Civil Society & Development

"Civil society has established itself at the beginning of the twenty-first century as a significant, even paradigmatic concept in the field of development policy and practice" wrote Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce in their 2001 book "Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration" (p. 1). Yet, how do donors conceptualize, fund and engage with civil society? What assumptions do donors have about civil society, and its relationship to development, democracy and the market? These are some of the questions the authors set out to address. This book is well written and researched. It remains relevant to readers interested in civil society and development.

  • A focus on civil society by donor agencies emerged from a specific context wherein there was "growing disillusion with the state as both agent of economic development and locus of justice. These political assaults on the state took place within the ideological context of the rise of neoliberalism, which celebrated the allocative efficiencies of the market and derided the state as an agency for economic growth and management" (p. 89-90).


  • "De Tocqueville emphasized how a participatory citizenry active in a multiplicity of associations could ensure defense of the citizen against despotic government but also foster active engagement rather than disengagement with politics. It nurtures, for instance, the habit and capacity for self-rule. It encourages different interests to argue with each other without any attempt to reach a collective will… De Tocqueville assumed the self-interest and weakness of the isolated individual. This led him to search for forms of cooperation as a way of overcoming weakness. In the process, the individual learned the skills and developed the democratic culture…" (p. 44).

Civil society and democracy:

  • "In emphasizing the role of civil society as a democratic force against oppressive states, donor discourse has added to the dominant anti-statist theme in civil society debates, which is its most partial renderings has reduced civil society to antistate. This has ensured that a serious debate on the problems and prospects of the developmental state has not happened, and the neoliberal critique of that state remains the uncontested paradigm. Moreover this antistate focus has detracted attention away from the despotic tendencies of corporate capital and its potentially damaging effects on civil society. Donor encourage the illusion that civil society is harmonious and that is can only ever act as a force in favor of the liberal – primarily U.S. – model of capitalist development and democracy." (p. 11).

On social capital:

  • "The concept of social capital fails intellectually to provide a convincing missing link in development or to measure precisely what civil society contributes to development. Like the associations of civil society, trust and reciprocity can contribute negatively or positively to a variety of outcomes" (p. 30).


  • "For most donors civil society is a means to an end – be than democratization, economic growth, or sustainable development – rather than an end in itself. It is thus reduced to a technical exercise of coordination, cooperation, and joint effort, depoliticized and neutralized" resulting in "blueprint status" (p. 117).
  • "Not only is there a tendency to assume that civil society within nation-states is homogenous in moral purpose and values, but also that there is one civil society in the world" (p. 118).
  • "In contexts of aid dependence, the manufacturing of, and the long-term sustainability of, civil society become significant issues. External dependence on donors can easily lead to a distortion of local agendas as local NGOs competing for funding shape their planned programs and activities around the priority of donors. In countries where civil society and democratic institutions are fragile, the arrival of donors with preconceived notions about what civil society should do can end up weakening the capacity of local organizations to develop their own visions of civil society, their own understandings of how to achieve social and political change, and their own solutions to problems that are central to their lives" (p. 120).
  • "With their emphasis on urban, formal associations, their selection of a limited number of NGOs for funding, and their effective control over agendas, donor agencies have played a significant role in the shaping of civil society in the post-Cold War era" (p. 185). Further: "Through capacity building, financial auditing requirements, reporting procedures, and proposal preparation, donors play a powerful role in shaping not just the developmental agenda but also the direction and raison d'etre of civil society. By setting up local branches, Northern NGOs reproduce organizations in their own image, creating virtual clones, whose priorities, interests, and structures are externally shaped. As donors command the resources, they also consciously or unwittingly shape the priorities, promote certain values, and cultivate particular institutional forms such as projects and microcredit groups. The processes are in turn invigorated as local NGOs and groups formulate proposals around the perceived interests of donor agencies, adding a gender dimension here, inserting environmental issues there, and adopting donor discourses of empowerment, participation, sustainability, and income generation to lend credence to their proposals. As donors suggest revisions, they further stamp their priorities, values, and visions of development on the proposals, underlining the normative effects of their power" (p. 187-188).
  • "…a failure to fully grasp the salience of ethnicity in associational life can also lead to an unrealistic assessment of the cohesiveness of civil society and the potential constraining power of ethnic identities" (p. 202-203).
  • "When donors seek out partners to work through or to support, they are implicitly making political judgments about the location of these groups in processes of social and political change, their agendas, and their relations to other groups and actors in society" (p. 231).
  • "Donor civil society strengthening programs, and indicators of achievement, run the risk of inhibiting and ultimately destroying the most important of purposes of civil society, namely the freedom to imagine that the world could be different" (p. 237).

Solutions? (there are more challenges than solutions)

  • There is a need to "think in terms of multiple civil societies existing across time and space, with diverse purposes, varying degrees of autonomy, and different political implications. In strengthening civil societies donors have first to be clear about their own expectations to avoid disappointment and also recognize the limitations of any attempt to give civil society a purpose for which it is not structurally or politically equipped" (p. 145).
  • In terms of actions, donors "could help defend such spaces [public, political, civil] and foster the conditions for an inclusive associational life, for example by funding education, the rule of law, and economic opportunities" (p. 60).
  • "We emphasize the political importance of protecting and fostering an understanding of civil society as an intellectual and associational space in which to reflect openly and critically and to experiment with alternative ways of organizing social, economic, and political life" (p. 237).

New Publication: The Geography of Development Studies: Leaving No One Behind

Cochrane, L. and Thornton, A. (2017) The Geography of Development Studies. Forum for Development Studies.

