Is the Anti-Politics machine still a good critique of the aid business?

Just been re-reading a great 6 page summary of James Ferguson’s 1994 classic critique of the aidjames-ferguson industry, The Anti-Politics Machine. Read this and ask yourself, apart from the grating use of the term ‘Third World’, how much has changed?

‘Any question of the form ‘what is to be done?’ demands first of all an answer to the question, ‘By whom?’ The ‘development’ discourse, and a great deal of policy science, tends to answer this question in a utopian way by saying ‘Given an all-powerful and benevolent policy-making apparatus, what should it do to advance the interests of its poor citizens?’

This question is worse than meaningless. In practice, it acts to disguise what are, in fact, highly partial and interested interventions as universal, disinterested and inherently benevolent. If the question ‘What is to be done?’ has any sense, it is as a real-world tactic, not a utopian ethnics.

The question is often put in the form ‘What should they do?’, with the ‘they’ being not very helpfully specified as ‘Lesotho’ or ‘the Basotho’. When ‘developers’ speak of such a collectivity what they mean is usually the government. But the government of Lesotho is not identical with the people who live in Lesotho, nor is it in any of the established senses ‘representative’ of that collectivity. As in most countries, the government is a relatively small clique with narrow interests. There is little point in asking what such entrenched and extractive elites should do in order to empower the poor. Their own structural position makes it clear that they would be the last ones to undertake such a project.

Perhaps the ‘they’ in ‘what should they do?’ means ‘the people’. But again the people are not an undifferentiated mass. There is not one question – What is to be done? – but hundreds: What should the mineworkers do? What should the abandoned old women do? And so on. It seems presumptuous to offer prescriptions here. Toiling miners and abandoned old women know the tactics proper to their situations far better than any expert does. If there is advice to be given about what ‘they’ should do, it will not be dictating general political strategy or giving a general answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ (which can only be determined by those doing the resisting) but answering specific, localized, tactical questions.

anti-politics-machine-coverIf the question is, on the other hand, ‘What should we do?’, it has to be specified, which ‘we’? If ‘we’ means ‘development’ agencies or governments of the West, the implied subject of the question falsely implies a collective project for bringing about the empowerment of the poor. Whatever good or ill may be accomplished by these agencies, nothing about their general mode of operation would justify a belief in such a collective ‘we’ defined by a political programme of empowerment.

For some Westerners, there is, however, a more productive way of posing the question ‘what should we do?’ That is, ‘What should we intellectuals working in or concerned about the Third World do?’ To the extent that there are common political values and a real ‘we’ group, this becomes a real question. The answer, however is more difficult.

Should those with specialized knowledge provide advice to ‘development’ agencies who seem hungry for it and ready to act on it? These agencies seek only the kind of advice they can take. One ‘developer’ asked my advice on what his country could do ‘to help these people’. When I suggested that his government might contemplate sanctions against apartheid, he replied with predictable irritation, ‘No, no! I mean development!’ The only advice accepted is about how to ‘do development’ better. There is a ready ear for criticisms of ‘bad development projects’, only so long as these are followed up with calls for ‘good development projects’. Yet the agencies who plan and implement such projects – agencies like the World Bank, USAID and the government of Lesotho – are not really the sort of social actors that are very likely to advance the empowerment of the poor.

Such an obvious conclusion makes many uncomfortable. It seems to them to imply hopelessness; as if to suggest that the answer the question ‘What is to be done?’ is: ‘Nothing’. Yet this conclusion does not follow. The state is not the only game in town, and the choice is not between ‘getting one’s hands dirty by participating in or trying to reform development projects’ and ‘living in an ivory tower’. Change comes when, as Michel Foucault says, ‘critique has played out in the real, not when reformers have realized their ideas.’

For Westerners, one of the most important forms of engagement is simply the political participation in one’s own society that is appropriate to any citizen. This is perhaps, particularly true for citizens of a country like the US, where one of the most important jobs for ‘experts’ is combating imperialist policies.’

23 years on, is this sceptical view of the politics of aid becoming more justified? Should I stop seeking allies and common ground in USAID or the World Bank? Is all that stuff about adaptive management, empowerment and ‘doing development differently’ either PR spin or wishful thinking? Or has something substantial moved on (and if so, why)? I’d be interested in your thoughts.


