In ‘Whose Reality Counts’, Robert Chambers caricatures a typical successful career path in development as ‘tying down, moving inwards and 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