Part II: The Phatic Language in the Penumbra of Machinery


As a tenuous corollary to Part I (on ‘depoliticized’ developmental politics[1]), there remains the charge laid out that there is an insipid tendency for developmental institutions to refer to their work as solely ‘technical’, situated on a ‘neutral’ platform with regards to policies and the delivery or design of Aid. Having presented in Part I with reference to anthropological or ethnographical accounts how the premise is at the very least questionable, I will hope to be convincing enough in showing why it is nonetheless in many instances defensible (an unpopular position which like in Part I on culture, one I only weakly endorse). The defense starts nevertheless with the acknowledgment that the institutions are inherently political aside from what might be official rhetoric. However, with regards to the rhetoric in its officialdom, a preliminary note on linguistics would be that it is marred with machinery; in proxy, the ‘gray literature’ of development from the World Bank down often talks of projects, either in review or projections, as if it is talking about an engine[2]. From ‘drivers’ to ‘instruments’ to ‘mechanisms’ and ‘functions’, of ‘unlocking’ ‘levers of change’ on ‘engines of growth’ operating within a network or complex of ‘processes’ between ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ via ‘tools’ to ‘service’ a credible ‘system’ of development.

If ‘development discourse’ is charged as being willfully apolitical, then it should be clear at least that a degree of acculturated ‘technical’ language exists as a mode for sustaining (and covertly justifying) it; machines after all, are supposedly insentient, and as non-partisan as compliant servants, so borrowing some of its descriptions is like a buffer in aid of articulating multiple developmental problems and their solutions in familiar, functional, and often homogenized terms. The degree to which this use of language merely ‘reflects’ how Aid Agencies or Development Departments frame themselves, or whether it plays a determinant role in its practice, I’ll leave open. However, the question of why ‘gray literature’ makes for dull reading should in this light, at least be obvious, since people don’t read assemblage manuals either.

Another comparable way of putting it (though it requires a little theoretical flexibility) would be in reference to the semiotic categorization of ‘phatic communication’. That is, a mode of communication where language performs the social function of keeping a line of communication open over and above conveying substantial content, as in asking ‘what’s up?’ to a passing acquaintance when the answer or response is not actually anticipated, or giving a perfunctory ‘ta’ to the bus driver even if you are not verily thankful. This sort of ‘rhetorical’ use of language is an indispensable part of retaining or rehearsing certain social ties or acknowledgements, the climax of which is ‘small talk’, a practice in line with –looking over at chimpanzee’s picking fleas from each other- grooming. So called ‘gray literature’ can in a sense be seen to conform to this notion in the sense that -with sympathies again towards Mosse’s (2005) book- there is a frustration at the length of policy documents relative to the dearth of actual substantial content, at the wasteland of words required to express what may even end up feeling rather ‘commonsensical’. Thanking God for Executive Summaries (which in turn anyway end up being reducible to a few lines), the main trick is to resist the thought that this is somehow a sign of comical incompetence or a lack of creative will; the ‘wasteland’ is a powerful yet surreptitious signifier. ‘Content’ in a certain sense may be secondary; the primary function is rather the phatic one of the subservience of language to the task of defending and rehearsing a legitimacy or ‘line of communication’. A document fat with inconsequential sentences turns out in this reading to be a power relation in the process of being groomed, with phatic communication aiding the sustenance of authority. As such, it -in a line- matters less what’s being said, but that the fact that it’s being said frequently and fairly consistently. Why this is perhaps defensible is another matter.


