Alphaville – a development review

I know, I know…I actually blame it on my new ebook reader. I have really increased my readload in the past couple of weeks and hugely enjoy reading books electronically and writing about ebooks and academic publishing.
So that’s why there is another of those ‘development reviews’.
But, on a more serious note, I do enjoy reading books that are not directly related to development, but still help me to think and reflect about some interlinked and intertwined issues between development and other parts of society, different times in history or simply different ideas. The buzz around Kaplan’s and Duflo’s recently published books is interesting to observe and maybe that’s another reason why my reading is going into a different direction. So Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett's Alphaville. The title and subtitle basically say is all: Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City's Lower East Side
. The book reminded me of ‘The Wire’ minus the broader political stories and narrated from the perspective of a regular uniformed cop who moves up to be a plainclothed cop on the East Side of New York of the mid-1980s. It is not an extraordinary story, but the small anecdotes bring the everyday life of a New York City Housing cop to live. In the second part there are more general excursions into the evolution of a special part of New York, poverty and destitution, but also the political initiatives from Ronald Reagan to various mayors of NYC. And it’s an enjoyable read. But behind the simple story of policing Alphaville there are some interesting observations that justify a ‘development’ review.
First, I do think that a lot of international development work looks and feels like the social work aspects of policing Alphaville. A handful of cops is facing an overwhelming problem of poverty, destitution, drugs, crime and the effects of bad urban planning. No matter how many ‘bad guys’ you take off the streets, no matter how much dope you confiscate you will not see change; on good days you may have a positive impact on a few people’s lives, but generally you need to develop your frustration tolerance; and if you manage to have some impact funny enough it won’t show up in the statistics anyway. Talking about statistics: This is a really fascinating theme of the book. Codella's main argument is that if you go by the book, hardly anybody would ever be arrested let alone convicted. Bending the rules is part of every shift, every day. Following your ‘instincts’ and arresting a guy who carries drugs won’t fly with the courts, so you learn your lesson and tell the District Attorney that you saw the guy leaving the bodega with drugs in plain view. Everybody knows that this is essentially not true-but it helps the institutions to get at least some work done. This must sound familiar to any development worker ‘on the ground’.
This is also true for the broader statistics: The city adopts a tougher stand on robberies and needs matching numbers to show ‘success’. Voila! Your average drug deal suddenly becomes a story of ‘A stealing money from B’ and A gets arrested for robbery not drug possession or dealing. Another bad guy off the street and the higher echelons are happy about the increasing success rate of their latest crime initiative. The bottom line is that by the time an activity has found its way into the statistics, the Excel sheet some researcher is going to analyse, it has already undergone a significant transformation, it can tell a story and it is no longer just a ‘fact’ that the officer puts into a report that the sergeant then signs off. As an anthropologist I am naturally fascinated by these stories, by the multitude of meanings they could have and the single meaning it gets assigned for the sake of a statistic. That is part of my fundamental skepticism with the ‘open aid’/open data debate.
It was also a fascinating reminder of an article by Oded Loewenheim (
Examining the State: a Foucauldian perspective on international 'governance indicators') about power and knowledge systems in international governance assessments and her conclusions sound very applicable to Alphaville as well as many other development scenarios:

Yet the examination in international politics is not simply a way to coerce states to do what they are reluctant to do. Rather, it is a process through which a discursive field is generated and then becomes constitutive in the determination of states’ normalcy and international legitimacy. Indeed, the examination also reduces the degree of arbitrariness of the use of power by hegemonic states and non-state actors. Decisions and policies regarding examined states are now increasingly justified in terms of performance in the examination. But this also means that decision making becomes more mechanised and might disregard the unique context of each examined state.
In addition, the examination also permits the responsibilisation of weak or poor states, and consequently the de-responsibilisation, so to speak, of examiners and/or powerful third parties within this discursive environment.

Another interesting aspect of the book is how vulnerable the officer on the ground is not only to the political environment, but to forces beyond his control and imagination. When the AIDS epidemic starts to unfold in the mid 1980s it makes a difficult situation worse, planning more difficult and leaves everybody pretty clueless in the first few years. Maybe this is how the impact climate change feels ‘on the ground’ and in many organizations that have been working on agricultural development.

Another point worth mentioning is the intimate knowledge of the locality, every highrise in the precinct, every dimly lit hallway, every back alley. It took Mike two years to build a reputation as a cop in Alphaville and a few more before he was able to get to the ‘big guys’.

The big guys…the MDGs of the projects, so to speak. An eternal aspiration, the dealer who stands for everything that is wrong in Alphaville and yet is evasive and difficult to catch like social change in a village project. Even if the cops know full well subconsciously that getting rid of Davey D will only change the situation in the short term, they are dedicating time and effort to catch him-good police officers doing good police work with the right motivations and means. And yet, when Mike leaves Alphaville after many years the place hardly looks better. It is still the 1980s-the ‘lost decade’ not only in international development, but also in urban planning and social work in urban America. It’s not his fault, it’s not one institution that can be blamed, or those ‘up there’ or the crooked cop ‘down here’ - it is an institutionalized system of dysfunctionality that still manages to produce remarkable individual results, yet fails to engage or even change the ‘big picture’. It would be great if better statistics, or better policies or better equipment would be the answer, but as long as drugs are illegal and fighting a ‘war on drugs’ is what they/we do the system will be failing a lot of individuals and will be messing up a lot of well-intended cops with their heart at the right places…sounds familiar, doesn’t it ;)?

I guess this is really the ‘development’ part of the review: A feeling that tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald so famously writes at the end of The Great Gatsby.


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