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. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things I learned this week in Abidjan

Notes from this past week:
  • Animals are harder to remove from day-to-day life here.  There seems to be a lizard living in my air conditioner.  As I write this, there is a centipede crawling up the wall across the room from me.  My roommate found a lizard in her bed the other day.  If you look closely at any table or counter, you'll likely see very tiny African insects crawling around on it.  Happily, mosquitoes haven't been much of a problem though.  
  • In a way, it's cheaper and easier to eat healthy here.  Processed supermarket food costs significantly more than fresh food from nearby markets.  The animals are always locally grown (there are chickens waddling around just about every block) and presumably antibiotic free.  The policies that create this -- lack of local food processing companies, high tariffs on foreign imports of processed food, tons of local food producers and sellers willing to earn low margins, lack of food safety monitoring -- aren't really replicable in a developed country.  
  • All that being said, vegetable-based meals are not common and portion size is not helpful to the calorie conscious.  
  • Eating out at a local restaurant (a maquis) is generally cheaper than making a meal at home, particularly if you're using western ingredients for your meal at home.  The main expense of going out to eat is time; you should count on spending at least 45-90 minutes for a meal.  
  • Vietnamese spring rolls (nems) have been adopted into Ivorian culture.  They are cheap and plentiful here, and some Vietnamese places are run by Ivorians.  
  • In the same way that a crepe in Washington, DC is expensive and of poor quality, a hamburger or pizza here is always (relatively) overpriced and disappointing.  The extra money that you're paying for a burger here isn't because you're paying for a deluxe burger but because you're paying for the cultural experience of "American food."  
  • The lack of activity options doesn't really hurt my quality of life.  In DC, there are several soccer leagues, basketball leagues, kickball leagues and a dozen other sports that I could be playing any day of the week.  Here there is soccer on Wednesday in Deux Plateaux, volleyball on Thursdays at the American embassy and ultimate frisbee on Sundays at the LycĂ©e Classique.  I would never play volleyball or frisbee over basketball in the U.S., but they are 90% as fun and the lack of choice can be liberating (I always just assume that Wednesdays here are for soccer, rather than trying to decide which day to play).  Likewise, with the social scene.  The plethora of nice bars and social activities in DC could be stressful, as it was disappointing not to choose the most fun Saturday night activity.  Here, there are a handful of ex-pat bars and usually just one or two activities per weekend, often with many of the same people.  You may or may not like going to see Diego's blues band, but that's what people are doing most Friday evenings here.  If you want to see people, you go and make the best of it.  
  • I suppose this is all just a readjustment of my hedonic baseline.  I suppose that when I move back to DC, I'll enjoy the variety of options for the first couple of months, but then re-adapt.