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International Aid and the Making of a Better World: a great new book

July 30, 2014
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Ros Eyben makes retirement look terribly exhausting. No sooner had I reviewed her book on feminists in development organizations than another appeared. This one is a Eyben coverlittle (170 page) gem. International Aid and the Making of a Better World interweaves her own life story with the evolution of the aid system, in which she is both a participant and a ferocious critic.

And although it recounts her battles and probably takes down her enemies in the traditional style of a political autobiography, this book takes real risks in ‘connecting the personal to the system’, charting her course from posh ‘aid wife’ complaining about the servants in her letters home, to born-again feminist and career aid worker (rising to be DFID’s chief social development adviser in the 1990s). From there, with growing disillusionment with the aid system, she headed for IDS and now so-called ‘retirement’.

'The author instructing the Guarani community about how to hold the state accountable'

‘The author instructing the Guarani community about how to hold the state accountable’

The personal account is riveting – pieced together from letters, journals, and illustrated with grainy black and white photos of parties on the verandah in Zaire, all discussed with an unflinching gaze that examines both her failings and triumphs.

Just as her life evolves, so does the aid system within which she is increasingly embedded, and the book provides an excellent introduction to the shifting fashions and priorities as aid goes from Cold War to neoliberal peace, with excursions into civil society, rights, resilience, results and any number of other fuzzwords. All illustrated with telling vignettes of field visits and project disasters, and some brilliant background to the structure of the aid industry. Take this on ‘what is a project’:

‘The project is a device that development agencies use to organise complex reality into a manageable, bounded unit. In 1966, Hirschman referred to them as ‘privileged particles of the development process’. Back then, in addition to providing Third World governments with ‘manpower’ for health, education and other services along with some budget support, international aid provided infrastructure projectised in the same manner as the construction of roads, bridges,etc. back home. In theory, recipient governments presented fully designed projects for funding and the aid agency then appraised their viability and relevance. In practice, aid agencies, equipped with budgets that had to be spent in a timely manner, actively encouraged recipients to think of useful schemes that fitted the project paradigm. A project was seen as a capital investment, which was then (in principle, often not in practice) maintained by the recipient government. Early projects produced something concrete – such as a power station or hospital – but by the 1970s the United Nations specialised agencies were using the project model for an expanded range of objectives, such as the ILO Youth Training Centres Project that gave me my first job as a development professional. Although by then aid agencies perceived development as more complicated than initially thought and needing more than bridges and roads, the project had become the default aid instrument. It produced the patent absurdity of a single management structure, budget and determined time frame for ambitious and nebulous concepts such as meeting basic needs through integrated rural development. Yet, external support to development at the local level without projects had become inconceivable. Development professionals, including anthropologists like me, had to work within this framework.’

Come on in....

Come on in….

She revels in exploring the dilemmas and quandaries (the notorious Nairobi swimming pool is a case study, and even warrants a photo).

From the upper echelons of DFID Central, she headed for its office in Bolivia and then off into academia, where she charted the double life (‘subversive accommodation’) of aid workers, riding the waves of chaos and complexity, and then reporting back to HQ on the basis of nice linear plans and logframes (of which she was an initial proponent). She led the criticism of the ‘results agenda’ (even if she did come off worse in a head to head with DFID measurement gurus).

Her big conclusion from her life in aid is the importance of ‘relexivity’, a process of those in aid agencies recognizing their own power and impact on those around them and cultivating ‘a process of deliberately making myself feel insecure about how I understand, speak about and behave in relationships with others.’

Reflexive practice, she argues, begins with looking in the mirror, but also ‘cultivating marginality’ – stay on the outside of the power structures within the aid system, seeking ‘the gift of being on the edge’. Focus on history and relationships, not ‘best practice’. Learn through dialogue and at all times, everywhere ‘become aware of power.’

She remains painfully honest ‘I am still struggling to understand my own motives and why for so long I have wanted to do good somewhere else that at home.’

A fantastic book.


