Anthropology and International Development

Offered at Union College, Spring 2008

After the Second World War and the end of colonialism, the Cold War internationalized questions of economic growth, poverty, and inequality, leading to the rise of national and international agencies which aimed to promote development in the "Third World." Their record is mixed: by the 21st century, mid twentieth-century faith in development and progress had been severely shaken by the environmental crisis, the apparent limitations of international development assistance, and the demise of state-planned economies in former communist nations.

Anthropology's ethnographic focus on connections between local and global process and attention to the cultural and social (as well as economic and political) dimensions of social change offers a unique lens on international development. Over the last 50+ years anthropologists have used their expertise to both engage and critique the development industry; some have seen development as a field where anthropological expertise is essential to improving the lives of development agencies' "target populations," while others have decried the concept as ethnocentric and a form of Western neo-imperialism.

In this course, we will examine major theories and approaches in the anthropological study of development. We will examine some key questions: what are development and underdevelopment? What is the third world, and how was it made? What problems does it face and how is it changing? What are the causes of failure and success in development and aid programs? In doing so, we will look at the history of development theory, with special attention to the political context and content of each model, alongside anthropological models of culture change.

We will also consider the relationship between anthropology and the development industry. How can cultural relativism and applied anthropology can be reconciled? What ethical issues need to be considered in pursuing development anthropology? How can anthropologists and anthropological knowledge contribute to improving development interventions and outcomes? As we examine the growth of the sub- discipline that is now recognizable as "development anthropology," we will aim to understand the strengths and weaknesses of an ethnographic focus on development for purposes of policy-making, analysis and theory.

Some specific topics we will cover in the course include the social consequences of large-scale "modernization" projects (dams, mines, and the Green Revolution), neoliberalism and the World Bank and IMF's Structural Adjustment Programs, the promise and challenges of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in development, famines and food security, and the current focus on micro-lending institutions as a vehicle for economic development and poverty alleviation.