World Development Report 2011 – creating a ‘non-place’ for development debates?


When the French philosopher Marc  Augé coined the term ‘non-place’ he was not exactly talking about international development. The places ‘which cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity’ (pp.77-78) are ‘prevalent in [the] supermodern and Jamesonian “late-capitalist” society as spaces created for specific ends, such as commerce or transportation’ (Mark Matienzo: The ethnology of nowhere, everywhere. Marc Augé's Non-places as an analytical tool for supermodern ahistory and transience).
In today’s aid world these may be predominantly places where expat aid workers pass through such as airports, capital city restaurants, hotels, places for R&R, global meetings or, arguably, the
‘blogosphere’. Travelling, movement, acceleration and speed are fundamental traits of non-places as Augé exemplifies the non-place as the fundamental experience of the traveller through space, ‘a simultaneous distancing from the spectator and the spectacle’ (p.92). The WDR is the 352 page document equivalent of a non-place. It a glossy, mostly aggregated (except a couple of case studies mostly provided by high-profiled members of the advisory board) read that is the opposite of everything that is going on ‘on the ground’ – the complexities I have not read the whole report, of course, but after a first engagement with the document there is already a framework emerging that is fascinating beyond particular details or statistics. There is no historical context that suggests that World Bank or any other international organisation or donor was at any point involved in root causes of conflict or contributed with their engagement to today’s problems. Good governance? Civil society as service deliverers? Limitations of the model of liberal peacebuilding? That’s so 20th century! In the 21st century we have types of conflicts and violence that need new/improved/different approaches. That helps to understand gang violence as a problem of ‘unemployed youth’ which is not necessarily linked to what happened in many Latin American countries in the early 20th century.
One of my favourite anthropological books is Carolyn Nordstrom’s ‘Shadows of War:
Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century’. In short she marvels as linking economic relationships in a local—global context; ‘war’ means selling brand name soaps on the frontlines in Angola as much as it means all sorts of shadow activities, including arms trade (mentioned once in the WDR), narcotics and off-shore activities; all these ‘grey’ activities can exist at the same time in the same place and often carried out by the same people. These complex relationships are not really acknowledged, the word ‘anthropologist’ only appears once in the WDR when ‘an anthropologist’ is cited with a short quote (p.162).
As the first comments (GUARDIAN development site) on the WDR appear and more critical analysis will show up, I am acknowledging the amount of research and thought that has gone into the report; it is not a ‘bad’ report, but beyond the statistics and case studies it is a powerful and important framing process.
Augé notes that ‘certain places [that] only exist through the words that evoke them’ (p.95), such as ‘America,’ or ‘the West’. In this case, such non-places are fundamentally forms of the ‘social imaginary’ as defined by Cornelius Castoriadis (cf. Matienzo).
The WDR will be part of the ‘social imaginary’ of how we as a community of researchers and practitioners discuss development, conflict and building peace. Being aware of it may be a first step towards more engaging discussions, even if I write this post in the ‘non-place’ of a global coffee shop chain...

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