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Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and th Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into "technical" problems awaiting solution by "development" agencies and experts. It is the political intelligibility of these effects, along with the process that produces them, that this book seeks to illuminate through a detailed case study of the workings of the "development" industry in one country, Lesotho, and in one "development" project. Using an anthropological approach grounded in the work of Foucault, James Ferguson analyzes the institutional framework within which such projects are crafted and the nature of "development discourse," revealing how it is that, despite all the "expertise" that goes into formulating development projects, they nonetheless often demonstrate a startling ignorance of the historical and political realities of the locale they are intended to help. In a close examination of the attempted implementation of the Thaba-Tseka project in Lesotho, Ferguson shows how such a misguided approach plays out, how, in fact, the "development" apparatus in Lesotho acts as an "anti-politics machine," everywhere whisking political realities out of sight and all the while performing, almost unnoticed, its own pre-eminently political operation of strengthening the state presence in the local region.James Ferguson is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine.


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Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and th Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into "technical" problems awaiting solution by "development" agencies and experts. It is the political intelligibility of these effects, along with the process that produces them, that this book seeks to illuminate through a detailed case study of the workings of the "development" industry in one country, Lesotho, and in one "development" project. Using an anthropological approach grounded in the work of Foucault, James Ferguson analyzes the institutional framework within which such projects are crafted and the nature of "development discourse," revealing how it is that, despite all the "expertise" that goes into formulating development projects, they nonetheless often demonstrate a startling ignorance of the historical and political realities of the locale they are intended to help. In a close examination of the attempted implementation of the Thaba-Tseka project in Lesotho, Ferguson shows how such a misguided approach plays out, how, in fact, the "development" apparatus in Lesotho acts as an "anti-politics machine," everywhere whisking political realities out of sight and all the while performing, almost unnoticed, its own pre-eminently political operation of strengthening the state presence in the local region.James Ferguson is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine.

30 review for The Anti-Politics Machine: "Development," Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

  1. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Wu

    This is an utterly fantastic anthropological work exposing how the discourse of "development" turns questions of poverty that are fundamentally about politics and power structures into mere technical problems that can be solved with apolitical aid solutions. Written five years before Escobar's equally cogent critique of development as discourse, Ferguson's book focuses on his fieldwork in Lesotho as a concrete example. Some of Ferguson's research on why "development" failed to solve poverty-rela This is an utterly fantastic anthropological work exposing how the discourse of "development" turns questions of poverty that are fundamentally about politics and power structures into mere technical problems that can be solved with apolitical aid solutions. Written five years before Escobar's equally cogent critique of development as discourse, Ferguson's book focuses on his fieldwork in Lesotho as a concrete example. Some of Ferguson's research on why "development" failed to solve poverty-related issues in Lesotho are truly fascinating, especially his extensive work on why the creation of a livestock market failed to have its expected impacts. But the real gem is the ten-page epilogue, in which Ferguson sets forth an incredibly concise, compelling argument about how people truly interested in ameliorating poverty around the world are better off working with social movements or organizations that truly challenge structures of power, rather than working inside "development" institutions which represent very different interests.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nithya