In Defense of a Pretence Or, Foundational Factors

So if there exists a possible connection between the unimaginative or un-colorful world of ‘gray literature’ (policy or otherwise) as a function of many of its institutions adhering to an apolitical agenda of ‘technical’ solutions, one early and obvious reason would be that flair or style are obviously not considered professional. If it were, it would denote a whimsical ephemerality at risk of seduction or hijacking by ‘trends’, conquering the cool analytical head. Fashions have a tendency not to be taken seriously, whilst seriousness airs out authority. With regards to temporality however, I have been assured by lecturers and academics alike that ‘trends’ come just as thick and fast in development as elsewhere, where research and funding for decentralization or gender mainstreaming have come and gone (or stayed, but in the same way polo necks or tight jeans have endeared), as has the misappropriation of social capital (Harriss 2002) and sustainable development. Harriss (2002) in relation to the above usurping of Putnam’s ‘social capital’ by the World Bank is quick to point out that ideas or theories are picked up at politically important moments for institutions, to serve political ends in moments the institutions themselves might later in retrospect define as a historical juncture.[3]

As important as the above ‘trends’ might be (I do not wish to undermine their validity or prescience at particular moments), the fact that a large institution amalgamates them deliberatively on the pretense of ‘neutral’ grounds, is for me perversely at least, reassuring, for the same reason that governments often claim the same pretentions; pretending to be ‘apolitical’ (even if this position is impossible) is in some instances potentially more ethically desirable for people than not. It is highly imperfect and leaves underlying structural flaws intact, but there is also nonetheless something inherently better for example in a government not openly discriminating against its citizens (as a far right party might, or a housing policy) than one’s who is constrained from such naked power with a pretense, since the pretence at least implies a social obligation to still perform.[4] The problem in this equation is that it bodes badly for democratic performance, since citizens can also be pretenders.  

In fact on a more abstract, psychoanalytical level, one could characterize this ‘pretense’ as a necessity of its function. What if the pretense of being apolitical, however imperfect or self-conceited, is perhaps the most ethical of positions over explicit politics (particularly with regard to large and powerful institutions)? Furthermore, what if pretending to be ‘depoliticized’ is not a sign of insentient development practitioners (though I don’t write off the possibility that many have no clear ‘politics’ in mind when they work, and might shun the suggestion they are hostages to it), but a requisite; analogous to (switching tracks for a second) the ‘pretense’ of absolute objectivity in hard sciences? Infamous as he is (and as cautious as I am about using him), there is a particular if rather counterintuitive point made by Žižek (2004 and 2011) that is perhaps well worth mentioning in the context of apolitical ‘pretenses’, how seriously we should treat them, and why they oughtn’t be treated as synonyms of ‘falsity’. Writing on a conference made by Rumsfeld during the early days of the Iraq war, and on the WikiLeaks scandal respectively, Žižek advanced what roughly became known as the ‘unknown-known’ hypothesis –that in the case of Assange (critiqued for his lack of political ‘tact’) lay beyond the level of content, the actual leaks, beyond the scandal of which minister or diplomat thought or said what about Qaddafi;

The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.’  (2011)

And earlier, in some sense delivering a parody on Rumsfeld three scenarios in Iraq:

‘In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know”. What he forgot to add was the crucial forth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself” as Lacan used to say.’   (2004)

From Weapons of Mass destruction to the photos that leaked out of Abu Ghraib, Žižek stresses that the unknown-known’s there were precisely the ‘disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values ’ (Žižek 2004).

Whilst it would be a little extreme to draw the exact comparison with Rumsfeld, what if to be ‘political’ in the avowedly neutral institution would be to disclose a tactless secret everyone seems to know but doesn’t wish to articulate?[5] That part of the public good one has to be seen as doing, is the requirement of doing it without bias –even if one knows who has them? In essence, it appears that much of discussion around this topic concerns perhaps not so much the problem of being ‘apolitical’, but rather that institutions might benefit from the greater inclusion of other fields of knowledge (by adopting a more ‘interdisciplinary’ stance). As such, the argument above might seem misplaced, as arguing for a wider array of voices rather than a ‘neutral’ one are two different things. But nevertheless, the purpose is not to deny that a plurality over a singular voice might be a good thing, but rather to suggest that it might perhaps also be useful to consider thinking of institutions less as engaged in a cynical ‘covering’ up of political beliefs, and rather the more moderate case that the ‘covering up’ is necessarily a foundational function of the institution, similar to the sort of ‘foundational’ myth of many a social body or organization.[6]

