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. 


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