    Ferguson describes this book as “not principally a book about the Basotho people, or even about Lesotho; it is principally a book about the operation of the “international development” apparatus in a particular setting.” His book is about the complex relation between the intentionality of planning in a development project in Lesotho and the strategic intelligibility of its outcomes, which turn out to be unintended, but instrumental in expanding state power and, at the same time, depoliticizing t Ferguson describes this book as “not principally a book about the Basotho people, or even about Lesotho; it is principally a book about the operation of the “international development” apparatus in a particular setting.” His book is about the complex relation between the intentionality of planning in a development project in Lesotho and the strategic intelligibility of its outcomes, which turn out to be unintended, but instrumental in expanding state power and, at the same time, depoliticizing the power. Against the backdrop of the swarm of development agencies in Lesotho, Africa, he employs a Foucauldian notion of discourse being a practice (to engage in a discourse is to do something). In a fascinating analysis, he shows how World Bank’s country report on Lesotho summarily labels Lesotho as a subsistence-based economy with high population growth untouched by capitalism. Ferguson argues that Lesotho was, in fact, affected by capitalism as early at 1910, that the World Bank is not just wrong, but systematically wrong in its portrayal of Lesotho. He describes the case of the World-bank funded Thaba-Tseka project (1975-84), which was originally designed to convert mountainous regions into commercial livestock ranges by providing road connections and low-cost production techniques. He then details why the project failed to live up to its original goals. To do so, Ferguson traverses back and forth between discourse analysis of development and ethnographic field work in his method. Such a lens provides an understanding of the reconfigurations, causalities, and particularities of each other. Furthermore, it helps me understand the processes, practices and phenomena as occurring within a larger context of discourse production, rather than appearing to act in isolation. He could have provided a less personal epilogue, though, which is rather disappointing in highly impressive book. A must for anyone engaging with development.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dylan Groves

    Case study of 70-80's livestock improvement scheme in Lesotho. The big anthropology critiques of development are well trodden and contestable. The beauty of this book is (1) how well it nails the details (the nuances of failed livestock, decentralization, and integrated rural development schemes), (2) how clear and accessible it is, (3) how seamlessly it relates theoretical arguments to concrete project developments. Three takeaways: 1 - The principal effect of development projects is the (depolit Case study of 70-80's livestock improvement scheme in Lesotho. The big anthropology critiques of development are well trodden and contestable. The beauty of this book is (1) how well it nails the details (the nuances of failed livestock, decentralization, and integrated rural development schemes), (2) how clear and accessible it is, (3) how seamlessly it relates theoretical arguments to concrete project developments. Three takeaways: 1 - The principal effect of development projects is the (depoliticized extension) of state bureaucratic power rather than improvements in economic growth or human well being. Power here defined not as dudes with guns but as the routing of social relations through the state (go to the agriculture extension office to get a permit to give cows as a funeral gift. etc) 2 - Unwiliingness to sell cattle (the "Bovine Mystique") is best understood as a social rule (rather than a part of a pre-capitalist economy or conforming to some hidden rational-self interest) that is embedded in specific power relationships - a way for men to preserve retirement savings from their wives (cattle is property of men while cash is shared in the household), old to generate income from young (bride payments are a huge form of redistribution to the elderly and only work if money is primarily held in publicly visible form ie cows), and for powerful to preserve their social status (loaning cows to poorer community members is a preeminent marker of status) Social relations (ie Men/Women) ---> Social Rules (ie "Bovine Mystique") ----> Otherwise puzzling individual actions (ie failure to sell cows during drought) 3 - The big danger of development projects is less that they act on developing countries as subjects on objects and more that they fail to recognize that development projects themselves are objects being acted on by political machinery at both national and international levels.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Wim

    Probably one of the most important and refreshing books on development. Published more than 20 years ago, but still amazingly relevant. Through the extreme case of Lesotho, James Ferguson gives a powerful analysis of how development aid is disconnected from local realities, how it is instrumentalized by politics, and why a technical "neutral" approach is used to justify political agendas that do not improve living conditions for the poor. Even though the author is just an observer, unwilling to ad Probably one of the most important and refreshing books on development. Published more than 20 years ago, but still amazingly relevant. Through the extreme case of Lesotho, James Ferguson gives a powerful analysis of how development aid is disconnected from local realities, how it is instrumentalized by politics, and why a technical "neutral" approach is used to justify political agendas that do not improve living conditions for the poor. Even though the author is just an observer, unwilling to advice development projects on how to do better (because that is part of the problem), he advocates for a political empowerment at grassroot level as the only way out of extreme poverty. I cannot agree more on that!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

