Evil Donors and ‘The Literature’: Is there a problem with the way academics write about aid?

Since I dipped my toe in the waters of academia, I’ve been struck by two things: firstly, the number of my new colleagues (especially the political scientists and anthropologists) who appear convinced that aid is essentially evil – a neo-imperialist plot to defend the status quo.

Secondly the way people use the phrase ‘The Literature’, in a way no-one outside academia would – as in ‘What does the Literature say on this?’ or ‘There is no Literature on this topic’ (at which point academics start rubbing their hands with glee). I’ve even found myself saying it occasionally, and feeling very scholarly when I did so.

A recent exchange both got me to link the two observations and resolve never to use the phrase ‘The Literature’ ever again. It started when my LSE colleague Rajesh Venugopal sent over his new paper in World Development (ungated version here). According to the abstract:

‘Talk of failure is commonplace in development.  Drawing  on  a  wide  range  of  primary  and  secondary  texts  to  provide  illustrative  evidence,  the  paper  explores  how  failure  is  constructed,  and  advances  a  three-fold  typology  of  failures  that  vary  in  terms  of  their  positionality,  the  critical  variables  they  identify  as  responsible,  their  epistemological  stance,  and  the  importance  they  accord  to  politics.’

I must confess, I didn’t understand much of that, but I read it anyway (Rajesh is a friend) and was struck by the way the argument was constructed. I wrote to him:

‘You make a lot of assertions, but I don’t see much in the way of evidence. eg ‘contemporary representations of development failure play an important role in sustaining the idea of intervening to end it’. My own experience would suggest the opposite. No-one I’ve met in the aid biz thinks failure is the way to ensure continued funding – just look at the dollars the Gates Foundation is ploughing into proof of impact. Where do you guys dream up this stuff?!’

Rajesh replied: ‘You’re reading it a bit too literally as a rigorous critique of development. It’s more of a woolly discussion of why everyone in the world thinks development always fails and the tone of pessimism and negativity that we swim in, i.e. everyone from the Daily Mail to the angry activist anthropologists.’

Unconvinced, I replied: ‘Inside the echo chamber created by journal paywalls, and largely unnoticed by the grubby masses of practitioners who live outside those walls, scholars write pieces largely built on the musings of other scholars. Each piece may just be a ‘woolly discussion’ but over time they acquire weight, a bit like a series of Donald Trump ‘people are saying’ tweets.

Before you know it, they have become ‘A Literature’, which can be cited in support of arguments, without the need for additional evidence (see my rant about Nicola Banks & David Hulme’s largely evidence-free crit of NGOs).

Last night I was speaking to a bunch of post docs at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels, and had a similar experience – wasn’t it the case that the big Foundations’ main aim in life is to head off radical change by supporting reformists and token change? None of the students appeared to have talked to anyone from a Foundation or read their strategies but it was OK, they could cite ‘The Literature’…..

This approach very easily lends credibility to what are really unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and incoming students then ingest them as fact from their lecturers (I remember once, after I gave a SOAS lecture, a very confused student came up and said ‘so you don’t actually want to keep people poor then?’).’

Rajesh replied: ‘I do agree with you that there is a real problem because ‘critical insight’ in development is always about uncovering a dark conspiracy at work. In my tribe, you’re not doing your job unless you’re unmasking villains and showing the hidden hand of imperialism, neoliberalism, etc, at work. It’s somehow viewed as a capitulation if you say otherwise, or e.g. suggest that Gates may be doing some good.’

At which point, Rajesh suggested ‘cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war’, so here you are.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an apologia – there are plenty of examples of bad aid, political interference etc etc. But it is striking that academics are often quite content to rehash experiences and books from decades ago (e.g. James Ferguson’s wonderful The Anti Politics Machine, 1994; something they saw in Uganda in the 1980s) and assume that nothing has changed in the interim. Where’s the rigour in that?

My conclusion? If academics want to be taken seriously, they need to provide evidence (preferably from this century) for their assertions. rather than simply citing other academics, or ‘The Literature’. And please give me a slap if you hear me using the phrase ‘The Literature’. I will also continue never to link to gated publications, if I can help it, because the journal echo chamber is partly responsible for all this.

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38 Responses to “Evil Donors and ‘The Literature’: Is there a problem with the way academics write about aid?”
  1. Nigel Thornton

    Duncan, this is spot on; you have articulated a gut wrenching frustration that meant I stopped doing a PhD a few years back. I had to be able to quote “the Literature” in order to justify my position in the “the Academy”, while at the same time knowing that the much of “the Literature” repeated or developed positions that were selective in their use of evidence, were out of date, and pandered to the views of intellectual icons (see the Washington Post’s recent article on Academia and cultish behaviour https://wapo.st/2JMSLIi for the worst in that).