If altering this situation is desirable, ‘reformers’ of whatever color or stripe would need perhaps then first to grapple with this ontological contract prima face; recognizing that shifting to more overt ‘politics’ or a new desirable norm requisites a ‘violence’ to this very foundational myth (or unknown known), and one that if the change is supposed to be lasting, necessarily needs to alter the very constellation of the institutions self-recognition. It hinges on the ability of those ‘within’ to experience a doubt in identity, and as a corollary, find a new symbolically relevant but nonetheless unnamable pretense.


‘Aid Futurism’ As If…

To sign off on this point, it is worth perhaps as an open-ended ending to leave speculating unto the reverse of the premise. In the spirit of Jameson’s (2007) magisterial work on a literary theory of science fiction[7], more modestly, what if all aid come out the closet to the charge of politics in the future? If agenda’s were clear, liberal or cynical? The ignoramus within the institution, whom genuinely had not thought they were divested in consequentially ‘political’ work but merely ‘common sense’ dispensed technically, would for one, have to pick some sort of side –or self-invent. Whatever politically motivated ideas were thought to float unconsciously in the background would probably have to be brought to the fore and articulated, dragged out like thief for mob justice. Perhaps some would be surprised there were no surprises. Where before he/she had never to wander whose ‘larger’ interests are being served or how problems are framed, now needed to think like a paranoiac. If aid were politicized, or more politicized, I for one (with a disposition for the dramatic) would suspect the outcome to not have much net effect; it would simply mean a higher degree of the ‘securitization’ in conflict or fragile states. Tanzania would lose out Afghanistan, or Mali would gain where Nepal lost out (at least until they flooded), or a genre of ‘preemptive’ development would be there to curb kidnappings in Nigeria, detracting from dams in Ecuador. Donors though, would probably largely still advocate good governance. Aid would be given and approached in a manner not dissimilar to the Cold War.[8]  

Some countries, with smart and/or deceitful leaders, seeing little improvement in their trading, manufacturing, or exports (and having little natural resources) and exhausted by the scant attention, might raise the ‘specter’ themselves in a sort of Hegelian return to farce; siphoning off millions on a hard to define or defeat enemy, making a living (credible in my view, if we’re being ‘realist’) off the panic of Western donors (a sort of double farcical Mobutu). Putting the ‘specter of terror’ aside; development would need to justify itself far harder in terms of getting a ‘return’ on investments to the ‘global South’. ‘Value for money’ would be a much more developmentally flauntable phrase than it currently is (where with our current ‘tactful’ pretenses, it at least produces a sense of mild embarrassment or skepticism dependent on who the speaker is), self-assured enough to use it openly when it handsomely promises more benefits for domestic electorates, politicians or donors. Any more politicized, it would make for even more unevenly allocated aid budgets, but at least appease somewhat a larger proportion of Daily Mail readers by taking ‘action’. Bizarrely I imagine the big donors would feel the pressure ‘do something’ about immigration; mobility would not be discouraged as such, but angry and hard-line turns to the right in domestic politics (already on show in the EU) would push hard on development institutions to renew or review work where possible on the underdeveloped countries where migrants leave from. Like steampunk (the sci-fi subgenre that appropriates the aesthetics of the industrial revolution), ‘politicization’ would probably in some senses cannibalize history; a premise which, as an incredibly niche idea for a novel, might be appealing in particular to a retiree African(ist) scholar.



Delezue, G. and Guattari, F., 2004. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Ferguson, J., 1994. The Anti-politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis

Harriss, J., 2002. Depoliticizing Development: The World Bank and Social Capital. London: Anthem Press

Jameson, F., 2007. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso

Le Guin, U., 1981. The Left Hand of Darkness. London: Orbit

Mosse, D., 2005. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Pluto Press: London.