    Excellent book on the problems with development projects, especially why they always seem to fail when they, assumingly, set out to do good. Especially potent for anyone thinking about working with the World Bank or the Peace Corps: the book does not necessarily condemn these development organizations totally: in fact Ferguson points out that the people on the ground, the volunteers, etc., are actually in many ways trying to make a difference. Yet, the structure and mechanisms of the projects an Excellent book on the problems with development projects, especially why they always seem to fail when they, assumingly, set out to do good. Especially potent for anyone thinking about working with the World Bank or the Peace Corps: the book does not necessarily condemn these development organizations totally: in fact Ferguson points out that the people on the ground, the volunteers, etc., are actually in many ways trying to make a difference. Yet, the structure and mechanisms of the projects and the multi-national organizations create a situation where what is intended to get done is not always what actually is accomplished...and the intended effects are not what's important, but the "instrument effects", following Foucault. A must read for anyone planning on going into work with any development organization, or anyone interested in pursuing economic, political, or development anthropology, especially in Africa.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Veena

    This is one of the first texts I read in my introductory international development course. It immediately demonstrated the value and central nature of participatory development work... in a nutshell, help is only helpful if it means something to those you are trying to help. James Ferguson's study of this failed attempt to support a community in Lesotho shows the perils of assuming that aid organizations know best simply because they have funding and external knowledge. He shows the value and im This is one of the first texts I read in my introductory international development course. It immediately demonstrated the value and central nature of participatory development work... in a nutshell, help is only helpful if it means something to those you are trying to help. James Ferguson's study of this failed attempt to support a community in Lesotho shows the perils of assuming that aid organizations know best simply because they have funding and external knowledge. He shows the value and importance of local knowledge and working in partnership versus coming into a community and imposing ones' values and judgments about how things should work to make things more "successful" and "productive." A book that is unfortunately timeless because this same tale can be seen playing out all over the world today.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    the chapter where he takes apart the World Bank report is so funny. It should be titled, " Are you morons kidding me?!!!?" Also the part where he talks with Basotho men about cattle is great too.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Brurce Mecca

    I specially enjoyed the depiction of social value of cattles that opposed capitalistic notions in Bovine Mystique --how to some extent the cultural construct ranging from ages, gender, and patron/client relations have created some sense of 'securities' in a way that are indigestible by capitalistic values. It may have sounded Marxist in sometimes. What's great that his book has shed some lights on the apparent, yet self-perpetuating blind spot of development projects. A way to let yourself out o I specially enjoyed the depiction of social value of cattles that opposed capitalistic notions in Bovine Mystique --how to some extent the cultural construct ranging from ages, gender, and patron/client relations have created some sense of 'securities' in a way that are indigestible by capitalistic values. It may have sounded Marxist in sometimes. What's great that his book has shed some lights on the apparent, yet self-perpetuating blind spot of development projects. A way to let yourself out of the bounded ideas of capitalist transition

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    This was a mind-bending trip into the world of international development and just how bizarre, counterintuitive, and flat out insane the industry can be. I have always been a proponent of local solutions and this provides clear evidence in favor of that. I found the conclusion and epilogue a bit underwhelming and repetitive, but this didn't take away from Ferguson's firsthand experiences and the book as a whole.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vasilis

    This is one of the most influential critiques of development and rightly so. A gem of a book that makes one think deep and long about developmental projects, developmental agencies and the implications of the 'development' discourse.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Samantha Fleurinor

    incredibly dense but enlightening

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joshua VanCleave

    A great insight into the world of development and its consequences through the eyes of a detailed case study.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Max

