Cultivating Development

21 02 2007

This book is a very critical examination of development aid using the tools of anthropological research on a DFID (British Govt) project in India over a decade or so. This review was published in 2006 in the magazine Down to Earth.

Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice, David Mosse, Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2005, pp. xvii + ii (maps) + 315, Rs. 380, ISBN 81-7829-601-2 (originally published Pluto Press, London, 2005).

International aid has always been a highly controversial topic, whatever the context in which it is invoked. For long it has been the “human face” of the West’s official interaction with the developing world and for equally long there has been opposition to it for being merely the “handmaiden of the developed world’s foreign policies”.

It was perhaps in answer to such criticisms that the British Government changed the name of its bilateral development agency from ‘Overseas Development Agency’ (ODA) to ‘Department for International Development’ (DFID). It was not a mere change of name but the new DFID was made an independent ministry of the Government as distinct from a being a part of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as was the ODA.

It is therefore, with considerable interest that one reads David Mosse – anthropologist by training and DFID’s “expert” in social development for the Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project in Central India. Mosse worked closely in both designing as well as monitoring and evaluating this project for many years in the 1990s. He brings in empathy, academic rigour as well as a sharply critical outlook to examine both the assumptions as well as processes of international development aid.

It appears that this book created a reasonable amount of bad blood when many of his former colleagues accused him of being “too negative and unbalanced”, “unfair and disrespectful”, and of “damning of all our work”. These objections were so strongly felt that written complaints were made to the author’s university ethics committee, the anthropological association (ASA) as well as to the publishers. Fortunately for the readers, these objections could not stop the publication of this book.

To understand why such strong reactions were generated by, what is largely, an academic study placed firmly in the disciplinary traditions of anthropology, it would be necessary to look both at the contents of the book as well as the contexts in which it was produced and placed.

The charge that the British Government was using aid disbursements as a political tool to open up developing country markets as well as to further its geo-political aims was difficult to reject as long as the ODA remained a part of the British Foreign Office. It was in answer to this allegation that the ODA was re-structured into an independent ministry and named DFID in the 1990s. A part of this makeover was the fore-grounding of poverty alleviation as the core mission of DFID. In theory, this meant that the DFID would formulate policies which were single-mindedly aimed at tackling poverty in the developing world and implement these policies without bothering about whether these furthered British foreign policy aims.

Further, this book has not been written in the manner of a project evaluation but rather in the style of an engaged academic research. Mosse has used his decade long association with the project studied as a surrogate for the classical anthropology field-work where the researcher lives among the objects of his study and writes from within that culture. There is hardly any ideological or “objective” criticism of either his subjects or their work by Mosse. This provides the book with an authenticity which is un-acheivable in project reports or polemical criticisms of international aid.

Interestingly, the contents of the book themselves do not hold that much of an incendiary charge as would appear from the storm they have generated. Human foibles and follies jostle with generosity of spirit and altruism; creativity and empathy with the local people are as much evident in the working of this project as are donor driven agendas and the rootlessness of expatriate solutions to problems. It actually argues that the project was a success and discusses in detail many of its achievements. Its criticism of international aid as it functions today is based, rather, on its inability to overcome the primacy of policy over practice. In other words, the inability to overcome donor agendas in favour of actual needs of the people. This mismatch, or original sin, marks the best of donor interventions and render them failures in their very success.

This is a book which must be read by all those who are involved in development work, specially those who work in or with international aid agencies. As Mosse repeatedly underlines, DFID and its project are merely an illustration for a larger problem within the structure of international aid. Its an honest look in the mirror and if its not a pretty picture one sees in it, there is little to gain from haranguing the mirror-holder.

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