  1. Thanks very much for this review, Duncan. I read Robert Chambers’ insightful and self-effacing book on a flight recently on your recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking forward to this one.

  2. As an ‘early career’ development / academic person I would love to read this. Yet at £21.84 for the Kindle version the useful stories and insightful comments will stay in the cloud.

    1. Blimey, that’s steep. Ros, any chance of you uploading it somewhere? Alternatively Tom, start a blog and blag a review copy……..

  3. Many thanks for the review, Duncan!

    And I am really sorry Tom that the book costs over twenty pounds. It was not my decision. If you have access to an academic library, perhaps you could suggest they buy the paperback version? And hopefully, in a few months’ time. ABE books will be offering second hand copies. Anyhow, it is a real pity, Tom, because you are my target reader! As I comment in the book’s preface, in coming late to reflexive practice, one reason I wrote the book is because I wish there had been such a book available in my own early years of development practice. Meanwhile, for related material you might want to visit my website

  4. No worries both and thanks for the options.

    I understand publishers can be awkward, but I have never quite understood the excuse for it with digital products? Nonetheless I am sure I will pick the book up when my curiosity overrides my wallet, which happens a lot.

  5. It seems I am in good company. I also have just finished reading Robert Chambers’ Into the Unknown on kindle (though not on a flight): I found the first part great reading (and that is where Duncan’s quotes came from mostly), though was not so impressed by the second part.
    I am equally curious about Ros’ book, and knowing her writing would really look forward to it. But if I can buy Robert’s book for USD 6 for kindle, why should I pay USD 38 for Ros’ book? Does that not have something to do with the choice of publishers?

  6. I can’t answer why Robert’s book is selling at such a good price. It is possible he had a budget to buy back a number of copies from the publisher (which reduces the sale price) but primarily I expect it is because he is extremely well known, has a fantastic publishing record and the publisher expected a high level of sales, allowing them to lower the unit cost of production.

    Laura Turquet’s and my Feminists in Development Organizations was published last year by Practical Action and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment had a buy back arrangement with the publishers that allowed the price to drop to£18.00. (no difference in price between E-book and paper back). Amazon is currently selling it for $35.

    So in choosing Routledge (without access to a subsidy) I was not selecting a publisher who was going to sell the book at a significantly higher price than has been my recent experience with Practical Action.

    1. Sounds like this is the next frontier in the Academic Spring debate, and even more complicated than the one on paying extortionate fees for online access to journals!

  7. For those that are interested, self publishing through things like Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing is pretty easy. I recently formatted a 100+ page book in an afternoon and I am not all that great on a computer.

    Although the services take about a third of your sales, they let you set the price.

    For me such routes to market are the future and publishers that think they can charge huge amounts (sometimes in the hundreds $) for niche subject matter (ever tried buying someone recently published thesis?) are going to come unstuck very soon.

    Likewise, I think journals are going to increasingly struggle to justify their prices, which will be a shame because a lot of work goes into soliciting pieces, having them peer reviewed, formatting them and publishing. Plus a little on marketing.

    All in all, interesting times ahead.

    Disclosure – I edit Global Policy’s online content.

  8. Thanks Duncan for the review, and delighted to hear of a book that deals with the every day self debate on why are we “helping” others rather than helping at home and if that “help” is really good and productive. I am also sorry to see the price of the book, what a shame it’s so expensive. If someone manages to get a cheaper version for kindle, please let me know!

  9. I thought of this discussion listening to radio 4 the other day – I came in at the middle but someone (I guess a publisher) was explaining that ebook versions are often a similar price to the paper copy because a very large proportion of the publisher costs goes to things like editing, marketing etc, and the actual material production of the book isn’t that significant. Plus publishing ebooks also has a cost. I’m not a publisher and don’t know the ins and outs of this, but it sounded plausible.

    I’d also say that from everything I’ve read of Ros’ work, this is probably worth the money :) It’s not a bad deal compared with some other academic books out there.

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