Mouffe, C., 2005. On the Political. London: Routledge.

Pogge, T., 2011. World Poverty and Human Rights. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press

Robinson, K., 2003. The Years of Rice Salt. New York: HarperCollins

Žižek, S., 2011. Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks. London Review of Books. 33(2) [online] Available at:

Žižek, S., 2004. What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghaib. In These Times [online] Available at:


Beasts of the Southern Wild. 2012. [Film] Directed by Benh Zeitlin. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures

[1] I am a little self-consciously in the essay conflating the words ‘depoliticization’ and ‘apolitical’ as interchangeable entities. While there is strong distinction for someone like Harriss (2002), with depoliticization largely seen as a willful, even malicious act of ‘deflecting’ legitimate anger or claims to justice away from its structural causes, I will for convenience sake ignore this. At most I acknowledge that the act of believing one’s acts ‘apolitical’ is perhaps tantamount to a symptom of an institutionalized and internalized discourse anterior to a process of ‘depoliticization’.


[2] There is insufficient space here to really attempt a ‘deconstruction’ of this, nevertheless, the references of Part I (Ferguson (1994) and Mosse (2005)) would be a good start. Though I am unsure if Ferguson (1994) made any explicit reference to the ‘mechanical’ language of development, the subtitle of the book describes the complimentarity of bureaucracy and development as an ‘anti-politics machine’ -making at least implicitly this connection. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari’s (2004) Anti-Oedipus as Ferguson does, the sense in which I am deploying the term shares some vague analogy to that of their ‘becoming-machine’. Despite my use of the engine as a metaphor however, the percolation of cybernetics is, and will most likely continue to be -sticking to our futurist theme- a new linguistic frontier for ‘apolitical’ development discourse too, from the ‘complexity’ of ‘networks’ to (who knows?) the ‘ecology’ of ‘rhizomatic’ Civil Society Organizations. The jargon (I mean ‘jargon’ here most affectionately) either way is tantamount to a conceptualization of a sort of ‘abstract machine’ as a description of society, which as a result ensnares the problems and possible solutions into a set of similarly ‘technical’ responses of ‘fixing’ ‘broken’ electoral systems or societies, ‘engineering’ its change from whichever way up when NGO’s ‘tick the boxes’ as major donors ‘set the pace’.      

[3] An idea articulated with surprising poetry and clarity by none other than Milton Friedman in a passage which could make even the hardest of left hearts swell: [t]here is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’ (cited in:,_Milton)


[4] There are various serious flaws with this reasoning, not least how inefficient it seems but also there remains a good argument to be made that this ‘pretense’ allows discriminations to endure, or in institutional apolitics, for basic assumptions to remain unturned. 

[5] There is always the much more plausible claim (which will probably be articulated in the next blog entry) of institutions not taking ‘political sides’ per se, but are precisely considered neutral by virtue of being somehow ‘beyond’ politics, operating on the ‘post-political’. There are good criticisms of this (Mouffe (2005)), but nevertheless whilst I have largely ignored this position, it is the one I would imagine most of those accused might hold, with the emphasis precisely on going beyond the unfashionable ‘left’ or ‘right’ paradigm to that of pragmatism, of solutions cooked up beyond the sentiments of an ideological bias.  


[6] Žižek (2001) makes this point clear at the start of his article on WikiLeaks with reference to the Batman film the Dark Knight, where there exists and allegorical and fundamental ‘lie’ in order for order to exist in the social contract. On a purely theoretical impulse, the relationship (and an improperly allegorical solution) in one of its dimensions can also figuratively be summated in one of the final climatic scenes in Zeitlin’s recent Beasts of the Southern Wild, where both the father and daughter (Wink and Hushpuppy) finally reconcile Wink’s immanent death. With violins swarming, both character’s clearly welled up with water streaming from their faces, Wink manages ‘No cryin’ remember’, to which Hushpuppy replies ‘No cryin’’ –both maintaining an attitude of aloofness even when both know it conceals their true feelings. The point from a symbolic level is that even if both spent most of the film avoiding articulating their love for one another, even at the moment when it is finally communicated, both maintain the pretence or contract they established anterior to it; it is a way of maintaining order even while the ‘unknown’ becomes known. This, in Žižek’s terms, is close to ‘tact’. In relation to the foundational myth, one may even say that the very ‘no crying’ policy (of avoiding a certain truth at all cost) Wink instigates is the very foundation of how their love finds expression or form.


