Who is 'the development industry'?

The short answer: Most of the time 'we' are the development industry - not just 'them' (those with Landcruisers and daily allowances)...

Mina, a volunteer with
Engineers Without Borders in Ghana shared some interesting reflections on how he perceives 'the industry' in the country. And he posted a few pictures to prove it: Fancy cars, fancy offices, fancy daily allowances – an often shared impression of how people (including local NGOs with cars, offices and allowances) perceive one of the key ills of development: It has become an 'industry', a market-place for transnational professional, knowledge and their 'wares' from dubious consultancy reports to endless workshops.
But I also think that this analysis is short-sighted and ignores some of the essential global dynamics behind said industry. I usually don't turn my posts into heavily academic contemplations, but please allow me two short quotes to illustrate my point theoretically. First, there's Appadurai and his fairly unspectacular analysis of our world-in-flux (he wrote this 20 years ago, though):

The landscapes of group identity – the ethnoscapes – around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically self-conscious, or culturally homogeneous … what is the nature of locality, as a lived experience, in a globalized, deterritorialized world? (Appadurai 1991: 191, 196)

My point is that understanding development means understanding it in a context of a global space and new transnational identities - not just as a project 'over there'. The moment one enters this space, e.g. in Ghana you are part of the global development space whether or not you like it.

The second quote by Crang aims at the notion that this global space is a space of power relations and hierarchies and very often we pass through the 'enclaves' without noticing it, or, more precisely, noticing the 'others' enclaves more readily than our own. Air-conditioned offices, airports, studying for a PhD are all part of these connections and we often tend to overestimate the power we as individuals have to cross cultural boundaries:

These enclaves [VIP lounges, the virtual office, computing on the run, standardized international hotels] of the global elite are places where people do not cross cultural boundaries or experience alterity in interaction. Far from being spaces of mixture or openness these are heavily hierarchical spaces’ (Crang 2002: 572).

So what do I mean in practical terms?

I would like to focus on two shortcomings of the understanding of a 'development industry' purely driven by white Landcruisers and stories about airports.
First, the moment a volunteer or any other expat aid enthusiast enters a country like Ghana, s/he is already part of the 'industry' s/he so despises. The volunteering/voluntourism industry, the graduate-student-goes-to-Africa industry and the higher-education-boom-in-development-studies industry are all contributing to 'the aid industry'. Motives, remuneration and sometimes impact differ, but in a complex world the capillary system of development comes in many shapes and sizes, but it's almost impossible to escape the dynamics of the industry. The UN person may have a fancy car, blue vest and R&R every six week, but the volunteer has a Western passport, return flight and a diploma from a renowned university in their baggage. The spaces of mobile, global elites are marked by power relations and hierarchies and the only way of not becoming a part of that industry is essentially staying home. It does not mean that you can't or shouldn't get involved at all and even make a small difference, but it happens within the rules of the industry.

The second aspect of the industry is that an important and powerful part of it is often hidden from the view. Those pictures of signs of completed projects, UN offices and white Landcruisers look familiar – but they are also easy targets. The pictures I am missing are those of the KPMG or PwC headquarters in London or of FHI-AED. A quick look at the DevEx website is an important reminder of how comprehensive and pervasive the 'development industry' really is. Behind a simple headline like 'After the Deal: How Staff Reacted to FHI-AED Purchase Agreement' is a long and complex story of how the industry works, changes and has become a small part of a much bigger global aid economy. Many of those consultancy firms do not show up on the radar of blog posts and after-work story-telling, but they are powerful – especially if they are involved in, say, USAID-funded projects, particularly in Afghanistan.

I guess my point is two-fold: First, I would be careful judging the 'industry' as an outsider without carefully considering how much of an 'insider' 'we' really are. Buying Fair Trade chocolate is great, but buying it at Wal-Mart, Tesco etc. will not make the retail industry more sustainable. It is difficult to avoid the pitfalls of the industry once one chose to engage with it. Being open, critical, writing about and discussing it is important and a step towards a reflective engagement with the complexities of development. Sometimes, it’s all we can do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these reflections are vain or useless. Is it better to go out on a Friday night injecting money in the local economy by going out for dinner, drinks and dancing or is it better to stay in front of the laptop and write a blog post using electricity and Internet capacity? It depends, it’s a choice and they are not mutually exclusive.
Second, even if there cannot be trade-offs (a bad project is a bad project), I would be more careful to look beyond obvious symbols at the surface. How outrageous is the new project vehicle really (given the road conditions, health and safety requirements or the fact that it consumes less petrol) and how ridiculous are those $300/day consultancy rates for an experienced professional? They may seem or even be over the top – but they also need to put into perspective of global transnationalism and professionalism even if they do have an impact on the local economy. I’d rather have money 'wasted' on a consultancy report that a good-hearted colleague writes and nobody ends up reading than another corporate bubble bursting in Afghanistan when a new school is built for staggering amounts of dollars.

P.S.: Just to be absolutely clear: This is no personal criticism on Mina and his post. Quite the opposite: I enjoyed his stimulating post and wish more members of the industry would actually question its value outside the relatively small circle of the 'blogosphere'...


1) Appadurai, A. 1991. Global ethnoscapes: notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (ed.) R.G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

2) Crang, M. 2002. Between places. Producing hubs, flows, and networks. Environment and Planning A 34.4.


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