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8 Responses to “Is the Anti-Politics machine still a good critique of the aid business?”
  1. Thanks for the throw-back! The Anti-Politics Machine was the most impactful book I read in my 4 years as an anthropology student at the University of Cape Town (and I graduated 1992, so it’s not a 1994 publication, it’s 1990). One of the key messages I’ve carried from it is that ‘development’ interventions rarely achieve what they set out to do, but nonetheless they do ‘something’, and the unexpected/unplanned/unforeseen impacts are likely to be much more important (negatively or positively) than those planned.

    Our task if we work in this field is to do our best to understand what in fact is going on, and in what ways can we support those dynamics that emerge that are empowering rather than the de-politicising or disempowering to the people themselves. Since 1990 we have a greater appreciation of the complexity of the systems that we work in and engage with – which in many cases include the likes of the World Bank – so we are better equipped to go into such situations with our eyes open, ready to look for and build on the unexpected, and hopefully to engage with a wider group of actors that may produce unpredictable – but also positive – outcomes.

  2. John Magrath

    How particularly prescient: ‘For Westerners, one of the most important forms of engagement is simply the political participation in one’s own society that is appropriate to any citizen. This is perhaps, particularly true for citizens of a country like the US….’

  3. Paula

    When I lived in socialist Czechoslovakia, our Constitution gave us right to work, to have knowledge and free healthcare. We all thought though we live in the worst system and wanted western cloths. Only after so called revolutions and west brought to our homeland :), we started to discover, that the big amount of stupidiry is accompanying all those goodies we were dying to have. I didn’t understand that first, but when moved to West, I slowly started to unwind the core of consumerism and was shocked to discover, that the society is also run by propaganda, as in our old regime, but this one is amazingly executed sexy propaganda of Public Relations, created by E.Bernays, and while we of course never fell for our silly one, almost everybody in West adopted PR as free society reality. So while we, unsexy, unglittery people from East had a clear consciousness about reality, (except our thoughts about free world :)), people in West are believers. I think that is why is so unimaginable to make any social changes toward poor: people were brainwashed toward any social propositions, in fear that they will have gulags because the word socialism associate the image of Stalin and North Korea. They need to get out of their Stockholm syndrome reality first to become human being with empathic concern. Then changes will be piece of cake. I am not sure if it is possible, but election of Trump showed, that people started leaving ‘old channels’ of perception, even if this alternative is not the great one, and valued clear, PR free Wilileaks cables. Also young people didn’t vote for any candidate, living connected in their digital world, which gave them the greatest discoveryof all: that people around the world are the same.

  4. masood

    Even if one is doing projects like bringing drinking water to a community or setting up electricity the project deals with the “political”. In some of the districts we operate unless you address the intense political polarization you will make no headway. In other unless you address the sectarian strife you may make no headway. In some of them small jealousies could destroy the entire plan. In some the space for engagement of women may be very large while in other it may not exist. If a single project covers all this diversity it may express its achievements in terms of numbers of communities formed and number of villages with drinking water project. All simple and technically expressed. But for the front line staff of the organisation dealing and addressing the politics was probably the most difficulĺ part. It will become part of the private transcript of the organisation. All important lessons will lie there while the public transcript will nevet mention it because doing it may make it too difficult for a reader who does not live in that context. So even in innocous looking projects where the issues of structural causes poverty are not central to it the social structures and power that underlie it are aĺways dealth with even if not expressed. Interestingly the project design rarely talk of this diversity and how it is to be addressed

    Masood Pakistan

  5. Steve Golub

    “23 years on, is this sceptical view of the politics of aid becoming more justified?” Absolutely.

    “Should I stop seeking allies and common ground in USAID or the World Bank?” Not absolutely. But go in with your eyes wide open regarding: a) whether they are just paying lip service to the policies and practices you are pushing and b) whether, even if they are well-intentioned, the reforms they favor are really implemented on the ground.

    “Is all that stuff about adaptive management, empowerment and ‘doing development differently’ either PR spin or wishful thinking?” To a good extent, yes.

    “Or has something substantial moved on (and if so, why)?” No.

    The more appropriate final question would be, “Has something substantial not moved (and if not, why not)?” Though Ferguson’s excellent analysis (and your excellent post) don’t use the term, the answer flows from a political economy analysis of the development aid field. To make a long, complex, sad story short, there are simply too many deeply embedded and counterproductive incentives and influences infecting the perspectives and operations of official aid institutions, the large consulting firms and (some, though certainly not all) international NGOs that feed off of official aid, and the individuals staffing these organizations. The projects Ferguson critiqued in Lesotho were unintentionally designed to fail because that’s what the aid personnel knew how to do. Or to put the point more colloquially, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Rather than employ political economy analysis of the institutions, communities and other actors and factors involved, aid institutions have historically employed and still employ to this day mainly technical approaches. Lots of aid personnel would be out of jobs of they did otherwise.

