How can the UN get its act together on food and agriculture?

January 9, 2012

Social Cohesion – there's a lot more to it than the OECD version

January 9, 2012

Delivering Development: Book Review of a study on 'globalization's shoreline'

January 9, 2012
empty image
empty image

In ‘Whose Reality Counts’, Robert Chambers caricatures a typical successful career path in development as ‘tying down, moving inwards Delivering developmentand moving upwards’. ‘In rural development, professionals gain direct field experience only early in a career if at all’. After the year in an African village (PhD, living with the people etc), or volunteering in a local NGO, comes the life path of relationships, kids, a search for decent schools, more senior jobs etc. These involve moves first to the capital city, then back to Europe or North America and Development HQ. It’s a caricature, but it’s often horribly accurate.

One feature of that path is that the year-in-the-village shapes each person’s thinking for the rest of their careers, acquiring a special claim to truth, even if research and data suggests that in some areas, that experience may not be typical. Discussions often end up in ‘well, when I was living in Malawi….’ as though that is the final word on the matter.

I thought about Chambers as I read Ed Carr’s Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future. The first half of the book covers his time ‘in the field’ as an archaeologist-turned-geographer, with a fascinating and detailed study of the last two hundred years in two villages in Ghana on what he calls ‘globalization’s shoreline’. But it then extrapolates at vertiginous speed to a wide, and rather unsatisfying discussion of globalization, environmental limits, climate change and the future of development. I much preferred the first half.

The book’s strengths lie in its combination of sharp observation of present arrangements and painstaking reconstruction of the history of the villages. His overall conclusion is that his excavations and conversations show that this is no virgin ‘underdeveloped’ region awaiting the arrival of globalization in the shape of roads, mobile phones and trade: ‘the situation in [the villages] is not due to a lack of development. It is the outcome of nearly two centuries of colonial and development intervention in the global, Ghanaian and village economies and environments.’

His most interesting focus is on gender relations. He finds both that women farmers are two to three times more productive per hectare, and that men deliberately constrain their access to land in order to maintain economic control over the family, even if it costs the overall household in terms of foregone income.

It is this interplay between patriarchy and production that he believes explains his most intriguing finding –  the tides of globalization that flow into and out of the villages as commodity prices rise and fall, or roads are built and wash away, are not linked to household incomes in anything like the way the textbooks predict.  The ‘echo chamber’ (the name of his blog) of development thinking reinforces ideas that don’t describe what actually happens.

Carr was present when one such tide ‘came back in’. To the surprise of the villagers, an improved government-built road suddenly appeared in 2004 after a long period of abandonment, allowing him to observe and record its impact on the villages. He expected to see a cascade of benefits – improved incomes, cheaper transport, off-farm jobs (accompanied by a shift to low -labour products like tree crops as off-farm work increased). ‘As it turned out, I was wrong about nearly everything’. Two years after the road arrived, what he calls the ‘market households’ – the most integrated into the cash economy – were earning less than before the road came and were less engaged with nonfarm employment. Why? Women farmers initially responded as predicted to the new opportunities and rapidly increased their incomes, but this provoked a backlash from the men, who control land allocation and subsequently removed it from women’s hands, causing incomes to fall back. Female-headed households did indeed massively improve their incomes.

So the impact of globalization and economic integration can only be understood at a local level by seeing it as mediated by power and politics at national, community and household level.  Excellent, but there, I’m afraid, the book rather loses direction, with a tendency (despite caveats to the contrary) to extrapolate out from this two-village experience to generalized conclusions that globalization doesn’t leave the poor better off (‘things are not going to get substantially worse for most people living along the shoreline if globalization pulls back and development goes away’). It is also dotted with various straw men of the ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ type and takes pops at some traditional whipping boys, like the Millennium Villages Project and the World Bank’s PRSPs (I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, but they’re covered in exhaustive depth elsewhere). He misses the point that while development thinking struggles to explain what happens in a particular village, it may well be able to make valid broader generalizations about correlation and causation – just as an individual wave (or weather event) is unattributable, but a tide (or climate change) is not. The book correctly identifies the lack of realtime data on human impact as a big gap, but proposes a rather halfbaked open-source global community network to fill it.