    This was an intelligent and thought-provoking book. It is a terrific deconstruction of the institution of "development." The subject of the book is a development project in Lesotho. It discusses how the Canadian International Development Agency (Canada's USAID) twisted a complex situation into a simple model so that it could apply its standard "development" prescriptions to the situation at hand. The resulting project was a failure and the book examines exactly why it was such a failure. Adapted This was an intelligent and thought-provoking book. It is a terrific deconstruction of the institution of "development." The subject of the book is a development project in Lesotho. It discusses how the Canadian International Development Agency (Canada's USAID) twisted a complex situation into a simple model so that it could apply its standard "development" prescriptions to the situation at hand. The resulting project was a failure and the book examines exactly why it was such a failure. Adapted from the author's PHD dissertation, the book is a bit dry and plodding at times, but it is lucid and full of terrific analysis. Some of my favorite passages: "Often, the question was put to me in the form "What should they do?", with the "they" being not very helpfully specified as "Lesotho" or "the Basotho". The "they" here is an imaginary, collective subject, linked to utopian prescriptions for advancing the collective interests of "the Basotho." Such a "they" clearly needs to be broken up. The inhabitants of Lesotho do not all share the same interests or the same circumstances, and they do not act as a single unit. There exists neither a collective will nor a collective subject capable of serving it. "When "developers" spoke of such a collectivity, what they meant was usually the government. But the government of Lesotho is of course not identical with the people who live in Lesotho, nor is it in any of the established senses "representative" of that collectivity. As in most countries, the government is a relatively small clique with narrow interests... Speaking very broadly, the interests represented by governmental elites in a country like Lesotho are not congruent with those of the government and in a great many cases are positively antagonistic. Under these circumstances, there is little point in asking what such entrenched and often extractive elites should do in order to empower the poor. Their own structural positions makes it clear that they would be the last ones to undertake such a project." "If the question "what should they do" is not intelligibly posed of the government, another move is to ask if the "they" to be address should not be instead "the people." Surely "the masses" themselves have an interest in overcoming poverty, hunger and other symptoms of powerlessness... Once again, the question is befuddled by a false unity. "The people' are not an undifferentiated mass. Rich and poor, women and men, city dwellers and villagers, workers and dependents, old and young; all confront different problems and devise different strategies for dealing with them. There is not one question -- "what is to be done" -- but hundreds: what should the mineworkers do, what should the abandoned old women do, what should the unemployed do, and on and on. It seems, at the least, presumptuous to offer prescriptions here. The toiling minters and the abandoned old women know the proper tactics to their situations far better than any expert does. Indeed, the only general answer to the question, "What should they do?" is: "They are doing it!."" This was also interesting: "If one takes the "development" problematic at its word... the absence of growth in agricultural output... can only be considered an unfortunate mistake. But another explanation is possible. if one considers the expansion and entrenchment of state power to be the principal effect -- indeed, what "development" projects in Lesotho are chiefly about -- then the promise of agricultural transformation appears simply as a point of entry for an intervention of a very different character. In this perspective, the "development apparatus in Lesotho is not a machine for eliminating poverty that is incidentally involved in bureaucracy; it is a machine for reinforcing and expanding the exercise of bureaucratic state power, which incidentally takes "poverty" as its point of entry."

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mwanafunzi

    This is a very strong study. A fundamental concern of Ferguson's is questioning what exactly “development” is, what it does, and how and why it does what it does. He approaches these questions based on his ethnographic work on a livestock management project that was at work in Lesotho from 1975–1984. Like so many other “rural development projects” in Lesotho and in Africa more generally, the project failed to produce its intended effects. But Ferguson compellingly argues that it's not so much th This is a very strong study. A fundamental concern of Ferguson's is questioning what exactly “development” is, what it does, and how and why it does what it does. He approaches these questions based on his ethnographic work on a livestock management project that was at work in Lesotho from 1975–1984. Like so many other “rural development projects” in Lesotho and in Africa more generally, the project failed to produce its intended effects. But Ferguson compellingly argues that it's not so much the failure of the project that is analytically interesting. It is instead the sets of discourses that framed the project and that rendered the project’s unintended consequences “intelligible” to the project's stakeholders that should attract our attention. Ferguson wants to show that an ethnography of this apparatus can lead us to an appreciation that development institutions effectively depoliticize the projects they fund. Through their sets of discourse, the development stakeholders constructed Lesotho (read: any African or “Third World” country) as a particular object of knowledge and moreover mandated that interventions be organized according to their knowledge structure. I think the argument might be overdetermined, but it certainly compels sustained consideration from the reader.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Yaniv