    I write this as a part-time professor who has taught at Berkeley and Central European University and as a full-time consultant who has worked with the World Bank, the ADB, USAID, DFID, Danida, UNDP, UNICEF and a host of other official aid agencies, as well as a number of major consulting firms. (I’ve also worked with other major organizations that I exclude from this analysis, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Amnesty International, and the Asia, Ford and Open Society Foundations). There are still good projects here and there, and many good people to work with – it’s what keeps me going, and why I don’t advise that you stop engaging with aid agencies. But I’m always impressed (albeit in a negative way) with how little has changed and how little any progressive development flavor of the month actually gets translated into the work of aid agencies and consulting firms on the ground.

    Are there more positive approaches that Oxfam could take, beyond looking for needles of promise in the haystacks of development agencies’ counterproductive internal incentives and influences? Yes. But at the risk of seeming elusive, and because my time is limited right now, I’ll return to that some other day.

  6. I’m also a big fan of the Anti-Politics Machine. It’s one of those books which completely changes the way you look at development, and has had few equals in recent years.

    The book has dated in some ways. Politics is much more central to aid thinking nowadays, though the unintended political consequences of aid itself are still ignored or pushed under the carpet. Also I think there’s an element of the conspiracy theory in Ferguson’s argument that aid’s unintended consequences always push in the same direction – towards the creeping expansion of state power. That’s probably not true of all aid, and anyway there are other unintended consequences which are just as interesting. But as an account of how failing aid programmes can be extremely useful to some people, it is pretty much unbeatable and still highly relevant.

    In terms of the question “what should we do”, I think Ferguson’s discussion is still very much to the point. We need to rid ourselves of the delusion that there is a universally beneficent policy implementation machine, and avoid the temptation to say “no, no, I mean development!” whenever someone suggests a politically inconvenient idea. There are lots of things which would make more difference to poor people’s lives than better aid programmes. Much of the intellectual time and energy that goes into trying to reform aid would be better off spent considering more difficult things like immigration and trade policy. These require big political battles in rich countries, and it’s often tempting to leave them to one side in the name of ‘political realism’. But what would have happened if the ANC had decided in the 1970s that ending apartheid was too politically unrealistic and had instead decided to focus on malaria prevention or deworming?

    The only conclusion we shouldn’t draw from Ferguson’s arguments is that we should do nothing. Even he in more recent years has put forward a more constructive argument in favour of the basic income idea (see my blog post on this: “Politics is the art of the possible” – but then again “it always seems impossible until it’s done”.

  7. When I worked as an appropriate technologist, the work we did was subversive – but because the most powerful politicians do not understand the connections between technology, power and poverty, we were successful. In fact, the intervention of President Moi to prevent the Kenya Ceramic Jiko being made in a factory owned by a Kikuya businessman led to it being made by artisans in Shauri Moyo, using earthenware liners fired in small potteries mounted inside cut up oil drums. It started a new industry (making 75,000 a year when I left Kenya) run by artisans, reduced deforestation in a circle 150 km. around Nairobi, and reduced poverty in the areas like Kibera where families spent 1/3 of their income on charcoal for cooking.

    We ignored the Marxists who said technology could not bring change before a revolution, and just got on with it. It was done by dozens of Kenyan NGOs, supported by university engineers, with minimal involvement from international NGOs and small grants from US, Norwegian and Dutch aid after a march of women carrying firewood on their heads past the UN Energy Conference in Nairobi made them realise that for 95% of the people in the world, energy has nothing to do with oil – it is woodfuel.

    In the present day, engineers work on IT and people, be it in mobile phone banking, field sensors or mapping deaths after a disputed election. Again, they use their knowledge to make more of an impact than politicians and economists, and are more down to earth than people who study development from a distance.

    • I greatly appreciate your commentary. However, I am confused and hope someone can help me. Who are you? I don’t see your name anywhere on this page. I have read and assign for my college class ( on “development” the Epilogue, “What is to be done?” that you nicely describe. It is very difficult to understand it… Ferguson’s mastery of the English language is impressive, yet debilitating for my students… and myself. I would like to see the “6-page summary” that you refer to above, but the link is no longer active. Do you have this 6-page summary? or could you send me information that would help me retrieve it? Or, if anyone else has a summary of Ferguson’s book and/or the Epilogue, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send it to me. Thanks!

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