An anthropologist’s take on development economists

By | July 4, 2011

Anthropologist Mike McGovern on popular development economics, as exemplified mainly by Paul Collier’s books:

What is striking to me as an anthropologist, however, is that much of the fundamental intellectual work in Collier’s analyses is, in fact, ethnographic. Because it is not done very self-consciously and takes place within a larger econometric rhetoric in which such forms of knowledge are dismissed as “subjective” or worse still biased by the political (read “leftist”) agendas of the academics who create them, it is often ethnography of a low quality.


Collier brings his creativity and virtuosity to his selection of categories of analysis, eschewing the actors’ own categories and stated intentions, “tainted” as they may well be with ideology, self-deception, or the desire to portray oneself in a positive light. These are, however, human beings. There are no true control groups, least of all in the context of war or the daily scramble for survival that characterizes the lives of the very poor. In this context of myriad relevant variables, extreme fluidity, and limited information, much of the intellectual heavy lifting in economic analyses of culturally different settings such as Africa is anecdotal, sometimes internally contradictory, and often highly questionable. It may reflect the author’s own imagination of poor people’s lives more than the realities of those lives. If these analyses are fundamentally flawed in this way, what is their staying power? Development economics as a discipline has been systematically unsuccessful in producing desired policy results, at least in the countries where the bottom billion reside. Moreover, those countries such as China and India that Collier hails as truly and rapidly developing have been characterized to a large extent by their rejection of the ministrations of such institutions as the World Bank.

You really should take the time to read the whole stuff Here. Via Chris Blattman.

  • Excellent, and about time.

    I think anyone with any training in the social sciences knows that any explicit methods or mathematics sits on a substrate of unexpressed, and not wholly expressible substrate called culture, the background, forestructures, tacit knowledge…Being a good social scientist involves adopting a reflective and reflexive stance, in which you allow your perceptions of the other (in this case, the poor) illuminate your own forestructures. 

    Economists, unfortunately, seem to want to distance themselves from the other social sciences, and pretend theirs is a natural science. The natural sciences can afford to be unreflective, and unreflexive, because they deal with rocks and trees and artillery shells. But a human studying a human is a very different kind of epistemological system than a human studying a rock.

    Much of economics does read like bad ethnography. Economic authors bring to bear stale and uncritical assumptions, without apparent awareness not only that they are doing so, but even the awareness that they are doing so.

    This hardly matters when they are employed by banks or treasuries. It’s disturbing when this unselfconscious and unselfcritical approach is applied to investing in poor communities.

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