Ethnography of Aid Reflection and Analysis

Ethnography of Aid Reflection and Analysis

By Siera Vercillo

In recent years there has been a gradual expansion of the scope of ethnography in international development from its classical concern with the impact of the local processes on local places, to more sophisticated conceptions of local-global relations. This essay will provide an analysis of the ethnography of aid by reflecting on and proposing conceptual and methodological contributions and limitations of an ethnographic exploration of development processes and the associated practice of international aid. To undertake this analysis, I will first detail ethnographic concepts and methodology to inform analysis on how it relates to aid. Secondly, I will reflect personally on the research process taken for this analysis, expounding on my initial framings and assumptions of how I arrived at the main proposals. Lastly, I will illustrate the proposals through two case studies of the Bolivian Elections Project and evidence of anthropological work at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The first proposal outlined in this essay will conclude that contributions of an ethnographic account of aid includes more complexity in the development picture, opening up the ‘black box’ of development to address the relationship between policy and practice. The second proposal discuses a major limitation of ethnographic account of aid that, due to power relations among the dominant paradigms of aid, ethnographers are unable to fit soundly within this order, and face challenges to influence for increased complexity into policy and practice. This differs from my initial assumption that a simpler power struggle and relation between ethnographers and aid institutions exists. Anthropologists are much more divided and dynamic in how they negotiate within the dominant paradigm. Their interaction with other actors, and the narratives they construct, shape aid policy and practice.

Ethnography of aid

The ethnographic question is not whether, but how development projects work; not whether a project succeeds, but how success is produced. “Aid ethnography is intellectual political enterprise defined by tensions of discursive in methodology” (Gould, 2004: 264). Since development policy conceals relationships between policy and its effects, and seeing that planners, implementers and donor policy fails to recognize its own autonomy, there needs to be more reflexivity about being in control. Ethnography attempts to fill in the reflexive contextualization gap of information and provide more accurate evidence. Ethnography provides evidence through examining the way aid power relations are shaping social positionality. Ethnographic sites have spatial structure, which contains the processes of aid relationships that link with sites at different levels. Ethnographers expose contextual logic to explain the ways actors negotiate and localize concepts (Gould, 2004: 272). As aid is powerful and indirectly coercive, it names, frames and orders through a normative lens that legitimizes aid relationships, which effects power. This illustrates why understanding the power dimensions and negotiations and how they occur are significant.

This approach is cited as a practical way to grasp complexity and is not simply a normative engagement. It requires a reflection and pragmatism with more questions and answers. This approach does this by focusing attention on the actual situations of development workers, communities and institutions they work with, examining social processes and negotiations of meaning and identity in a variety of settings. How actors operate and strategize within existing arrangements of developments (or between its institutions and society) is not the central concern, but how development projects become real through the work of generating and translating interest and the way actors and their interlocking interests produce project realities (Gould, 2004: 280).


Bolivian Elections Project and World Bank cases

Two separate and varied case studies have been chosen to illustrate the proposals and analysis. The Bolivian Elections Project was designed and implemented by the Department for International Development (DFID) in Bolivia to support the right of socially excluded populations to vote in the June 2002 national elections. This is a significant case as the motive came after the DFID office in Bolivia external review of its performance (Flint, et. al., 2005). The significance of this is in the narratives, commentaries and descriptions provided by the actors involved, including those in and out of the aid industry, as well as local Bolivian counterparts. In 2001 it was decided locally by government and supported globally by the World Bank that the democratically elected government, rather than the donors, should decide on public expenditure; aid would only be welcomed if integrated into the public expenditure decision-making process (Flint, et. al., 2005).). It was a moment of political crisis, when one of the recurrent campesino (peasant) protests was threatening to blockade La Paz- an expression of problems of citizenship (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 110). Bolivia was an exemplar of the new style of international aid relations, as it pioneered the Comprehensive Development Framework for donor recipient relations and was among the first highly indebted poor countries to produce a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) to secure debt relief (Flint, et. al., 2005).

The second case includes a detailed description of how international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, have become important players in developing social and environmental standards and in promoting compliance with these standards. This case is significant because it provides explanation of how the World Bank’s commitment to neoliberal policies, with the notion that market imperfections can be dealt with by manipulating social institutions, has opened up further areas for global social policy where ethnography can contribute (Mosse, 2006). I chose these cases because it helps to outline a number of actors and key players, power dynamics, norms and relations between the actors involved in aid decision-making.

