Fordlandia - a development review

I just finished reading Greg Grandin’s excellent book ‘Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City’. The synopsis from Amazon gives you a good overview over the contents of the book:

Proving that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, Fordlandia is the story of Henry Ford's ill-advised attempt to transform raw Brazilian rainforest into homespun slices of Americana. With sales of his Model-T booming, the automotive tycoon saw an opportunity to expand his reach further by exploiting a downtrodden Brazilian rubber industry. His vision, the laughably-named Amazonian outpost of Fordlandia, would become an enviable symbol of efficiency and mark the Ford Motor Company as a player on the global stage. Or so he thought. With thoughtful and meticulous research, author Greg Grandin explores the astounding oversights (no botanists were consulted to confirm the colony's agricultural viability) and painful arrogance (little thought was paid to how native Brazilians would react to an American way of life) that hamstrung the project from the start. Instead of ushering in a new era of commerce, Fordlandia became a cautionary tale of a dream destroyed by hubris.

What I found fascinating was to read a book, set in the pre-World War II, pre-postwar reconstruction and pre-‘modern’ international development world, that yet tells a lot about the foundations of thinking about ‘development’. Or, more precisely, how powerful and persistent some of the assumptions made in the early years of the 20th century have been in influencing ideas, mindsets and attitudes towards international development. Reading Fordlandia is a great reminder of the many things that have been changing since the days of ‘astounding oversight’ and ‘painful arrogance’. In a big, macro way, ‘we’ have been learning a lot about the limitations of Western ideas, ideals and models in the ‘South’. However, there are also many examples in the book that seem painfully familiar almost 100 years after later, whether it is the believe in the positive impact of capitalist expansion, expatriate life or the status of Henry Ford as an industry icon and possibly the first development celebrity.
The struggle to create a model city in the Amazon rainforest reminds me of to some extent of the struggle for ‘social change’ today. Few organisations or individuals would commit the same agricultural mistakes the Ford team did and rely on local experts and scientific expertise, but the core idea that it simply must be possible to create a piece of Michigan in the rainforest is still visible in today’s development discourse: There must be a way how we can scale up project A or replicate project B and prove ‘impact’.

But the most important lesson I took from this book is that as new, contemporary, exciting and changing the development world is, most of our thinking and actions are deeply rooted in the history of capitalism and very unclouded visions of ‘progress’.

I will try to focus on two broad trains of thoughts in my review, namely what has changed since the days of Fordlandia and in the second paragraph highlight a few issues that still read very familiar to the challenges faced in international development in 2011 and beyond.
The idea to set up Fordlandia materialised around 1925 and it was only in 1945 that Henry Ford II turned over Fordlandia to the Brazilian authorities. In the end, his adventure in the rainforest had cost him around $20 million, more than $240 million in today’s purchasing power according to a rough estimation.

What has changed since the days of Fordlandia?

·         The role of local experts and expertise
Setting up the world’s largest rubber plantation entirely planned and executed from the Ford headquarters was a crazy idea. Henry Ford disliked ‘experts’ so in the end accountants and general managers from Michigan were in charge of a plantation in the Amazon rainforest. It is hard to imagine this complete disregard for local knowledge, experts and expertise today; I never thought I would write such a sentence one day, but Fordlandia could have benefitted from a few more international consultants, conferences and workshops ;)!

·         The role of Knowledge Management
This is far from perfect today, but more sophisticated than in Fordlandia days. ‘One does not have to be an expert to know that a standard practice in one country can be detrimental to good practice in another’ (302), said a new plant manager in 1935, 10 years into the project when the rubber production was still around 0 and they finally invited an ‘expert’ (who probably copy-pasted a best practice production manual from Firestone and sold it to Ford as his own work); there is at least some acknowledgment of ‘complexity’ today.

·         The role of field visits and immersions
Believe it or not, Henry Ford never visited Fordlandia. It would have been possible logistically and he was not in poor health in the earlier years of the project. He solely relied on reports from the field and they mostly told the story that those in Brazil anticipated he wanted to hear.

·         The power of admitting failure
‘The jungle was beginning to keep back over it and blast out the signs and lines of a supercivilization which we had transported and transplanted at the cost of incredible efforts, money and human life’, but the only conclusion managers made in 1935 was: ‘We stay, even if the core mission is unlikely to be fulfilled’ (305); shifting from a purely economic project to a ‘civilization’ project maintained the illusion of ‘progress’, but my no means did any of the men involved even consider admitting failure; it is still difficult today, but the tide seems to be shifting slowly.