[7] The literary genre of science fiction (and more broadly ‘magical realism’ and fantasy) as Jameson (2007) reminds us, is precisely left with an emanicipatory value by asking the question of ‘what if?’,from which I borrow here liberally in topping off the essay. From LeGuin’s feminist opus of sad ambassadors in love with the genderless in Left Hand of Darkness (1981) to the detailed alter-history of Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2003) where effectively the hegemonic powers of the world became the Arabs and the Chinese (of especial interest in feeding post-colonial fantasies).


[8] I mention more politicized for the very reason that Thomas Pogge observes in his World Poverty and Human Rights in pointing in the near freefall of aid between countries strategically important in the Cold War and those ‘post’-Cold War (2011:8), including later stats such as in 2005 over one fifth of ODA worldwide went to Iraq (2011:226), a disproportionate amount which for Pogge at least, as a philosopher, is not ethically justified.


Part I & II: A Culturally Relevant African(ist) Scholar & Speculations in ‘Aid Futurism’


Part I:

‘Culture Below the Big Modern Buildings’

Early on in Moore’s (2001) article Political Underdevelopment: What Causes ‘Bad Governance’ there is passage perhaps worth taking ‘technical’ issue with. Moore makes a fairly convincing argument overall for the possible causes of political underdevelopment, the strongest of which emerges from the notion of ‘unearned income’ (2001:389) in relation to aid (lightly touched on in Part II of ‘Aid Futurism’ next week) and resource-dependency for ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘undeveloped’ governments. In the process of sorting other relevant factors in explaining ‘bad governance’ however -in separating wheat from chaff-, one that is dismissed straight off is the ‘culturist’ interpretation. Curtly and swiftly, culture is chaff;

…[t]he first is not significant in an intellectual sense, although widely held: the notion that ‘bad government’ (or some other developmental pathology) is rooted in the ways in which particular kinds of people think, behave or understand the world, by virtue of their cultural identity. All too often, in the writings of Africanist scholars (and many Africans), it is African-ness – understood as a given set of cultural traits, rather than as a reflection of the specificities of African history – that underlies bad government. These culturalist arguments are not to be taken seriously: first because they are not testable; and second because the general explanatory track record of such arguments in macrosocietal analysis is very poor.



Moore is not wrong to identify the ‘weakness’ of culturalist interpretations, especially in its essentialised form (my intention here is simply to lobby for its ‘soft’ incarnation), even if his justifications for its dismissal are somewhat impoverished. Firstly, being ‘untestable’ (which I presume to mean something like ‘it is not quantifiable’ or ‘empirical enough’) is not grounds for disqualification. If anything, particularly in developmental contexts (but a truism for social sciences in general), many of the factors, including those that Moore states (unnatural birth, history of external control, declining cost of military superiority etc) are also ‘untestable’, strictly speaking. They might have comparable numbers behind them (arms sales, number of ethno-linguistic populations, colonial administrative boundaries or educated guesses on money lost to corruption etc) that provide much more plausible explanations than a ‘culturalist’ one, but their deployment relies equally as hard on causal inferences as opposed to being positivistically ‘testable’. Perhaps sometimes unwittingly, social sciences rely often more on stories we need to tell -the typed allied to Rorty-ian pragmatism- than strict empirics.[1]


