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(2016-7) Unintended consequences?: Power, politics and cultural relativism

By Ilya Ruphay Cereso, Sumire Ebara, Lydia Harford, Grace Lyons, Eve Amelia Ridyard

Anthropological analysis helps us understand development and humanitarian expertise better by allowing for a deeper understanding of development programmes. By studying development projects and conducting ethnographic research on the practices, outcomes and people involved, anthropology can offer unexpected perspectives on what would otherwise seem to be unintended outcomes or failures.

Unintended consequences are side effects of development programmes that were not part of their stated aims. Ferguson (1994) explains this, using the example of the Thaba-Tseka project, set up to improve agricultural production, which never met its targets and was de-funded in 1984. However, the project had some unexpected outcomes and actually expanded and strengthened state power in the region through schools, prisons and hospitals that were set up and the new roads leading to and from Thaba-Tseka which meant that the region was militarized. Ferguson argues that the real significance of development projects is not what they fail to do but what they do do (p. 255). This allows for a better understanding of the expertise behind these projects as it suggests that development projects aren’t constantly failing, but may actually be succeeding at aims we are unaware of.

While Ferguson’s analysis demonstrates the unintended consequences around development projects, there could be another way of viewing these so-called ‘unintended’ consequences; some would argue that they are purposeful. Both big companies and governments profit from them in monetary and political ways; Malik argues that strategic considerations and political priorities of the U.S are more important than the development projects being implemented, while Adams’s (2013) work demonstrates how security, building and provisions companies benefitted from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina by charging those affected. This demonstrates that the ‘unintended’ outcomes of some development projects can be purposeful, damaging and benefitting the wrong people.

Anthropology allows us to examine these consequences and critically analyse the aims of development projects. Anthropology allows for the incorporation of local knowledge, small scale and participatory methods with key attention to cultural relativism. Contextualizing cultural value systems in geographical contexts, as anthropology does, gives development projects the potential to predict consequences and better prepare for potential outcomes. Anthropology allows us to access different perspectives on culturally sensitive issues, to contextualize what ‘normal’ is. For example, Montgomery’s ethnography on child prostitution in Thailand offers a new perspective on how, in a poverty stricken society, the moral code has been renegotiated and child prostitution has been normalized. As an anthropologist, Montgomery, whilst not dismissing the circumstances, doesn’t assume that western value systems can be cross culturally applied. Her anthropological background allows her to not take for granted individuals’ uniquely lived experience and circumstances. To overlook the complexity of individual situations by ‘saving’ the child from the situation as a passive victim has the potential to have equally damaging, unintended consequences.

Therefore, anthropological analysis helps us to understand development and humanitarian expertise better by allowing us to analyse unintended and ‘unintended’ consequences through critiquing them using examples such as Montgomery’s use of cultural relativism.


Adams, V., 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Asongu, S. A., 2013. A G D I Working Paper WP/13/002 Consult your gods: the questionable economics of development assistance in Africa , s.l.: AFRICAN GOVERNANCE AND DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE.

Dahl, 2009. The Falure of Culture: Christiantiy, Kinship and Moral Discourses about Orphans during Botswana’s AIDS Crisis. Africa Today, 56(1), pp. 23-43.

Ferguson, 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine. In: The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 251-278.