    I was struck by the volume of articles in journals by weaker academics who defaulted to citation bingo, justifying a lack of primary insight by combining the views of others which they then peppered with light research of their own. If I had to read another citation of Polanyi’s double movement…What came through was that “the Academy” was as, if not more, vulnerable to trends as the aid business is, particularly as you say some journals under some editors.

    But we should be careful. There’s much wheat in the chaff. The trick is to find those parts of “the Literature” that is grounded, evidence based and relevant. And it does exist. If we can bear to look through the other stuff.

  2. Mike Morris

    You might also have referred to how opaque a lot of academic writing is – as if clarity would see marks deducted. Another great blog Duncan! Always felt that the ‘peer review’ system was geared to generating more linear thinking and building block articles than transformational pieces, which is not of course inappropriate if running an apprenticeship on building castles … but may not necessarily help with vaulted ceilings?

  3. Robin Stafford

    So true Duncan – when I first started working with development organisations after spending many years working in and with both business and public sector organisations, I observed that in no other sector had I come across such an obsession with academia. ‘The Literature’! And so little willingness to learn from organisations or research in other sectors – in fact an outright denial that they might have anything of relevance to learn from! Especially marked in policy functions…
    It prompted me to go and do a Masters in development; a) to learn where all these ideas came from, b) to learn the language, and c) because no-one would take you seriously unless you had a relevant Masters or PhD! I learnt loads of great stuff, not least from my fellow students – being a part time course most of the students came with a lot of real world experience. I also found myself being taught some stuff that made little sense in the world outside the ivory towers, be it that of development folk on the ground or the business and public sector worlds I worked in. If you had no experience in those worlds you’d have no reason to question what you were being told. When it came to the course work and exams, we had to trot out all of those academic references even though sometimes I thought they were just plain wrong. Fortunately the supervisor for my dissertation was a bit more contrarian….
    To a degree this is true of other branches of academia, where to get on as a young academic, you are pressured to conform to what your elders and betters have been writing. Contrarian insights are often not welcome. Economics is a good example with the dominant focus on neo-classical economics and minimal teaching of economic history or other schools of thought. This is at least now being recognised – check out The Econocracy book. Perhaps we need something like the ‘Post-Crash Economics’ group for the development sector?
    There’s a related issue in the weakness of the sector in capturing learning from the field, adapting and feeding back. A harsh stereotype I know, but too much M&E looks to me like a post-grad student goes off to do a bit of research, probably to support someones pet academic theory. This then gets written up in unintelligible language and filed away in an academic reference library. As opposed to building feedback loops into programmes so that they adapt to what they learn, and then feeding back and sharing that knowledge as widely as possible so that others can learn from, build on and adapt those ideas. Both within an organisation and across the sector. ‘What, share with our competitors’ I hear someone cry! Practical Action is an example of doing this differently.
    Im seeing smaller development organisations, often run by younger people who don’t have that development ‘conditioning’ coming in and doing things differently. It is a real challenge for the bigger NGOs who may need to question long held shibboleths and mantras, without losing their purpose and values.

  4. Justin Williams

    Hi Duncan, interesting post. As someone who has a foot in both camps (background in DFID, currently doing a PhD) I recognise a lot of what you say. In my view what is behind much of this is a commitment to “critical theory” in many academic circles. Critical theory has been brilliant at helping people to think about development in different ways, to stop us seeing development only through the ‘common sense’ lenses of development agencies. But too often critical theory remains just a conceptual exercise. What was great about The Anti-Politics Machine and, more recently, the work of people like Tania Li, is the empirical detail they bring to support their arguments. When academic articles remain at the level of ‘critical rethinking’ there is no way any empirical data can challenge them… they are ‘unfalsifiable’.

    To make this even more topical given today is US election results day… I think there is a link between the success of critical theory in academia and the wider spreading of conspiracy theories in society. When leading academics concern themselves with ‘radical rethinking’, cut off from empirical investigation, or base their research on ‘personal political commitments’ rather than aspiring to some level of objectivity, it’s perhaps not surprising when the rest of us think that any news we don’t like is fake news…

      • Justin Williams

        Matt, of course there are many different camps in academia, and a few in the aid business too, but I still think that when I look at literature produced by development agencies and academics, it seems to me to congregate around what you might call two ‘poles’. There is an ’empiricist’ or ‘positivist’ pole, which as Ruth Carlitz says below tends to take the world as it finds it, and looks to solve problems through collecting data without much questioning of its own assumptions etc. At the other extreme there is a ‘critical’ pole which wants to question the assumptions which underpin development, but which (in my view) doesn’t back this up enough through detailed examination of empirical examples of what development projects actually do. There is some literature in the middle – my point is just that there should be a lot more.

