tragedy of the commons, privatization of risk as well as property, the emergence of a poverty and landlessness coincided with a new “propertied” class who interests no longer aligned with community welfare… and all this happens as tipping points into negative flows result in an extractive slide toward extinction of the commons – and “wild” ecosystem collapse.

  2. Pingback: Podcast Ep. “Designing agency: World Bank lead economist Vijayendra Rao talks development, anthropology, and making social change” via /r/economy | Chet Wang

  3. What an interesting conversation! I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as a World Bank/development industry skeptic, appreciated the additional food for thought that Rao provided for mulling over the (non)contribution of anthropology to social change. That being said, I felt like Ian Pollock threw the discipline of anthropology under the bus! In retrospect I find the framing of the interview odd considering that not only did he not ask tough questions about the historical and contemporary role of the Bank in impoverishing populations, but he did not push back against the idea that the only thing anthropologists are good for is critique. In fact, this is a notion Pollock seemed to wholeheartedly endorse. I grant that we are a discipline that excels at critique and sometimes go a bit overboard with deconstructing…everything. But the many approaches to participatory, activist, engaged anthropology should have at least been mentioned. Anthropologists Krista Harper, Jennifer Sandler, Jeff Juris, and Maple Razsa are just those who immediately came to mind as worthy of mention for their innovative efforts to grapple with just those issues that Rao took us to task for in terms of engaging communities in research design and yes, effecting social change.

    • Thanks for your reply, Dana! I felt my role in this interview was to explore and make explicit the culture in which Dr. Rao operates, confident that vigilant listeners such as yourself would respond. Would it be all right with you if I tweeted out some (shortened) version of this line, under your name? “The many approaches to participatory, activist, engaged anthropology should have at least been mentioned. Anthropologists Krista Harper, Jennifer Sandler, Jeff Juris, and Maple Razsa are just those who immediately came to mind as worthy of mention for their innovative efforts to grapple with just those issues that Rao took us to task for in terms of engaging communities in research design and yes, effecting social change.” Or you could do it yourself, and I’ll RT it?

      • Sure, Ian. I’m actually not on Twitter but feel free to tweet away. And thanks for the response!

    • Glad you enjoyed the conversation Dana. As someone outside the discipline, I am not fully abreast of developments within it. Very glad to be pointed to the work of Krista Harper, Jennifer Sandler, Jeff Juris, and Maple Razsa. Will read it with interest.

  4. Pingback: Ideas, Evidence and Intuitions: mental health, agency, and voice • Imago Global Grassroots

Leave a Reply