    An absolute classic in the literature of development. Ferguson's work examines the institutions, policies and practices of the development industry as a set of discourses with real-world effects on the ground. His work draws largely on Foucauldian insights on the power relations within discourses that claim to de-politicize socially and historically-rooted inequalities among the people of Lesotho. Although the book could have used more ethnographic information in the first chapters, by the time An absolute classic in the literature of development. Ferguson's work examines the institutions, policies and practices of the development industry as a set of discourses with real-world effects on the ground. His work draws largely on Foucauldian insights on the power relations within discourses that claim to de-politicize socially and historically-rooted inequalities among the people of Lesotho. Although the book could have used more ethnographic information in the first chapters, by the time Ferguson delves into the failed methods practiced and reinforced by the World Bank, the book takes a vibrant and refreshing new course. This text is a tour de force. Highly recommended for anyone interested in development studies.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ike Sharpless

    This was easily the best book I read for an Anthropology of Development course I took as an undergrad. Lesotho is geographically, historically, and culturally a fascinating case study, and this is a good primer on how the World Bank can mess up. As with most such 'anti-development' (or anti-globalization, or even postmodern) insights, I think it's best digested as a corrective to ill-formed policy than as a frontal assault on the concept of global development. But that's just me being a pragmati This was easily the best book I read for an Anthropology of Development course I took as an undergrad. Lesotho is geographically, historically, and culturally a fascinating case study, and this is a good primer on how the World Bank can mess up. As with most such 'anti-development' (or anti-globalization, or even postmodern) insights, I think it's best digested as a corrective to ill-formed policy than as a frontal assault on the concept of global development. But that's just me being a pragmatist.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    This book is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the development industry. Even though Ferguson focuses on Lesotho, he exposes the development apparatus as it functions globally, using Foucault's analysis of the evolution and discourse of the modern prison system as a model for his analysis of development discourse and its effects. If you can't read the whole book, at least read the first chapter.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mel

    This book is an engaging, thoughtful critique of development policy, particularly the kind of institutionalized, top-down programs organized by the World Bank in the late 1970s/early 1980s. And although it uses the case of Lesotho to make it's point, the research is helpful to anyone seeking to better understand the conceptual and practical flaws in this kind of approach to "developing" a nation.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Drew Johnson

    One of the best concrete examples about the disjuncture between intentions and results in the development world, and a great example of what anthropology should be. Everyone interested in in doing development right should read this.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Yariella

    brilliant, on-the-ground description, of a 'development' program in action - reinforcing the idea that development outsiders (so-called experts) will always be limited by their lack of local knowledge.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Taylor

    I didn't like his writing style; this book read like a PhD dissertation. But I think what Ferguson's saying is important. Sadly, I feel like most people working in development still aren't listening.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    This book is so brilliant, yet frustratingly written. I completely agree with his argument and the research is flawless. However, the process of reading this book can be a bit slow moving. Highly recommended for those who like Foucault and are interested in international development.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Howie Lempel

    Very highly recommended.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie elston

    i love this book. so smart, so well written. also, i love pony trekking in lesotho.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Alex Clark

    Who knew a book on problematics and apparatuses could be boring?

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alexei

    Brilliant and lucid. The cornerstone of post-development critique and a wonderful narrative to accompany salient discourse.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    338.18688 F3527 1994

  28. 5 out of 5

    Geoff Pettys

    incredible analysis of development programs - from discourse to failures

  29. 5 out of 5

    John Favini

  30. 5 out of 5

    Manny

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