  5. Sarah

    I am confused about this complaint. What is academia but a body of literature? What do you want or expect it to be? A large part of an academic’s job is to keep up with the relevant literature in their field and relate it to our own research – is that something you think should not be the case, or is it just how we refer to it that you don’t like? You said: ‘scholars write based on the musings of other scholars’ – yep, and (leaving aside the patronising language of ‘musings’) – what is wrong with that? Sure, not all of it is equally as good, but that’s inevitable in any field of human endeavour and where personal judgement comes in.

    I’m also struck by your dismissiveness of the idea that aid is ‘a neo-imperialist plot to defend the status quo’ – wouldn’t put it in those words, but basically I do think that. We may disagree, but does that mean I should not engage in writing about or in any way dealing with the subject of development? Do you think the aid world should be spared critique?

      • Susan Engel

        Then your analysis must also be evidence based and current? So, which academics on which topics? The other side of your fun is that I’ve heard multilateral development banks so often dismiss always analysis saying “but we do it different now” and when I research the detail they don’t.

  6. Naomi Hossain

    ‘The Literature’ – that monster that lurks deep inside Google Scholar. Of course you need to read selectively. And often academic writing is an exercise in trying out theories and methodologies that only 4 other people care about. But are you suggesting there are no insights to be had from reading what other people have written based on (often) years of thought, research, and analysis? That aid practitioners should act based on their gut instinct and what they can see with their own eyes? That sounds like a recipe for populism in aid policy. It should go down v well in the current political climate.

    And individual aid donors may not be evil, but yes, aid is all about making the world safe for global capitalism. Whether or not you think that is an evil project depends on how well you think global capitalism is going.

  7. Rajesh Venugopal

    So much to say here. Thanks for raising this issue, and the level of interest shows it’s on the minds of lots of people. In the spirit of letting slip the blogs of war (and Duncan’s a friend and colleague), I’m going to take license to be a bit robust and punchy. This issue reminds me so much about the post on the ‘bad academic writing post’ a year ago (here’s my tetchy response to that and defence of academic writing: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/are-top-academic-and-aid-institutions-getting-away-with-poor-communications/#comment-336223.

    1. I sympathise with what you say: ungrounded critiques of aid and a predisposition to pessimism and a ‘deeper conspiracy’ needs to be dissected and understood. You say you didn’t understand the article, which is honest, but that is exactly what the article is all about (with lots of evidence, mind you).

    2. Not good to judge an article or its evidence basis from a concluding reflection in the very last paragraph. Makes it look as if you didn’t have the patience to read the beginning and middle and rushed straight to the back page to make up your mind. To understand the evidence basis of that statement, pls read on to the rest of the para to see what it means. Or else read back the previous few pages to see where it’s coming from and how it’s substantiated.

    3. I agree that a lot of academic writing can be accurately caricatured as ungrounded and that feeds off an echo chamber. Too true. But surely you see the irony here, that this blog post can be taken as the flip-side of that – i.e. what academics say about the non-academic development chatterati? i.e. they don’t read very deeply, are impatient with complexity, skip to the conclusions, and dismiss what they don’t understand as ungrounded.

    4. The ‘literature’ means the accumulated weight of previous serious research and writing on the topic. It’s not mindless jargon or a buzzword. It’s serious stuff. It means decades of learning: theory and evidence. You may not like all the literature (who does?). But you can’t reject it all because you don’t like some of it. Development aid workers and development studies students: pls pls do read the literature!

    • Victoria Sanchez

      My problem is with the way the literature is used as an excuse to back what half the literature says. If the literature really does coalesce around clear answers, then great – the body of literature pushes in a particular direction. But it seldom if ever does. So saying “the literature” is usually fairly meaningless except in the following sentence “the literature on this is mixed”…

    • Giulia Piccolino

      Rajesh, I think that one of the problems with how “the literature” is used is that it is fragmented into literature produced by different academic “tribes”. So there will be positivistically oriented scholars that only read other positivistically oriented scholars, critical scholars that only read other critical scholars, area studies scholars that only read about their particular geographical areas, all compounded by the various disciplinary subcategorization between IR/politics/development studies etc. So, for those who want to just reassert their preconception, it is easy to pick just the particular strand of literature that confirms them. I try to be eclectic in the way I approach the literature, but it is difficult to follow many different fields and, also, the way the publishing process works often encourages people to stay in their “box”.