·         The role of expat life
Many big, male egos clashed in the process of setting up Fordlandia and there was absolutely no way that American expat managers would engage in any way with the local culture; like many other I hugely enjoy ‘Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like’, but reading Fordlandia almost makes you wish for more local cultural exposure, stories about hardship and tales of drivers, local food etc. There was absolutely no mutual learning involved and the cultural superiority of the American life- and workstyles makes you cringe many times throughout the book; much has changed, but everything for the better...


What still seems remarkable contemporary in today’s ‘development industry’?

·         The role of celebrities
Henry Ford is depicted by often uncritical media, including all the household names of North American newspaper publishing, as the equivalent of a Bill Gates who, after founding Google and facebook, had a stint at Microsoft before he morphed into Warren Buffet just to take a sabbatical as Mother Teresa. Henry Ford’s economic success with the Ford Motor company qualified him for everything else; even if some celebrities appear to be a bit more knowledgeable and humble, there just is not enough questioning of these endeavours going on, because they have been delivering easy stories, pictures and sound-bites...in 1920 as much as in 2011.

·         The believe in a world of ‘ceteris paribus
Ford and his managers believe to some extent in a neutral ‘laboratory’ in which they could just grow rubber and get on with their lives. The notion that social change, stagnation or ‘underdevelopment’ are inherently linked to political developments, corruption, local culture and customs, the weather and many more factors completely escaped their approaches. Newtonian approaches still dominate much of today’s development thinking.

·         The believe that business, corporations and capitalism are the drivers of ‘development’
They do play a role, of course, but even in a ‘perfect world’ Ford's development impact would have been small: He paid no taxes, he exported/imported everything, he did not train local staff and he was generally conservative in all his views; Ford may have been one of the first who embraced ‘CSR’, but there was a huge gap between the ‘5 Dollar a day’ wage rhetoric and the way he treated his workers. Coercion, establishing a panoptikum both in his plants and at the workers’ homes were key features in his quest to build the perfect modern man/family. Every initiative he made was to either maximise profits or help to create the modern man who would then buy his products and maximise his profits. The long quote at the end is very indicative of his world view and its limitations.

·         The believe to have a centralised organisation
Henry Ford may have been a unique personality, but the idea that one man could lead the way and his philosophy will be the only guiding principle is not fit for complex circumstances-despite his great success in creating the modern automobile; his organisational culture of distrust, top-down decision-making and reliance on ‘trial and error’ rather than listening to experts and alternative voices isolated him and his projects from critique and fresh ideas. Again, there are signs of change in NGOs, but many international organisations still seem to have a ‘Fordist’ view of management and reporting.

Just a parable of arrogance?

It would be tempting to read the story of Fordlandia [...] as a parable of arrogance, just one in a long line of failed bids to press man's will on the storied Amazon. [...] The “sociologist manufacturer”, though, had his sights set on a more formidable challenge. Ford, the man who in the early 1910s helped unleash the power of industrialization to revolutionize human relations, spent most of the rest of his life trying to put the genie back into the bottle, to contain the disruption he himself set loose, only to be continually, inevitably thwarted. Born more from political frustrations at home than from the need to acquire control over yet another raw material abroad, Fordlandia represents in crystalline from the utopianism that powered Fordism - and by extension Americanism. It reveals the faith that a drive toward greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the word of technology itself, without the need for government planning, could solve whatever social problems arose from progress's advance.
Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained. (339-340)

I do not want to overstretch my ‘development review’, but Fordlandia is one of the first and most ambitious projects of a Western company to link profits to ‘development’ which probably makes it different from previous plantations and the engagement of their companies such as the United Fruit Company. The book really elucidated some of the foundations on which the first development discourses were built after the end of World War II, the foundation of international organisations and the successful economic recovery of Germany and post-war Western Europe. It is also a powerful reminder of how deeply ingrained some assumptions about ‘progress’ are – but also that despite its limitations not everything is foul, bad and wrong with today’s development approaches – there is just always a new day to challenge our mindsets, learn from history, question our assumptions and listen to the stories of those around us.

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