Research process reflection

Coming from a political-economic background, answering the question of why trillions of dollars spent in aid has failed to accomplish its intended goals was proving difficult for me. Reading literature by aid pessimists like Dambisa Moya, William Easterly and others left me dissatisfied with understanding the aid system as there seemed to be a superficial account of aid as arguments were based solely on macro economics and global political will justifications. To pursue my learning further I decided to look more closely at development projects on the ground in the Northern Region of Ghana under the Ministry of Food and Agriculture from August 2011- August 2012. I concluded that funding and implementation failures of agricultural projects were the norm from farmers not receiving inputs on time; agricultural extension agents without fuel money for several months; technical interventions that contradicted each other, making project managers and donors look incompetent. My current impressions are that there is something going on at the global institutional and discursive level that I do not understand. I am searching for a different approach to complete the picture of understanding the aid system.

My initial approach to look for the benefits and limitations to an ethnographic account of aid was to analyze its methodology and its effects on analysis. A common critique of ethnography is that, as a researcher who will never be part of the research group studied, ethnographers are unable to provide an accurate or complete understanding of the group. However, this criticism is insignificant as this could be a criticism for any research method and not solely a criticism of ethnography. In fact, a major strength of ethnography is that since it is able to account for more complexity and strives to provide an insiders perspective, reflecting on positionality of research more so than many research methods.

A second commonly cited limitation to ethnography that seems unfounded is that there is an editing or research bias where over interpretation and simplification of material exists. Literature such as Des Gasper’s Studying Aid (2003) states that the unreliable collection and processing of survey data and statistical manipulation of already manipulated and unreliable official data often exists within ethnographic accounts of aid. However, contrary to this argument, the methodology does not seem simplistic. In contrast, it embraces complexity, encouraging reflexivity, rejecting a reductionist, positivist claim to objective truths. This is cited from James Ferguson’s, Anti-Politics Machine (1990), and implementations of development projects that fail to meet their original intentions and result in unanticipated side effects. With ethnography, there is instead a more detailing of power relations and analysis included within the methodology.

Opening the ‘black box’

A noteworthy strength of ethnography is that it opens the implementation ‘black box’ of aid through an actor-oriented approach to detail relations and decisions. It does this through addressing the relationship, positionality and power dynamics between policy and practice (Mosse, 2005: 5). This is also achieved by conducting an actor-oriented approach, analyzing the actions of development workers and how they are shaped by the exigencies of organizations and the need to maintain relationships rather than by policy. These dynamics are complex and ethnography accounts for a more holistic, detailed analysis of the development processes.

To illustrate this actor-oriented complexity, there are several important details of actors within the Bolivian Elections Project that shaped the practice and policy of aid. Rosario, a Bolivian academic researcher and consultant sociologist for aid agencies stated her position as “a donor” in the project because she managed funds and could decide with whom the project would work. She could influence and sometimes define the agenda (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 108). However, she also played a managerial role and because of the project’s underlying philosophy, this experience had encouraged her to develop a participatory approach of facilitation and respectful relationships in the construction of development projects (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 108). To add to this dynamic role however, she also worked with many grassroots organizations throughout the country, but when the time came to negotiate support for a more inclusive election process, she could not gain any supportive backing. She states this occurred because, “… the Consortium, a coming together of a diverse set of organisations, was not a good ‘client’ and that the aid negotiations in this project had led us down new paths, bypassing patrimonial control“ (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 117). Using an ethnographic account, negotiation under the project goals and implementation was much more complex then looking at the actors and policies involved, including their job descriptions or formal responsibilities.

Additionally, ethnography of aid exposes the complexity of development agencies as actors and processes are exposed. For instance, the manner of negotiating, in the case of the Bolivian Elections project demonstrated that donors have their known and trusted clients to whom they listened and gave funds (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 111). In Bolivia an agency’s capacity to influence policy depends considerably on the knowledge and political connections of its Bolivian staff and consultants, “Some [expats] are from academia, but many have been in government service under a previous administration and will return there again in the future. Most are part of a white elite that has traditionally run the country” (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 110). They are connected through ties of kinship and affinity. Through their social networks they fund each other, they exchange information and provide or propose short consultancies. This keeps the new patron happy, maintaining the status quo and reinforcing domination in decision-making.  Ethnography details the relations between actors that provide a more accurate, or “insider’s”, perspective of how aid policy and practice occurs.