Back to Chambers – there’s a danger both in ignoring what you learned during your year in the village, and in interpreting it as a universal truth. Delivering Development may err towards the latter, but the field work itself is fascinating, and well worth a read.

Here’s Ed Carr discussing the book


  1. Crazy. This book costs $19 in electronic format, and due to copyright reasons I can’t even get it in my country (Spain). It’s a pity, but I don’t think I’ll read it :(

  2. Interesting – certainly agree that we all need to be careful about generalising from our own very limited experience. My own formative fieldwork experience has led me in the opposite direction to Ed – I went to Northern Mozambique to study cotton farming in a village there expecting to find much more conflict between genders that I actually did. What I found was a clear gender division of labour, but one that worked (reasonably) harmoniously, and which had allowed people to embrace the new opportunities offered by globalisation, in the form of a contract farming scheme for cotton, with great enthusiasm and profitability.
    But the problem is, as you say, people have to generalise somehow to make policy at any level – we also criticise people for generalising on the basis of models or theories and not actual experience, so it’s hard to know how to get it right.

  3. Duncan:

    First, thanks for writing up such a thorough, engaged review. I greatly appreciate how you captured the significant findings emerging from my fieldwork in Ghana, and nicely highlighted them for the reader – clearly, you really engaged with the text, which is all any author can ask of a reviewer.

    Second, I appreciate how even-handed this review is. To be honest, I almost entirely agree with your assessment of the second half of the book. I always thought it was much weaker than the first half – and perhaps it had to be, as I was trying to scale up my (rather narrow, locally-based) research findings to prevent this from being just another ethnography of a village. My goal in going to the global was to help the reader understand why the fact that our assumptions are wrong at the village level might matter – this was my answer to the “who cares?” question. I thought of this half of the book as being more illustrative than substantive . . . which might have been problematic, given how substantive the first half of the book is.

    Along these lines, it is perhaps unfortunate that some of my illustrations (the MVP, PRSPs) that were fresher in May-June 2009 when I wrote the manuscript (itself built on a couple of earlier articles, here – the MVP and African Development.pdf and here – Rethinking Poverty Alleviation.pdf – I’d written on them) are now all-too-popular targets in development . . . perhaps this is the curse of writing a topical book, things move so quickly that the text is quickly dated. In any case, I think your reading of the second half is largely fair.

    If I were to quibble, I think that you might be drawing a bit too strong a connection between this book and Chambers’ “career trajectory” argument, if only because I think your review reads a bit like I am claiming that Dominase and Ponkrum are representative of the world – though, to be fair, you do note that I offer caveats to such claims. To that point, I tried to be really clear in the book, at the end of chapter 7, when I wrote “This story cannot replace the dominant tale of globalization with a new one. Instead it serves to call into question our current understanding of this process and to open the possibility of examining our assumptions about it.” Further, at the beginning of chapter 8 I wrote:

    “Dominase and Ponkrum call into question the universality of our assumptions about development and globalization. Certainly there are places along globalization’s shoreline where a sustained engagement with global markets is associated with improvements in people’s lives. However, Dominase and Ponkrum illustrate that the outcomes of development and globalization hinge on local conditions that vary widely across globalization’s shoreline. As a result, there will be a wide variety of outcomes for those who engage with global markets via these avenues. Sometimes local conditions will align with our broad assumptions, and the outcomes of our projects and policies will be as expected. At other times local conditions will run contrary to expectations, leading to unexpected policy and project outcomes. Viewed from this perspective, the complex, contradictory outcomes of development projects and economic policy are no longer inexplicable or idiosyncratic.”

