Development actors and their unifying narrative

Mosse’s Cultivating Development (2005) is the path-breaking contribution that inspired what he titled “the new ethnography of development” (p. 11). His methodology and highly original argument open up plenty of space for furtherdiscussion and research. The subject of the study is the Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project (IBRFP), a participatory project geared towards bringing agricultural technologies and innovations to tribal communities in rural India. During the mid-1990s the DFID-funded project was considered “absolutely cutting edge” and “the jewel in the crown” of British aid (Mosse, 2005, p. 183), even though it had little to show for itself in reality. Only a few years later, when some positive dynamics were starting to appear, DFID’s policy model had moved on and the project began to be regarded as a failure.

Mosse (2005) was able to gain his insights through multi-positioned and multisited analysis, and his eight-year involvement as the project’s consultant anthropologist. During this time, he routinely visited the project, spending time with project staff at office meetings and workshops, in their homes, or on the long journeys to the scattered villages that were participating in the project. His observations as a participant-insider - complemented by document analysis and interviews with project staff - sit at the core of his research and provide the first-hand accounts that make this an engaging, stimulating study.

Mosse’s (2005) central concern in this study is not whether, but rather how development works (p. 2). In this regard, Mosse focuses particularly on the complex relationship between policy and practice, stressing the discontinuities between the two. He asks:

What if development practice is not driven by policy? What if the things that make for good policy are quite different from those that make it implementable? ... What if, instead of policy producing practice, practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events?


From the study, it becomes evident that the dynamic between policy and practice is deeply important to the project, but not for the reasons one would think. The picture that appears is of an intervention driven by the relationships between a network of actors - including donors, local and federal governments, corporations and farmers - rather than by policy. Meanwhile policy, rather than being an instrumental tool that shapes how development is done, is a unifying narrative that preserves and validates this network of actors. As Mosse (2005) explains, policy is not primarily concerned with orientating practice, but rather is designed to mobilise and maintain political support in order to legitimise development activities (p. 14). On the ground there is profound disjuncture between what policy-makers say should happen and the logics that actually shape project practice (pp. 232-236).

As a platform for my own research, I have taken this ethnographic picture as a starting point and developed a conceptual triad of how development works. This is a reconceptualisation of the original five propositions outlined by Mosse (2005),3 but one that provides a more useful platform for further research. In the first component of this conceptual triad, development is shaped by the interaction

Reframing humanitarian prolection 45 between a complex network of actors rather than by policy. Second, policy helps build a level of consensus and establishes relationships among these disparate actors. In other words, it is a unifying narrative. Finally, using concepts Mosse extended in a later collaboration (Lewis & Mosse, 2006), development brokers actively recruit and maintain these actors.

Networks of actors

Anyone who has experience in international development will know that it involves multiple interactions between actors of differing status, varying levels of resources and dissimilar, often competing goals. Policy brings together these “diverse, even incompatible interests, for example those of national governments, implementing agencies, collaborating NGOs, research institutions, or donor advisers of different hues” (Mosse, 2005, p. 15). In the process it builds a level of consensus and establishes alliances - or relationships - that work to bring a project into existence. In other words, development policy ideas are important less for what they say than for whom they bring together - “what alliances, coalitions and consensuses they allow” (Mosse, 2005, p. 15).

However, policy models that effectively mobilise and maintain political support in order to legitimize development activities do not necessarily provide good guides to action (Mosse, 2005, p. 16). Instead, what drives action is the immediate needs of these organisations balanced against the need to maintain these relationships. Mosse (2005) argues that discourses become the end, rather than the means of development because a simple, coherent narrative creates a far better framework for maintaining relationships than contradictor)' development realities.

Policy as unifying narrative

As critical analysts of policy discourse have explained, the operational control that bureaucracies have over events and practices is quite limited. In the case of development projects and NGOs, policy makers, donor staff, consultants or senior managers are often marginal actors who are able at most to shape codes and rules to guide the behaviour of others with wills and motivations of their own. What usually has more impact is control over the interpretation of events - the narratives that maintain an organisation’s definition of the problem and the relevance of the solutions proposed.

Partly this comes through good marketing, successfully selling a concept to the audience of actors involved. Partly it comes through the ambiguity of the narrative. A successful policy, therefore, is one that utilises sufficiently ambiguous terminology so that it is able “to achieve a high degree of convergence of disparate interests” (Mosse, 2005, p. 46). Finally, and most importantly, it is the development of a narrative powerful enough to effectively cover over complex, real-world realities and the contradictory practices that make up a development project.

Mosse (2005) offers participation as a clear example of this. According to Mosse, there is a profound disjuncture between the clean official narrative ofparticipator)' development that works to unify disparate actors, and the logic and actions that actually shape project practice. Rather than being participatory, the project delivery system given as a case study relies on strong vertical control for its success. Here it is useful to return to Scott’s (1990) hidden and public transcripts. Development outputs are brought about by a complex set of practical improvisations, and institutional and political relations - informed by hidden transcripts. Meanwhile the project was compelled to promote the consensus view that these activities were the result of the implementation of official participatory development policy - its public transcripts.

Development brokers

A considerable amount of effort has to go into first enrolling the range of supportive actors required to establish a development project and then sustaining the unifying narrative that allows these often-disparate actors to work together. In a practical sense this takes the form of model building and reporting, field visits and review missions, public events, and promotional literature or publicity and marketing. In other words:

Project models and their interpretations, upon which project success and survival depends, have to be secured and stabalised socially, not only by winning the compliance of beneficiaries, but also through actively recruiting and enrolling other supporting actors who tie their interests to the representations of the established project order.

(Mosse, 2004, p. 657)

This work falls on development brokers - advocates, managers, consultants and fieldworkers - who translate the meaning of the project into the many different institutional languages of its stakeholder supporters (Mosse, 2005, p. 8; see also Latour, 1996, p. 78). In other words, these actors develop and sustain the common narrative that mobilises support and maintains the networks that drive a project.

A new development framework

Here we can see that the picture Mosse (2005) paints is not the established image of the monolithic, all-powerful development industry, but a site of struggle between competing interests, conflicting agendas and diverging conceptions. It is a complex network of government bureaucracies, corporate donors, development agencies and beneficiaries, all with diverse, even incompatible interests: “An arena in which people with different responsibilities, tasks and different constructions of reality competed for power” (Mosse, 2005, p. 104). Similarly, Mosse’s description of how these contradictions are lived and resolved does not reflect the rational-instrumental understanding of development as the execution of international policy. Instead, it is a complex affair in which policy is not concerned with

Reframing humanitarian prolection 47 orientating practice, but rather is designed to build consensus and establish the relationships that drive development activities. In this, Mosse provides a provocative and fresh understanding of development that has stimulated much rethinking about policy discourse, and the interactions and practises they are assumed to drive.

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