Regarding the macro-societal terms Moore is again not wrong; Beattie in his book (2010) (and a recent interview (Development Drums (2009))[2] made a similar point of dispelling the mystification of ‘underdeveloped’ Islamic countries in relation to culturalist interpretations of conservatism and vague notions of ‘the Arab mind’ he found so disconcerting upon hearing them pronounced in some senior development circles. The macroeconomic point is conceded, but of course, in micro-societal terms, culture and cultural sensitivity becomes again incredibly important to development (at least, so the line goes, if the projects or aid transfers are to have a significant impact). It is not that development has nothing to say about ‘culture’ as such; rather it’s a case of untangling how it is being enunciated, often only implicitly. This goes from good old-fashioned complaints of obstacles to women’s empowerment (Khader’s (2011) sensitively argued book on female ‘adaptive preferences’ to patriarchical ‘culture’ is particularly prescient in this regard) to the humbling return of harnessing ‘local knowledge’ in participatory agricultural projects (in some ways a reinstatement of a ‘respect for local culture’), from social inequality amongst castes to such utterly singular (even if potentially fictional) moments as Goldschmidt’s short film of a Tutsi boy who evades death by virtue of being identified as listening to ‘Hutu’ music (despite his early protestation that it is in fact ‘U2’).[3]


In any event, culture can sometimes stare or strike back. Ferguson’s (1994) magisterial book is perhaps one of the least squeamish on pointing out the continual even comical errs on the side of projects carved out by bureaucrats (in proverbially big buildings) in Lesotho, who simply have not managed to get a historical and cultural handle on the country enough to ‘succeed’. Of particular note are the failed projects on stimulating a cattle market in an area where cattle hold a near sanctimonious value for the social fabric of communities, selling only under very specific conditions. The concluding point Ferguson draws (amongst a few), is that that the bureaucratic ‘technicians’ had their culture, and the cattle owners had another. What’s more, either side had well reasoned (though not immediately intuitive to our either’s eyes) arguments for sustaining their actions. Staring back, analogously, fabulous ethnographies such as Mosse’s  (2005)[4] work tracking consultants and aid workers through projects makes clear what a ‘cultural’ cocktail ‘depoliticised’ institutions such as DFID are in maintaining what he -citing Edwards- calls ‘the future positive’; how project designs and ‘success’ is defined, translated and interpretations defended (in oft ‘public rituals’) amongst personal ambitions, hierarchies, deference and subtle sabotages, a workforce -in a word- wet with culture.[5]


But to reiterate -and begin drawing to a close-, Moore is still right to dismiss deterministic culturalist interpretations (which is really how he intended the sentence to be read in fairness). The interpretations he has in mind to dismiss are the larger ones related to causality, whereas my own argument is more concerned with the ‘exclusion’ or oft silence of culture in general within development considerations. Plausibly I suspect an additional reason the ‘cultural hypothesis’ is rejected to the ones Moore identifies is to sanitize the possibility of covert or clandestine racism that may accompany it, in a field where a good many liberal consciences are highly attuned and cultivated to hear it. There are good reasons for this, when ‘culturalist’ interpretations have usually been invoked, it is very often been in relation to the negative (as in ‘the Arab mind’ Said was so good at demolishing (2003), but Moore is also right to state that it noxiously carries a legacy in Africa); its baggage is usually accusatory and a denigrator. But it is worth remembering that perhaps by virtue of being an anthropologist, Ferguson manages just fine to get past this essentialism and still incorporate elements of cultural norms and values within his account (and a fair bit of history, which Moore allows). In fact, on the whole methodologies of other disciplines are not as ready to exclusively forbid the practice up front. What may be thought of as ‘good’ scholars or practitioners of ethnography, sociology, journalism, psychology and much else besides, wouldn’t dream of taking away ones own cultural account of oneself, one’s behavior or values, and giving it over (predominantly) to institutions or history solely (I mention history as this is the approach Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) predominantly uses in Chapter 2 to dismiss the ‘cultural’ interpretation of Weber for example). Cultures -for them- do not stop where institutionalism starts.

