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(2017-8) Linking development expertise with local lived experience

By Merrill Hopper, Calvin Laverick, James Lever, Rory Read, Gemma Robbins, Joana Salles, Othmane Benharbit

A common theme in the anthropology of development is treating international aid as a form of government. The notion that aid organisations use techniques to manage and control populations is heavily drawn upon in ethnographic research. Green (2011) argues that the propensity for anthropologists to view governance in a negative light limits their participation in development work. Due to a fear of contributing to the repression that is perceived to be inextricably bound with governance, Green states that some anthropologists refrain from entering development work completely whilst others choose to assume the position of a ‘generic specialist’. This role separates anthropologists from policy communities and, consequently, limits the possibility of making decisions about the allocation of aid. Green argues that opting for a position removed from governance results in anthropologists missing out on an opportunity to contribute to global processes of reordering. For Green, the crucial insight anthropology can offer on the lives of aid recipients is not fully utilised. She draws attention to the potentiality of governance and its ability to produce significant and positive change. From this, to consider ‘rethinking development’, we explored the extent to which the anthropological method could link development expertise and local lived experience.

Silitoe (1998) provides evidence for positive participation from local actors. He argues that to avoid any ‘technical arrogance’ (Silitoe, 1998, p.228) in development/aid work, participation from the locals is an efficient solution. Indeed, the incorporation of indigenous practices when aiming at developing their country/area is key to empowering them as it promotes their knowledge as ‘valuable intelligence’. Not only is it more locally appropriate to their needs and environment but it is also a new form of knowledge that when valued prevents an ethnocentric focus in development work. It can also be argued that participation from local people enhance their sense of responsibility while they become more concerned with the outcomes of development projects overall. On the other hand, ‘experts’ are needed as locals may not have access to the skills and knowledge that contribute to development processes. Moreover, risk-averse individuals may need the support from outside expertise to innovate and experiment, and allow for new development patterns.

To emphasise this argument, Gorjestani (cited in Twarog and Kapoor, 2004) gives a good example showing the benefits of the use of the anthropological method in development work. A food program in Nepal had major food loss along the distribution line. The project managers turned to the community for help and advice. They decided to opt for a more traditional way of distributing food by replacing the trucks with bullock carts. Furthermore, they used community-based supervision to avoid any misbehaviour during the distribution of the food. This lead to many positive outcomes such as a more efficient and transparent distribution of the foods, leading to a decrease of food loss. The hiring of bullock carts instead of high technology trucks increased income for the rural communities that provided them.

However, it can be problematic to incorporate participation in this way, and therefore we must take a critical eye on this work. Unexpected issues arising from the incorporation of traditional knowledge for localised development can be seen in Yarrow’s (2008) ethnography in Ghana. Yarrow’s article explores the different ways in which various agents use and understand the terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Western’ knowledge and shows how the definitions of the terms are, to an extent, fluid across different situations. In proposing that the distinction between the terms can be seen ‘as a relation’ (Yarrow, 2008) between people, Yarrow suggests that ‘a person, idea or institution that is defined as ‘indigenous’ in one instance may be ‘western’ in another’ (Yarrow, 2008, p.226). In such a way, the fluidity of the terms allows for dual identities to be adopted by actors in mediating positions. This creates an opportunity for the exploitation of aid or state resources by particular local actors, as Yarrow demonstrates in his description of the ‘very modern chiefs’. In their roles as mediators they had motive to exaggerate their ‘indigenous knowledge’ in order to retain a politically significant role vis-à-vis aid organisations, despite being viewed as ‘western’ in a traditional village context, as their role in a government was associated with Western Imperialism.

Further, the Human Terrain System (hereafter HTS) is a perfect example of the tensions that can occur between state funders (or even powerful NGOs) and those on the ground.  The HTS was an initiative run by the US department of defence, aiming to understand the ‘human terrain’ in crisis zones. The project came under heavy fire from the anthropological world. The American Anthropological Society released a statement in which it described it as an ‘unacceptable application of anthropological expertise’ (AAA, 2009). The statement then further outlined the issues that could be held with the system including an unclear ethical structure, application of development research for military purposes and the unequal power divides.

To conclude, it is clear throughout development literature that simply knowledge of development is insufficient to effectively provide development. Ultimately, it is necessary to allow those deemed to be ‘developing’ to have a voice in the project and the anthropological method can provide this. However, it is important to have a critical understanding of this method in order to ensure that the work being done is not exploited according to personal or political agenda.


AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities, (2009). Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Green, M. (2011). Calculating Compassion: Accounting for Some Categorical Practices in International Development. In: Mosse, D. (ed.). Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 33-57.

Sillitoe, P., (1998). The development of indigenous knowledge: a new applied anthropology. Current Anthropology, 39(2), pp.223-252.

Twarog, S. and Kapoor, P., (2004). Protecting and promoting traditional knowledge: systems, national experiences and international dimensions. UN.

Yarrow, T., (2008). Negotiating difference: discourses of indigenous knowledge and development in Ghana. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 31(2), pp.224-242.