  8. Tricia Williams

    Appreciate the insights and sentiment here. We’re working hard at this Foundation to work with academics who want to engage deeply with evidence, and especially locally generated and relevant evidence. And who needs these long words and dense sentences that are hardly intelligible??

    We have a bias towards research and scholarship that is applied and practical. Is there space for critiques of development and aid? Absolutely, and we need to do better as an aid community. The first part is listening more to our colleagues and counterparts from developing nations – I hear vastly different messages from them than from the anti-imperialists largely from/trained in the global North.

    (If you’re interested in a guest post from a Foundation perspective, we should discuss!)

  9. It cuts both ways
    Practitioners can write reports with 50 refs, none of them from peer reviewed journals – PFM is a good example. Academics can sit in western capitals and write lots of peer reviewed articles with barely a nod to what really happens in the field, obsessed with theory and methodological arguments
    The right way might just be to encourage some sort of cross fertilisation. Donors can help by promoting research that does just that.
    The good news is that practitioners with some sort of academic credentials can usually discriminate between the useful stuff and the tosh

  10. Varja Lipovsek

    Interesting post and perhaps even more interesting replies!
    I am personally very vested in this topic: I spent most of my career in what we call “the field” (most recently 6 years with Twaweza East Africa), then a few months ago I moved to MIT’s GOV/LAB (where yes, most people do talk about “the literature”). GOV/LAB has developed a certain approach / ethos to partnering with practitioners, and now we are examining what has worked and what hasn’t, thinking about how to improve going forward and how to liaise with others who are thinking about similar issues.
    So – to Duncan and everyone who’s engaging in this relevant (at times impassioned) commentary: I would love to have more of your views on our approach of developing academic-practitioner partnerships in the area of governance (transparency, accountability, participation) that try to (re-)balance several of these components.
    Namely — which (whose) questions are prioritized for research; whether academic research can be done in a way that builds practitioner capacity while at the same time produces some of the outputs which are valued by the academics, and whether through this, we can make the case that grounded, partner-informed research is actually better for the academics (because it can generate and / or test new hypotheses relevant to gaps in “the literature”). And finally, does this help us to also re-balance some of the focus – including funding priorities – for both implementation and research in governance, in the interest of strengthening the capacity of front-line practitioners who truly have skin in the game and might really benefit from this.
    If this sounds interesting let me know if I can contact you!

  11. Ruth Carlitz

    Lots to chew on here and all-around a fun read. Two things that struck me:

    (1) Rajesh’s assertion that “In my tribe, you’re not doing your job unless you’re unmasking villains and showing the hidden hand of imperialism, neoliberalism, etc, at work.” I definitely do not find that to be the case in empirical Political Science (of the U.S. and U.S.-inspired flavor), which if anything is overly positivist, i.e. taking the world as it is and observing it “objectively,” without critically examine how the questions we ask and approaches we take to answering them are deeply influenced by politics, social position, global power relations, etc.

    (2) Duncan’s mention of the paywall echo chamber. This is absolutely a problem, as is the jargon we use that makes it difficult to communicate with non-academics. There are some good efforts to counter this, like scholars posting ungated versions of papers (or working paper versions) on their website, and most people being happy to email a paper to someone should they receive a request. Also blogs like the Monkey Cage and this one here, with kind editors who help academics speak like normal people.

  12. Paddy Carter

    “they need to provide evidence (preferably from this century) for their assertions. rather than simply citing other academics”

    unlesss the academic in question has personally conducted empirical research into the questiono at hand, providing evidence means citing other academics, don’t it?

  13. Tom

    Having a foot in both camps, I think ‘the literature’ critique is a really about understanding one’s assumptions, starting points or biases. Indeed, I am young(ish) PhD and I often struggle to have productive conversations with my more academic colleagues. This is because what they mean, or assume I understand by, ‘the literature’ can be quite different than what I do.

    Yes, I’ve read the same critical development books from the 1980s and 1990s that they have. But that is about where the similarities stop. For me, the literature includes the reflective works put out by practitioners that have responded to / built upon those critical books, the current debates within powerful development donor organisations and online discussions like this one. This does not mean I have access to more ‘truth’.

    But perhaps it does mean that the problem lies with the size and scope of ‘the literature’, and with the differences between and amongst academics and practitioners? Indeed, I would suggest that it is very rare for two development focused academics, let alone an academic and a practitioner, to share a cut-off point in ‘the literature’ (time-wise or in terms of what types of material count). Add in geographical specialisms and political persuasions, and it is easy to begin to see why it is hard for any given two to talk.