Rather, Moore’s dismissal would require for me a more nuanced route; not how far does culture determine development, but rather how influential are those African(ist) scholars with their culturalism when it comes to developmentally related decisions.[6] It sounds oh-so postmodernist, but the social construction of identity, be it the myth of nationhood or the whether others regard others as inferior or superior owning to genetics, matters if it feeds into the dictates of policy (a point complimentarily explored in both Rossi (2013:27-28) and Michaels (2013:25-26) recent reviews of books concerning both twins and ‘racecraft’). In a certain sense, as Michael points out, being factually incorrect is an aside when its social validity or function remains unchallenged, as in Khader’s (2011) problem when women adaptively preference their purdah’s, or share not the inclination that their sex has no inherent inferiority to their perceived opposite. It similarly does not negate the beliefs that separate and justifies in the minds of one group the expansion of settlements into another’s, nor stop a child from claiming to have eaten 800 men and traveled on an avocado skin in the Pentacostal heart of a Kinshasa slum (Davis 2007:197). One need not in the ‘culturally relative’ manner respect all opinions about people’s self beliefs about their national or personal culture, but it would be worth bearing in mind as in Ferguson’s and Mosse’s account, that not everyone shares the same peculiar (if to our minds more accurate) interpretation of institutional structures as one of the greatest primary determinants. How much influence do Moore’s African(ist) scholars have might have been a better way of putting it, as opposed to their testability. My intuition is that in the grand scheme of things, they matter probably very little (in the face of large and well financed international organizations, a very many matter very little), but when or if they get called in for consultancy, do a ‘talking head’ slot on national news, or teach in universities, it is at least worth considering. They might be wrong in Moore’s (and largely my own) eyes, but that doesn’t mean it holds no currency for voting or non-voting publics, or at any rate anyone who may act on those assumptions.

 (Part II on ‘Aid Futurism’ should feature next week)



Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J., 2012. Why Nation’s Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Profile Books Ltd: London

Baudrillard, J., 1998. In the Shadow of the New Millennium (Translated by Francois Debrix): A L’Ombre Du Millenaire Ou Le Suspens De L’An. [Available at:]

Davis, M., 2007. Planet of Slums. Verso: London

Ferguson, J., 1994. The Anti-politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis

Kafka, F., 2000. The Trail. Penguin: London

Khader, S. 2011. Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Latour, B., 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Michaels, B., 2013. Believing in Unicorns [Review] London Review of Books 35(3) pp. 25-26. [Available at:

Moore, M., 2001. Political Underdevelopment: What causes ‘bad governance’ Public Management Review 3(3) pp. 385-418

Mosse, D., 2005. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Pluto Press: London.

Rossi, M. 2013. Consider Jack and Oskar [Review] London Review of Books. 35(3) pp. 27-28 [Available at:]

Rorty R., 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope Penguin: London

Rorty, R., 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Said, E., 2003. Orientalism. Penguin: London

Sen, A., 2010. The Idea of Justice. Allen Lane Books: London

[1] See Rorty R., 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope Penguin: London & (particularly the opening two chapters of) Rorty, R., 1989 Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Rorty in fairness, especially in the latter work is perhaps much more engaged in literary theory and philosophical questions about how to think (or rather, develop a vocabulary) about a world without essentialisms as opposed to creating meta-theories on social sciences. Nevertheless the basic premise of ‘humbling’ human knowledge away from absolutist scientific certainty towards the pragmatism of ‘the best and most convincing story/vocabulary survives’ is rife for applicability to a wide field of academia.

[2] See: Episode 16: False Economy (


[3] I have admittedly and shamelessly completely overstretched the last example simply to plug a short film, see: Goldschmidt, I., 1994 Na Wewe (19 mins). Trailer:


[4] Mosse’s book deserves the additional praise in utilizing strands of actor-network theory (even if it is just in spirit rather than to the exact letter prescribed by Latour (2007)) within its ethnographic account of aid workers and consultants in various capacities. Actor-network theory, having made its early name in ethnographic efforts to track the work of the ‘hard’ sciences (in perhaps a manner complimentary to those of Rorty’s above), has methodologically speaking perhaps some enticing ‘novel’ dimensions to teach to considerations of development.


[5] As an aside (there are two of them here): (1) This is what is perhaps usually expressed when the dichotomy between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ rules are invoked. Informality is usually oversimplified in these discussions to designate something akin to a ‘background’, where ones culturally derived biases or ways of relating may be allowed to squalor or maintain the status quo, depending on how closely the formal rules are allowed to constrain ‘informal rules of the game’, via accountability for example; it is oft how SCAGA reports might frame explanations of poor leadership, repressive police forces or patrimonial politics, where de jure ‘formal’ rules are in place, but more odious de facto practices are more influential. The practical aid this dichotomy has is enormous, but on a more philosophical level relevant to the overall ‘technical’ argument here against Moore, is this that is perhaps a falsity. Following work such as Mosse’s it is perhaps more accurate (or useful) to think of the entire enterprise consisting at a level of a dialectical de facto’s; where ‘formal’ rules are rather the practice of ‘informality’ in expression of itself to others on the outside, who might demand justifications, justice, or an interpretation of events. Formality, in this sense, is more about a mode of address and communication of ‘informal’ practices, a ‘rationalisation’ if you will -something analogously Kafka (2000) understood well in the wry humour of poor Herr K. pushed from what feels like one arbitrary episode to another by the ‘formal’ mechanics and institutions of the law. 


(2) Reading over the ‘gray literature’ of development with regards to building institutions, it is overwhelming the former ‘formal’ form that is being implicitly and normatively discussed (as mentioned in the above aside (1), this is understandable), but which often runs into a complete tautology as the determinant of development (Moore, if your are wondering, avoids making the same error), for the very reason that it risks assuming that the ‘formal’ rules assures or determines a nigh Rawlsian institution and ideal subject, who makes the right decisions in perfectly complaint ways (the traces of a similar critique is outlined in Sen (2010), Chapter’s 2 & 3)). Yet, it is interesting to note perhaps the ‘doubling’ of the question of ‘institutional culture’ into wider mainstream cultural consumption in the form of various ‘office’ comedies such as The Office (UK and US –despite the vast superiority of the former) to The Thick Of It, or even more ‘serious’ manifestations in drama’s such as The West Wing. When it comes to filming these, it is no accident that a very many attempt to stylistically emulate a ‘documentary’ type realism, which contra the ‘gray literature’, makes no pretense that (a non-Rawlsian) ‘informality’, is in fact, the governor. Though I’ve tried to avoid making this latter point it seem like it is solely an ‘Anglo’ phenomenon, I am admittedly ignorant as to whether on not various other countries show the same compulsion to view the interiority of their institutions on television and film in fictional or semi-fictional form, subject to such levels of scrutiny. 

[6] It is very interesting for example just how much the ‘Chinese National Character(istics)’ has played into national and international debates amongst various factions of the intellectual elite (from the New Left to the Neo-liberals) with regards to the route and role of economic development in China. Certainly if the revival of Guoxue (国学), or ‘National/Chinese Studies’ are anything to go by, as well as the mushrooming of ‘New Confucianism’ (which acted/acts somewhat like the Weberian Protestant for some in explaining loyalty to Chinese nationalism, and a corollary sort of ‘culture of deference’), cultural explanations have experienced a revival as of late as more attention is being paid to that part of the world. Many of it may carry the same accusatory and denigrated baggage mentioned earlier (predominantly by intimidated skeptics who throw the offhand comments out about diminished social skills that have been bought at the expense of over-diligence in studying or work). Yet, I maintain (similar in a sense to financial speculation in the ‘tertiary economy’ held such as fascination for Baudrillard (1998)) that whether or not the stereotype is false is somewhat irrelevant; it is about the assimilative behaviour each party adopts in relation to each other knowing the stereotype.