Jeff’s Blog #22: Development Without History

In recent weeks I’ve written about capitalism and modernity. Separately and together, these are the grand themes of the past 250 years. Neither concept is an absolute; capitalism can be more and less developed in a particular time and place. This is one lesson from an expansive genre of books in history and anthropology that document the arrival and penetration of these themes in society after society. In this context it’s interesting to think about what “development” is. One definition I’m playing around with: development is when people from rich countries try to accelerate the expansion of capitalism and modernity in poorer countries. Note that this is different from most official definitions, e.g. the UN’s development goal to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” The actual effects of development might be different from the stated goals. This week I read two books that take a critical approach to development by placing it in historical perspective. The main lesson I took away from both is that as much as Western experts want development to be a technical matter, the fate of poor people in poor countries is foremost a political question. Meaningful “development” might be a more revolutionary matter than governments and aid organizations are prepared for.

Lesotho. Beautiful. Very mountainous. Not great for agriculture.

When you read official development publications, you don’t see much mention of colonialism. I take it that the development industry’s attitude is roughly: “Of course we know about colonialism, and we agree that it structured some of the problems we’re trying to solve, but that’s water under the bridge so we might as well focus on what we can do now.” There are potentially two problems with such a view. First, it might be the case that if the poverty in question is the result of political subjugation, political empowerment might be the only way to reverse it. If the problems can be found in history, the solutions might, too.

Second, an ahistorical approach to development encourages us to view “Third World” poverty as “the traditional poverty of a peasantry that has not yet or has only recently joined “the 20th century” rather than very much a product of the political and economic forces of that century.” This quote is from Timothy Mitchell’s book Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. James Ferguson makes a similar point in The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. He argues that development practitioners are committed to seeing any “less-developed country” as having certain common features, even when the facts scream otherwise. A development target must be seen as aboriginal, or not yet incorporated into the modern world, so that roads and infrastructure might make a difference; it must be agricultural, so that farm technology can be offered; it must be construed as a national (rather than regional or local) economy, because development discourse only operates at the national level; and it must be controlled by aneffective, neutral government, because development must work through the state apparatus. Acknowledging history, especially colonial history, would be devastating to the first and last myths of the development target. Namely, what if rural poverty were the result not of isolation from the rest of the world but of engagement and exploitation? And what if the post-colonial government were not neutral but actively engaged in suppressing rural people? Building roads and granaries might then seem incidental to the main determinants of poverty and prosperity.


Rule of Experts is the more complicated book of the two because it has several ambitions. On one level it is a political and economic history of rural Upper Egypt from about 1840 to the present. That broad time span includes several somewhat distinct periods–feudal, colonial, post-colonial–and distinct ways of life–smallholder farming, tenant farming, and tourism services. Mitchell’s main project is to show how the concept of “the economy” was invented.1 There was no such thing as “the economy,” in the way we currently understand it, before about the 1920s. Mitchell argues that colonialism was a necessary context for conceiving of problems at the particular national scale that we now think of as “an economy.” While working in Britain’s India office, Keynes wrote the first book that posed questions at this scale: how to measure and manage the circulation of money within a defined geographical space. This is the invention of macroeconomics.

In Egypt, the most important act of formalizing the national economy was the 1898-1908 creation of the most detailed set of maps anywhere in the world. Based on a landholding survey, these maps displayed property lines, ownership rights, and tax liabilities across the country. And while land registries in the Nile Valley are the oldest in the world, the new maps exerted a standardizing influence by revealing which landowners were paying lower taxes than their neighbors and which plots weren’t owned at all. Mitchell argues that formalizing landholding into a systematic database was notable not for adding accuracy, which it did not, but for moving the site of authority from a field to the government office. In doing so, the government statisticians hid the contested reality of rural property claims beneath a supposedly objective model.

The map was the final blow of a 19th century project of reorganizing villages of smallholders into feudal estates with a single owner. This was achieved by seizing land from people who refused to grow sugar and cotton for the global market (we’ve heard this story before), and by allowing foreign creditors to seize rural land for nonpayment of debt. The British government of Egypt (1882-onward) and French merchants before them saw these land laws as the salutary extension of property rights. Mitchell turns a critical eye to “property rights” and “rule of law,” which he sees as arbitrary lines drawn by the powerful which make possible “the economy.” In this light, I read Rule of Experts as a story about primitive accumulation, Marx’s term for the violent seizure of capital that sets the original distribution before “normal” capitalism can begin. Primitive accumulation is a head start before the official whistle blows. What Mitchell is adding, I think, is not just a story of the primitive accumulation of capital, but also the primitive accumulation of laws and institutions. An economy is said to be a self-regulating system, but Mitchell draws our attention to how much of the necessary infrastructure lies outside the system and is not self-regulating at all. This is most apparent in a “developing” country, where the economic infrastructure gets renovated in rapid strokes rather than gradually over time.

Ignorance of the history of land ownership in Egypt clouds contemporary development thinking. In recent decades, Egypt has had to import staple foods. The conventional wisdom, as Mitchell reports it, is that Egypt is a country of too many people packed into a narrow sliver of arable land along the Nile. But it was only in the 19th century, as I mentioned, that land was consolidated into large private estates and used for export-oriented production rather than growing food for Egyptians to eat. In the second half of the 20th century, farmers were encouraged to grow animal feed to support the growing meat consumption of the upper classes. Under these circumstances, the need to import staple foods is unsurprising. Mitchell’s view is that a serious conversation about rural development in Egypt should begin with land reform (essentially, limiting plot size and reimbursing large landholders for transferring land to smallholders) following the model of Japan and South Korea.


Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine focuses more directly on the topic of development. His starting point is the observation, generally accepted in Lesotho’s development circles, that development projects in that country never work. They don’t work in terms of alleviating poverty, and they don’t work in terms of extending  the reach of markets–the most common claims of development’s proponents and its critics, respectively. Ferguson is not directly concerned with why development doesn’t work, although his analysis provides plenty of fodder for speculation. Instead he wants to ask: what, then, does development accomplish? Here’s the answer: “‘Development’ is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today…A development project can end up performing extremely sensitive political operations involving the entrenchment and expansion of institutional state power almost invisibly, under cover of a neutral, tactical mission to which no one can object.” It’s important to note that Ferguson is not saying that development is adeliberate scheme to extend state power without making anyone’s lives better; that is just what it tends to do.

Ferguson confines his analysis to a single project funded by the World Bank and Canada’s International Development Agency and located in the Thaba-Tseka region of Lesotho, from 1976-1985. The book begins with a truly hilarious close reading of a World Bank research report on Lesotho’s development prospects at the beginning of that period. Ferguson observes that the report established Lesotho as an archetypal “less-developed country” with the four characteristics discussed above. The report was committed to seeing Lesotho as a country with great agricultural potential against all evidence. At the time, the majority of able-bodied adult men were migrant workers working across the border in South African mines. Remittances made up the majority of GDP and agriculture a small fraction. Lesotho, which is mostly mountainous, had once held some better agricultural land, but lost it in wars with Dutch settlers in the middle decades of the 19th century. The report made no reference to role of mining or other wage labor in Lesotho’s prospects because acknowledging such labor as a legitimate development strategy would require the World Bank to have opinions about miners’ pay, or border-crossing rights, or the apartheid regime in South Africa, all of which were outside its professed  interest and expertise. “History as well as politics is swept aside, and the relationship between the two “national economies” of Lesotho and South Africa is seen as one of accidental geographic juxtaposition, not structural integration or political subordination.” Instead, the report focused obsessively on farming. This determination to see agriculture everywhere was expressed most surreally in the following direct quote: “Of the total of 34 farmers surveyed it was found that 29 were farmers.”

In the middle section of the book, Ferguson examines each of the initiatives that the Canadian-led project tried to implement in rural Lesotho. These chapters contain your fair share of resistance to change that should be very familiar to anyone who has ever been or known a consultant, international or domestic. Many failures result from not understanding what Sotho people care about. I found the discussion of would-be “livestock reform” particularly interesting. Development experts were frustrated with how Sotho people tended to treat cattle: they would hold onto too many cows and oxen, refuse to cull their herds, and fail to sell for available profit. Ferguson had some fascinating conversations with cattle owners who said they would prefer to receive cash over an ox, but if given an ox would not sell it for cash. Pause and consider how upset this would make an economist. Conversion between cattle and money only seemed to be acceptable in one direction. Owning a large herd was a particularly social form of wealth: lending an ox to a needy neighbor was an important way to earn respect in the community. Also, cattle were a distinctly male form of wealth: while cash belonged to the household and might be spent on clothing or medicine or food or children, cattle belonged exclusively to the husband. One could dwell interminably on the differences between supposed Western economic rationality and other value systems, but the point here is just that a development strategy based on cattle auctions was unlikely to catch on in Lesotho.

The project’s main accomplishment, in Ferguson’s eyes, was giving the national government a much larger presence in Thaba-Tseka. The remote region was thought to be a stronghold for the opposition party, so the ruling party was happy to spend Canada’s money installing offices in the main town. If the government were a useful ally of the people, then this would count as a positive accomplishment. If, as in Ferguson’s view, it represents a self-interested elite, this bureaucratic penetration can be neutral at best. And even worse, the political reinforcements are cloaked as technical aid.

Ferguson’s fieldwork in Lesotho took place 30+ years ago, and I get the sense that we have progressed into a less naive, more skeptical era of development projects. I don’t know for sure, but I would not be surprised if most contemporary development organizations are suspicious of relying on heavy-handed, self-interested political elites to implement their projects. If anything, there seem to be more organizations that evade political institutions entirely and organize development “interventions” around access to education and healthcare at the individual, family, and community level. This “human capital” perspective skirts most of the assumptions about the prototypical under-developed country that Ferguson brilliantly outlined. The notion that people need better health and education to prosper rings true in a pleasantly universal way; it narrows the gap between what Americans, Egyptians, and Southern Africans each need. Universal as it may be, I worry that the human capital approach is no less apolitical and ahistorical than the older orthodoxy of development through exporting cash crops. The main problem facing Lesotho, per Ferguson, is that it is essentially a reservation for a persecuted ethnic group who are disallowed from crossing the border to participate in the regional economy. Why shouldn’t that political problem be the priority for those interested in the welfare of the Sotho people? It’s harder, for one. But it offers a symmetry that I find attractive: maybe development should be about undoing historical domination.

1. Here Mitchell is practicing genealogy, a method introduced by Nietzsche and popularized by Foucault for uncovering the historical emergence of a now-commonplace idea or category. You might wonder how genealogy differs from intellectual history. As I understand it, (a) while intellectual history deals with ideas that people (“thinkers”) consciously held (and usually wrote down), genealogy often deals with assumptions, attitudes, and taboos that historical actors might not have noticed; and (b) genealogy is inclined to debunk these attitudes and beliefs as tools of power and oppression (for more on this debunking tendency in philosophy and critical theory, look up the “hermeneutics of suspicion“).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *