Seeing without a State — Why James Scott matters to foreign aid

International development is social engineering, yes, but with a social justice lens. Its success hangs on its ability to translate intention into action, the offer of foreign assistance into local appropriation, application and transformation. Redundancy should be its metric of success, yet international development has become a steady career track for young westerners, many plied with advanced degrees in its theories and operational models. None of this—the academic programs, the career tracks—existed twenty years ago. The simple vocational appeal of ‘working oneself out of a job’ is long gone.

In the increasing professionalization and careerism of foreign aid (development & disaster relief), what is sacrificed are the years of fieldwork needed to cultivate a hands-on appreciation of destitution itself, the human suffering and loss of potential that ensues, and their causal origins in failed public institutions and cynical leadership. Academic degrees now matter more in development than field experience; the truism that local immersion is the best—many would say only—teacher is no longer followed. In my travels and teachings, I notice among students and young development professionals an unspoken disregard for living at the village level or heart of an urban slum for any period of time. There one is bereft of social media, most modern technology and infrastructure. Life must be experienced purely on local terms. Discomfort with vulnerability and perceived risk may be part of this rejection, but personal security is almost always a question of local networks.

In failed states and in muscular, autocratic ones, authorities are feared, evaded and paid off, all to live another day.

Despite this trend, extended in-situ cohabitation still offers the most undiluted access to the coping and survival strategies of remote, disenfranchised communities and their urban cohorts facing jungles of a different sort. The unseen cost of studying poverty through the looking glass is that indigenous coping practices and interactions with predatory authorities or cynical officials are never witnessed directly or understood as strategies of defense, resistance or self-preservation. Unrecognized or registered by aid policy makers, these local practices never figure into or shape western correctives for societies atomized by kleptocratic or authoritarian regimes. Our sterile prescriptions for renewal and resilience are then ingested whole by aid practitioners and program managers, devoid of local context, a lost opportunity to better calibrate and tailor development programming for improved traction and outcomes. One solution is to get back into communities and assume the risks, but the current Zeitgeist is running in the opposite direction (fear of Ebola, IS attacks, etc).

I say all this because I picked up James C. Scott’s work recently, expecting a romanticized view of poverty and an exaggerated promise of ‘anarchy’ in the post-war ruins of statehood, but am finding something else. He does not address the international development agenda or its major multi- and bilateral institutions, but between the lines one finds an eloquent dissection of the cognitive dissonance pervading the development industry today. We want local ownership, inclusive growth and responsive state institutions but our analyses and remedies are based wholly on western institutional models, albeit expressed in the post-Westphalian floral dialect of the international community.

None of the countries Scott studies are conflict-affected or failed/fragile states, where most development and humanitarian actors operate. It is tempting to extrapolate from his Asian examples to the predatory, venal or autocratic regimes of contemporary Africa, where local varieties of autarchy have persisted (pygmies of the Congo Basin, pastoralists across the Horn and Sahel) in the shadows of effective, service-oriented institutions. Populations in these places want credible and accountable authorities such as they have known in previous eras of peace and stability. Yet in many of these countries citizens receive the opposite—a hegemony of dysfunction and parasitism void of any national vision of progress or cohesion beyond elite enrichment.

In both strong and weak autocracies, the powerless hide under rocks or if brave may pay to play, even if that means selling roadside produce or driving a crumbling taxi.

Imagine what Liberians today would trade for a robust Ministry of Health? The rest of the world only registers the cost of failed states when easily containable events such as the current Ebola outbreak begin to threaten the planet because of institutional torpor in affected countries. Scott paints a hyper-realistic tableau of hegemonic states and their social catastrophes but could just have easily rendered the spoilage incurred by a similar spectacle, the contemporary mix of predatory and phantom institutions common to many African regimes. Ethiopia and Rwanda are two notable exceptions, run by lighter versions of the ‘imperial bureaucracies’ we associate with China’s cultural revolution and Soviet collectivization schemes.

And what is life like in Kinshasa’s quartiers populaires that haven’t seen sewage, water or lighting for decades? Have everyday forms of resistance preserved life, sanity and prosperity for some? How do we begin to measure this? KAP surveys could be tailored to this end. In downtown Monrovia,when Ebola isn’t decimating families, neighbors and communities, sparing only the elite? Life under predatory, opportunistic authorities is a desert of misery and impunity—from the citizen vantage, such states (e.g., Congo or Guinea’s bumbling kleptocracy) yield the same bleak inhumanity as the well-oiled, visionary machine-states that Scott inventories. In both strong and weak autocracies, the powerless hide under rocks or if brave may pay to play, even if that means selling roadside produce or driving a crumbling taxi. In failed states and in muscular, autocratic ones, authorities are feared, evaded and paid off, all to live another day.

Where caution is warranted is in seeing any redemption or long-term redress in the practices of resistance and non-cooperation by the subjugated, neglected or explicitly targeted communities Scott studies. Think of ‘justice populaire’ as it is practiced in many African cities—crime suspects are apprehended by a crowd and beaten senseless long before police arrive, because credible trials are rare and impunity the norm. Such actions are coping mechanisms, unsuitable for large-scale reform or social justice agendas. Yes this is ‘self governance’ of a sort, but because it is a mirror image of the senseless brutality wielded by authorities it is counter-productive. Their utility to ‘state building’ is perhaps conceivable, but not immediately clear.

Again, Scott’s explicit subject is neither the development industry nor failed/fragile states per se, but there is much food for thought here from a development/relief perspective. Indeed, the more one reads, the more plausible the substitution for Scott’s ‘state’ with ‘international community’ appears: both employ a ‘view from above’ that ignores vernacular understanding and expression.