Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: The Anti-Politics Machine

This was an intelligent and thought-provoking book.  It is a terrific deconstruction of the institution of "development."  

The subject of the book is a development project in Lesotho.  It discusses how the Canadian International Development Agency (Canada's USAID) twisted a complex situation into a simple model so that it could apply its standard "development" prescriptions to the situation at hand.  The resulting project was a failure and the book examines exactly why it was such a failure.  

Adapted from the author's PHD dissertation, the book is a bit dry and plodding at times, but it is lucid and full of terrific analysis.  

Some of my favorite passages: 
Often, the question was put to me in the form "What should they do?", with the "they" being not very helpfully specified as "Lesotho" or "the Basotho".  The "they" here is an imaginary, collective subject, linked to utopian prescriptions for advancing the collective interests of "the Basotho."  Such a "they" clearly needs to be broken up.  The inhabitants of Lesotho do not all share the same interests or the same circumstances, and they do not act as a single unit.  There exists neither a collective will nor a collective subject capable of serving it.   
When "developers" spoke of such a collectivity, what they meant was usually the government.  But the government of Lesotho is of course 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... Speaking very broadly, the interests represented by governmental elites in a country like Lesotho are not congruent with those of the people and in a great many cases are positively antagonistic.  Under these circumstances, there is little point in asking what such entrenched and often extractive elites should do in order to empower the poor.  Their own structural positions makes it clear that they would be the last ones to undertake such a project. 
In a similar vein: 
If the question "what should they do" is not intelligibly posed of the government, another move is to ask if the "they" to be addressed should not be instead "the people."  Surely "the masses" themselves have an interest in overcoming poverty, hunger and other symptoms of powerlessness... Once again, the question is befuddled by a false unity.  "The people' are not an undifferentiated mass.  Rich and poor, women and men, city dwellers and villagers, workers and dependents, old and young; all confront different problems and devise different strategies for dealing with them.  There is not one question -- "what is to be done" -- but hundreds: what should the mineworkers do, what should the abandoned old women do, what should the unemployed do, and on and on.  It seems, at the least, presumptuous to offer prescriptions here.  The toiling minters and the abandoned old women know the proper tactics to their situations far better than any expert does.  Indeed, the only general answer to the question, "What should they do?" is: "They are doing it!." 
This was also interesting: 
If one takes the "development" problematic at its word... the absence of growth in agricultural output... can only be considered an unfortunate mistake.  But another explanation is possible.  if one considers the expansion and entrenchment of state power to be the principal effect -- indeed, what "development" projects in Lesotho are chiefly about -- then the promise of agricultural transformation appears simply as a point of entry for an intervention of a very different character.  In this perspective, the "development apparatus in Lesotho is not a machine for eliminating poverty that is incidentally involved in bureaucracy; it is a machine for reinforcing and expanding the exercise of bureaucratic state power, which incidentally takes "poverty" as its point of entry. 


  1. How did you find this book? Was it recommended?

    1. Your boy Chris Blattman recommended it. It's on his list of "Books development economists and aid workers seldom read but should."

    2. After I read this post I googled around and found his recommendation. My dissertation is going to have an element of "anthropology of development" so I'm looking for people who I should read in that area. Ferguson is on the list. James Scott has been on the list for a while.

    3. Oh, and Paul Farmer. What's your favorite Paul Farmer book?

    4. I actually haven't read any Paul Farmer books. From the descriptions, I'm not convinced that I would find any of them that interesting. But I have no idea really.