Ethnography of aid can also tease out the hidden processes, multiple perspectives or regional interests behind official policy discourses. Understanding how legitimacy is won for international policies, how projects enroll participants with the rhetoric of freedom, partnership, ownership or participation and how order or control is achieved through internalized disciplines of power has been explained partially through ethnography in the case of the Bolivian Elections Project (Mosse, 2005). The global trend towards donor coordination and recipient government ownership helped reinforce these connections and the sentiments of friendship and trust that came with them (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 109). The shortage of resources for NGOs, in Bolivia for example, to fight against poverty and nurture democracy confirmed feelings of “impotence, dependency, domination and exclusion” when they saw how the donors created a closed circle of negotiations with the bureaucratic elite and technocratic elites with very few spaces opened for civil society (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 116). Donors appeared to be playing a too powerful role in shaping and implementing policy (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 110). More specifically, by channeling the donor’s money through the NGO’s office in the capital city, this allowed them to maintain the lie that this was NGO-to-NGO support and had nothing to do with official aid. Using an ethnographic account of the Bolivian Elections Projects demonstrates the donor relations with the Bolivian government and how they were working behind the scenes to coerce aid (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 116).

Systematic social effects of aid relationships, the nature of the state, and the workings of power inequalities and biases built through the standardizations are also uncovered by ethnographic research. Another examples from the Bolivian case noted that poverty reduction through the PRSP could not be achieved without joint efforts by state and society. Yet donors themselves maintained two streams of funding relations that could only widen the breach between state and society. Through a single budget, DFID would openly fund both government and civil society projects (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 112). Although donors supported parallel and diverse activities, making NGOs compete for funds, grassroots organizations commented on the state’s abandonment of the communities where they lived and worked, joking: “now that during election season, gifts will start coming into the rural areas so that the poor people will vote for one or the other party” (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 115). It was quickly added that the time had come for the people to vote for themselves, rather than for the politicians (Eyben and Leon, 2005: 114). Ethnography captured sentiments of contradictions from actors throughout the project, exposing the reality of donor relations and the complexity of individual actors attempting to negotiate with the contradictions throughout the paradigm of aid.

Current paradigms & incompatible complexity

Despite the strength of ethnography of aid incorporating more complexity, it does not fit neatly within the current paradigm, thus limiting the influence of ethnographers and their insights. First, ethnographers are expected to develop and sell products – business lines, packages of concepts, models, methods or tools to their clients who for the most part are the hard-pressed operational teams (Mosse, 2011). Second, they have institutional space for themselves and create a systemic room for knowledge. They have to be simple frameworks that are accessible to managers, they have to define fields of intervention and be instrumentally important to have traction. These frameworks also need to be widely applicable, predictive and prescriptive, measurable and subject to empirical testing and econometric analysis (Mosse, 2006). As Cernea (Mosse, 2011) puts it, “anthropologists have to pay their way in the coin of knowledge of recognizable orgnanisational utility”. Operational managers live in a zero sum world in which resources for social development products have to be diverted from other things. These, therefore have to be justified in terms of efficiency (Mosse, 2011: 89). So the very nature of doing policy compromises the anthropological work of complexity. To illustrate this point, in 1997 the World Bank’s President, James Wolfensohn, promoted the concept of the knowledge bank, where social scientists could come together for the first time as a professional group anchored in the Social Development Department (Mosse, 2011: 83). However, Bank anthropologists have nothing equivalent to the strong positive loops linking research, sector boards and projects that the Bank economists enjoy. This under represented and misrecognition of what they do weakens the ability of the ethnographers to explain their work and to engage constructively with external critics (Mosse, 2011). Moreover, while a career in the World Bank can place a research economist at the center of academic discipline, the same career can virtually disqualify an anthropologist academically (Mosse, 2011).

Ethnographic complexities that make policy legitimate and mobilize political support in reality make it impossible to implement. Some operational managers at the World Bank explained that anthropologists help to stabilize complex situations, give recognizability and credibility, defend innovation and sustain representations, such as empowerment and social capital through their conceptual work that can be sold upwards as rationales for resource requests and downwards as justification for orders (Mosse, 2011: 87). However, as they build social development concerns into the Bank’s operational directives they rarely add knowledge or workable solutions, rather hoops to negotiate. Anthropologists are part of a system of centralized directives and upward accountability that task managers perceive as inappropriately influencing project design and rendering projects hard to implement (Mosse, 2011: 86). However, if anthropologists make the negotiation of projects more difficult downwards or externally with clients, their intellectual efforts are essential to negotiating them upwards (or internally) in the World Bank.

Dynamic actors and produced knowledge

One consideration that I realized was beneficial only after doing ethnographic case study analysis was to understand how social development knowledge is produced at aid institutions by specific groups of expert actors, including internal organization dynamics in the framing of global policy norms. Development projects need ‘interpretive communities’ as they have to enroll a range of supporting actors with reasons “to participate in the established order as if its representations were reality” (Mosse, 2011: 89). Anthropologists are not just involved to safeguard social and cultural realms and local livelihoods against threats from growth-driven development and its technical interventions, but also in norm setting, both in relation to investment and tools and safeguard policies. Creating the systems of relationships that are internal to organization or epistic communities and how they become externalized as global policy ideas is much more complex than initially considered (Mosse, 2011: 83). The questions I find myself asking from this analysis is, is ‘the official world’—meaning the one we pretend is true and treat as important—the realm of simplistic generalization, rather than the world depicted in aid ethnographies? Or is it instead that ethnography-depicted world itself, which everyone formally declares to be so important, but which in ‘the real world’ of power carries little weight? (Mosse, 2011: 88). I was intrigued by how many people represented their work in terms of a tactical battle against the aid system. But this was not a battle that could be conducted openly.