    Given how carefully you read the book, your review demonstrates that I perhaps did not make this point clearly enough (i.e. this is a failing of my writing, which I can fully accept) or I contradicted myself at other points in the book such that my caveats were lost. This might have led the reader to assume that, as you say, I was extrapolating out from the experience of these villages to make firm statements about how things “really work.” This was not my goal. I was simply trying to argue that our assumptions require testing – they don’t seem to line up with reality in at least one place, and it is unlikely that this one place is unique, so we need to figure out how often it is that, for example, globalization doesn’t necessarily leave the poor better off (and to be fair, I do note in the book that there are times and places where it does – my concern is with the unevenness of this result, and our need to better understand this unevenness).

    That said, it is entirely possible that I occasionally lapsed into what sounds like absolutist claims about how things “really work,” (if so, this is frustrating, as it of course undermines my own critique!). Fair enough, the blame for that lies with me.

    I think you are completely fair in calling the open-source community “half baked” because that is exactly where it is at the moment. I was raising that idea simply to put the political argument on the table: we can do this sort of work, we can hear what people have to say . . . so why don’t we? However, behind that chapter is a real project that has been stymied repeatedly by UN bureaucracy to do just what I was describing – start linking villages together. There has been a recent renewed interest in this idea, and it might one day get beyond half-baked.

    Finally, while I had not thought of it quite this way, I recognize the concern Chambers raises for how one long, important field experience that colors everything else that I do from here forward. To the end of overcoming just this bias, I’ve been working in several other places that afford the opportunity to test and refine the conclusions I draw in the book and elsewhere. The results from Ghana have resulted in a reframing of the livelihoods approach (see the preprint version here:, and our understanding of the connection between land use and livelihoods (see articles here and Carr Co-production of land use and livelihoods.pdf and here and McCusker Coproduction implications for development.pdf), that I have/am currently pushing into the literature and testing in Malawi, now in Mali, and hopefully in the near future in South Africa. I expect to find new things, and revise at least some of my general conclusions, as these projects progress. In other words, everything I write is a first draft, and will be revised in light of new data – if I had it all figured out, I would be bored!

    All quibbles aside, your review is very fair and generous. I appreciate your willingness to object to the weaker parts of the book, and to do so on substantive grounds. Thank you for taking the time to engage so thoroughly.



  4. Nice review Duncan and thanks for the considered response from Ed. I was discussing this problem the other day – that we need to use the lessons we might learn from this type of field experience to ask questions about ideas in other places (the ‘hang on, issue X was very relevant in place/time Y so you might need to think about it place/time Z too’ approach) without letting it lead us to proposing solutions without really understanding Z. I think Ed’s argument that if there is a failure it is in his writing rather than his thinking is a good lesson for the rest of us too about how we present things when we are trying to highlight (but not overplay) the relevance of a particular case study.

  5. A very thoughtful and insightful reply from Ed; this dialogue with Duncan is really valuable. It made me want to read more so, Can I just point out that a small thing, that the links to the preprint versions don’t work – you have to cut and paste them into yr search box to get to Ed’s site.

  6. Sorry for the late comment, but I only just saw this now.
    But I found this book very interesting and relevant, particularly because it showed the importance , I think, of what Jockin Arputham calls “value change” in development strategies. While I’m not saying it’s by any means indispensable, I can’t help but notice how social norms in poor communities can be altered through participation in endeavours that address structural injustice and emphasize the responsibility and capabilities of the poor themselves in working for change. As development agencies struggle to find ways to involve the poor in their own quest for a better life, the role of grassroots social movements can and perhaps should be considered. I have just come back from Haiti where, for example, the Brazilian landless movement is working with peasant farmers in not only improving their outputs and incomes, but also helping to open up a different way of thinking about these, based on their own experiences in Brazil. So for me the issue of social and cultural norms actually impeding development, as shown in Mr. Carr’s book, was truly revelatory.

Leave a comment

Translate »