How Development Projects Persist (book review)

Erin Beck’s ethnography of two Guatemalan micro-finance non-governmental organisations in the context of local development dynamics and global discourses of aid is a valuable contribution to the aidnography genre, yet also raises some important questions about the future of how anthropologists can research and write about the local manifestations of global development.

Based on her extensive doctoral research in rural Guatemala,
How Development Projects Persist. Everyday Negotiations with Guatemalan NGOs sets out to create a vivid and intimate account of the women ‘beneficiaries’ of two NGOs. Namaste, a traditional foreign-funded organization, and Fraternity, a grassroots organization with a more holistic vision of personal and community development. The book centres around her comparative ethnography which, perhaps less surprising for an academic audience, highlight Namaste’s ‘successfully institutionalized audit culture’ in a professionalised context of ‘hiring procedures, (…), training programs, paperwork, databases and evaluation techniques’ (p.88).

Fraternity, on the other hand, is ‘drawing on creative combinations of Mayan and Protestant values’ and operates ‘according to a holistic model of development, which included (…) indigenous women’s voices and inclusion, as well as revalorisation of nonhuman life’ (p.160).

Beck avoids the potential pitfalls of such a dichotomy with her nuanced analysis that includes reflections from her field diary and the women who participate in different microfinance programmes. These highlight the different organizational approaches and the complexities of engaging women in microfinance and broader developmental aspects. A Namaste manager concludes his training session ‘I will be the professor and you will be the students’ (p.104). Yet, personal success can be attributed to many factors, often outside the programme: ‘While Michele’s participation in Namaste did not transform her conceptions of self or her interests (…) it did yield positive, tangible outcomes in a context in which such outcomes were rare’ (p.131). This is in stark contrast to Fraternity’s more ‘self-help’-style approach: ‘“If God loves us so much, what should we do?” A beneficiary responded, “Care for ourselves.” (…) The women spent the rest of the class discussing the “symptoms” of low self-esteem and the various ways that women could care for themselves’ (p.174).

In the end, these well-structured narratives form a very readable book that should enrich reading lists on development anthropology, qualitative fieldwork or organizational ethnography.

Beck concludes that the ‘analysis of Namaste and the Fraternity (…) clearly demonstrates that development projects have many more effects than those anticipated and that those involved in projects often operate according to varying degrees of success’ (p.212).
Beck’s ethnography raises some broader questions about anthropological encounters with global development and its implementation in local communities and her work continues an important strand of research: How is the latest trend in development implemented locally? From ‘participation’ to ‘gender’ or ‘peacebuilding’, an ethnography on ‘microfinance’ continues the tradition of anthropological scrutiny of development buzzwords. That itself is a worthwhile endeavour, but perhaps not as ‘provocative’ as the publisher claims. The discipline already has a solid body of research that disputes simple notions of ‘aid chains’ that get foisted on countries and communities top-down or the idea that grassroots organisations by default ‘empower’ people, resist broader power dynamics or create more equitable communities. As much as I appreciate the writing conventions of doctoral research and subsequent publication by a university press, I wonder how the genre of aidnography can avoid becoming a pastiche, especially with growing demands across academia of ‘decolonising’ practices and more inclusive as well as participatory formats of writing.

But Beck’s book is also an important reminder how traditional and ‘innovative’ manifestations of capitalism are constantly expanding, looking for new places, subjects and capillary systems such as ‘microfinance’ to spread a message that ‘there is no alternative’ to Western understandings of progress.
I doubt that many organisations in the development industry would disagree with the findings. Is this not a success story that in the end women are created as neoliberal-capitalist agents – no matter how these agents try to play ‘development’ along the way? After well over two decades, development anthropology has no longer the standing to ‘expose’ hidden aspects of local power struggles, individual agency and development processes that tweak, ignore or ‘remix’ the development tool box.
Beck’s book confidently confirms a space for development anthropology in the discipline, but her comparative ethnography also raises important questions of where a more radical locus of ethnographic storytelling resides these days.

This is a slightly revised version of my forthcoming review in Social Anthropology.

Beck, Erin: How Development Projects Persist: Everyday Negotiations with Guatemalan NGOs. ISBN 978-0-8223-6378-1,  266pp, 25.95 USD, Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2017.

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