The second realization I experienced after reading ethnographic cases is in the diversity of anthropologists and the contradictions between professional responsibilities and the exigencies of the organization contradictions constantly threaten their sphere of practice and influence. My initial assumptions were that development policymakers and aid institutions are separate from and are much less powerful than ethnographers. However, the relations between actors working within a system and institutional order is much more complex. Since ethnography is structurally vulnerable in an economics paradigm, it implies that while pursuing social development goals anthropologists have to attend to their own system of goal protection professional space. This could offer a further explanation as to why there is a disconnect between anthropologists and aid industries, but also accounts for the complexity and dynamism of anthropologists themselves and how they act as if they cannot simply be lumped into one type of actor (Mosse, 2011: 82). Not only are anthropologists dynamic and differing within their usage of ethnography, how each actor is able to negotiate or navigate the system using ethnography, and the narratives they construct and use, shapes the aid policy and practice. With the case of the optimist anthropologists at the World Bank, some will say that the bank is an organization constrained by size rather than ideology, and that size opens up structural holes, which can be used by bureaucratic entrepreneurs to innovate and influence. The pessimists will say that the size of the holes in this “Swiss cheese organization are is shrinking rapidly” (Mosse, 2011: 92). As entrepreneurs, anthropologists in the social development knowledge network have many tasks and will use the paradigm accordingly to negotiate their position and influence within the knowledge or paradigm they are working in.

            I propose that there are both benefits and limitations to ethnography of aid. A significant benefit is in its ability to open the implementation ‘black box’ and detail through an in-depth description of the aid policies, practices and complexity among actors and their relations. As illustrated through the Bolivian Elections Project, ethnography exposes the way in which aid negotiations in this project led specific and influential managers down new paths, bypassing patrimonial control. However, this complex account of aid is also a limitation to ethnography as having to provide recommendations that are widely applicable, predictive and prescriptive, subject to empirical testing and econometric analysis is often incompatible with ethnography. Importantly, the knowledge (re)produced by actors dealing with aid shapes institutions and actions. Ethnography of aid details the complexity of these actors, shining light onto the diversity and dynamism within the same institution like the World Bank. Based on the proposals mentioned and cases analyzed, this is the first time I have felt somewhat satisfied with analyzing the aid industry. Understanding hidden processes, individual actors and the complexity of actions and relations provides me with the satisfaction that I have a better understanding of what is actually happening. I would encourage future evaluations of aid to incorporate some ethnography within their framework of analysis when trying to understand what is happening, as it is clear that there are power dynamics that are not necessarily accounted for in econometric and political analysis.


Eyben, R. and Leon, R. (2005) ‘Whose Aid? The Case of the Bolivian Elections Project’, in Mosse, D. (ed.) The Aid Effect, London: Pluto Press.

Ferguson, J. (1990) The Anti-Politics Machine ”Development,” depoliticization, and Bureaucratic power in Lesotho, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flint, M., Rance, S., and Richardson, L. (2005) ‘Evaluation of DFID Country Programmes – Country Study Bolivia 2000-2004’ DFID Evaluation Report EV656 (accessed January 5, 2013).

Gasper, D. (2003) Studying Aid: Some Methods, La Haya: Institute of Social Studies.

Gould, J., (2004) ‘Positionality and Scale: Methodological Issues in the Ethnography of Aid’ in J. Gould and H.S. Marcussen (ed.) Ethnographies of Aid – Exploring Development Texts and Encounters, Occasional Paper no.24, Roskilde: International Development Studies Roskilde University, pp. 263-290.

Mosse, D. (2011) (ed.) Adventures in Aidland. Berghahn Press.

Mosse, D. (2006) ‘Localized cosmopolitans: anthropologists at the World Bank’. Cosmopolitanism and Development Panel 4, ASA Conference (accessed January 5, 2013).

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

Mosse, D. (2005) ‘Global Governance and the Ethnography of International Aid’, in Mosse, D. (ed.) The Aid Effect, London: Pluto Press

2 thoughts on “Ethnography of Aid Reflection and Analysis

    • Thank you Nancy that is so sweet. If you have any topics you would be interested in reading about or would like to write something together I would love to hear about your work back home.

      Hope we can chat more soon!

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