    Maybe instead of referring to ‘the literature’, articles and conversations should just begin with a disclosure statement that goes something like: “I’m 56 years old, did most of my formative research or my first stint as a practitioner in 1980s South America, rarely browse development blogs and mostly vote Labour”. That way, I reckon most of us could at least have an educated guess at what each other mean by ‘the literature’.

  14. “Nowhere did I see this more clearly than at the 2016 Development Studies Association meeting in Oxford, where two keynote speeches were scheduled: one by famous economist Daron Acemoglu, and the other by famous anthropologist Tania Li. Acemoglu’s claim to fame is the study of institutional history through game theory logic; Li’s is her critique of the development industry as a violent exercise of imposition. Their presentations did not disappoint: the economist offered a formal model of democratisation throughout history, while the anthropologist questioned the very understanding of development as a discourse and agenda complicit with neoliberal capitalism. There was some overlap in audience, though Li’s talk was better attended and appeared to be received with enthusiasm, at least compared with the lukewarm scepticism afforded to Acemoglu. The organisers had somehow managed to – wittingly or unwittingly – stage a perfect physical representation of the split within development studies, between critical approaches on the one hand and positivist researchers on the other.

    “The coda to these two presentations – funny or tragic, depending on your outlook – is how unrelated they were to actual development practice. Neither of the speakers had anything to say about ongoing processes of reform around the world, which are clearly too messy for elegant criticism or elegant formal modelling. In a discipline haunted for too long by the suspicion of collusion with practitioners, the keynotes signalled perhaps a certain intellectual maturity and autonomy. For me, however, they represented an abdication of the legitimate role that development scholars can play in advising officials or engaging in public debate on aid.”

    WHY WE LIE ABOUT AID, chapter 7


  15. Pauline Rose

    My experience of working in education is that the research is evidence-based, drawing on data from this century. And there are rigorous reviews that consolidate this evidence that policy makers draw on to inform their policies – even though of course there are other influences too. Yes, it can be the case that some academics refer to ‘the literature’ or particular authors with little to substantiate their claims but this is not the norm – at least not in the world I inhabit (and some of our work is on aid to education). And thankfully I don’t see as rigid boundaries between researchers and donors or NGOs as the blog suggests

  16. An excellent piece – thank you! It has the ring of truth, which is why often blogs with good information and intentions are of more use than academic pieces with an agenda.

    My own observation is that the cliques created by the conduct you describe often leads to a Judean People’s Front vs the People’s Front of Judea

  17. When one of the biggest development programme in this part of the world began its founder met the communities and began with the question: “What did they want?”. When after a decade or so when it had touched and changed millions of lives, the academic arrived to question its logic and began his dialogue with the communities with the question: ” How are you related to one another.” A decade after that the academic ones again came back to say he understood it better now, perhaps his questioning of the programme had been premature. For the communities there was no second chance to question anything either their life changed or it did not. That is the chasm between the practitioner and the academic

  18. Brian

    Never assume conspiracy where incompetence is the likely cause. I interact with the aid sector, albeit as a business service provider. I have never seen anything like the total chaos in which decisions are made. It seems to me that it is a function of low budgets for good management and management support.

  19. Simon Jm

    There seems to be a convergence of some elements of both Left and Right on not only the effectiveness of international but at least from some on the Left a more big picture critique that it unintentionally draws away attention from systemic problems of the current global political institutions and neoliberal economics. The same criticism is now being directed towards environmental NGO’s especially those who focus on personal actions like recycling and putting solar on their roof. So I’m not sure about the academic literature but I’m finding more and more activists on the Left -and not just Marxists or Socialists- as seeing aid as treating the symptoms but not the causes.

  20. Andrea Iff

    My way was the other way round of yours – an academic turned into an aid worker. And I observe the same as you do: academia is just very far far away from what is going on. And if criticism happens, it’s rarely where it should, as there are things to criticize both in academia on international development as well as in international development. Thank you for starting that discourse.

  21. Andrea Iff

    So – what can we do about this? How do we get more accurate ‘critical’ literature on international development? A rotten tomatoe price every year for the most ‘ivory-towery’ article? A virtual meet&greet of critical academics and aid workers? A bridge builder price with a stipend for an ‘exchange’ program? Or is a lack of mutual understanding not even ‘the’ problem? Is it ok that there are different roles? I for myself was bored of being in the team of ‚critical thinkers‘ and wanted to be with the ‚doers’ – for me, that was the more interesting challenge.

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