Abstract: Whereas the Millennium Development Goals sought reductions, the Sustainable Development Goals have set forth bold new objectives of leaving no one behind. This Commentary explores the continued geographic prioritization and exclusions within development studies research and some of the causes. The status quo is entrenching exclusion. A transformation of research, and the research community, is required to ensure that no one is left behind. Providing the evidence to support decision-making that is equitable and inclusive necessitates critical reflection of the exclusions that exist, along with innovation and creativity in how the research community can address gaps and support the more inclusive SDG agenda. Thought leadership and evidence will be the foundation that transforms our research and practice – if we, as a community of researchers, heed the call.

Article is gated here. Email for copy.

2 Years of Blogging!

Interesting Books (30+ Reviews)

In addition to the "essential" development studies books, some other interesting books include (organized chronologically):


From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993) - Sharp

People of the Plow (1995) - McCann

Envisioning Power (1999) – Wolf


World-systems Analysis (2004) – Wallerstein

The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization (2005) – Goldman

Polio: An American Story (2005) – Oshinsky

Decent into Chaos (2008) – Rashid

Life After Violence: A People's Story of Burundi (2009) – Uvin


The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (2010) - Fassin & Pandolfi

Adventures in Aidland (2011) - Mosse (Ed)

Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis (2011) – Phillips

Pox: An American History (2011) – Willrich

How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future (2011) - Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan

Seasonality, Rural Livelihoods and Development (2012) - Devereux, Sabates-Wheeler and Longhurst

Re-defining Food Security for the 21st Century (2012) – Gibson

Q-Squared (2013) - Shaffer

Toxic Aid (2014) - Edwards

American Slavery & Capitalism (2014) - Baptist

Capitalism vs the Climate (2014) - Klein (and How Change Happens)

Anatomy of Giving (2015) – Dwyer

Team of Teams (2015) - McChrystal

There is No Such Thing as a Free Gift (2015) – McGoey

Blinded by Humanity (2015) - Barber

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015) – Reich

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World (2016) – Grant

Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals (2016) - Cimadamore, Koehler and Pogge

How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (2016) – Kohl-Arenas

Innovation and its Enemies (2016) - Juma

The Politics of Development in Morocco (2017) - Bergh

Toxic Aid: A Tanzanian Study

Every few months the question is asked: Does aid work? Sebastian Edwards, professor and former World Banker, wrote "Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania" (2014) to help wade through the an answer. In short, he concludes "aid affects economic performance in a highly complex way, and through multiple and changing channels. It also underlies the fact that this is a two way relationship: aid agencies influence policies, and the reality in the recipient country affects the actions of aid agencies. This relationship is too intricate and time-dependent that it is not amendable to being captured by simple cross-country regressions; in fact, even sophisticated specifications with multiple breakpoints and nonlinearities are unlikely to explain the inner workings of the aid-performance connection." (p. 261). Success or failure largely depends on the timeframe looked at – Edwards concludes that in the long-term "Tanzania doesn't look quite like a major successful story. It rather looks like a case of a remarkable recovery, but this is not the same as outright success" (p. 254).

Edwards argues that Tanzania is a useful case study because "foreign assistance has been at the center of the country's economic failures and successes" (p. 2). Some suggest that Tanzania is a classic example of "deadly" or "toxic" aid, others argue that it is an example of success. Edwards wades through the different conclusions using a broad, long-term perspective. While the international community, the actions of donors and the impact of aid played an important role, at times Edwards over projects the aid narrative such that national priorities, policies, politics and decision making rationale are secondary, and in some ways subservient to, the donor community. For example, the author states that the "first order of business for the Mkapa administration was, as noted, to put in place a budget process that would be accepted by the donor community" (p. 218). Not one that serves its people, via that acceptance. The Tanzania story shows that this is certainly not the only driving force for decision making – most notably that President Nyerere expelled the International Monetary Fund from the country (which he knew would have negative consequences).

The failures Edwards highlights from the 1970s includes the attempted collectivization of agriculture, a bloated and inefficient parastatal sector, corruption, grandiose industrial projects, and a general collapse of the economy – on the latter he suggests "it is possible to argue that this disintegration happened because aid agencies were heavily involved in supporting (and even helping design) Nyerere's ujamaa policies" (p. 3). Again, in the concluding chapter, he writes: "After analyzing in great depth Tanzania's history during its first two decades as an independent nation, it is clear to me that the official aid community had a major responsibility in one of the most colossal collapses of a poor country in the history of the modern world. When one adds and subtracts everything – the misguided policies, the blunders, the growing corruption, and the socially worthwhile projects – the balance is hugely negative. The inescapable conclusion of that exercise is that during 1961-81 aid was worse than ineffective; it was toxic" (p. 257). Interestingly, however, is that this "responsibility" does not translate into an issue of justice when speaking about aid to Tanzania today, but rather greater "ownership" is merely a better pathway to effectiveness (see long quote below).

For the 1961-81 period, Edwards grades the aid agencies performance as a failure, and not "a run-of-the-mill "F"; it would be a failing grade with a strong worded reprimand. I would use words such as "irresponsible," "arrogant," "misguided," gullible," "ineffective" (p. 259). For 1981-94, he give a passing grade of B- and after 1996 a B+ (p. 260). The ways forward, Edwards concludes with, include: (1) ending support for grandiose, costly projects with limited impact, (2) increasing engagement with civil society, (3) strengthening institutions, (4) reducing corruption, (5) relying more on RCTs to guide development choices, and (6) beginning thinking about "the end game" for reducing aid.

The book offers interesting perspectives, such as this (long quote) on "ownership":

  • "From a conceptual point of view, an intriguing question is why would donors give up their control over how funds are allocated? After all, according to theoretical models of international aid, donors provide assistance – and allocate is across alternative uses – in a way that maximizes their ow utility function. This requires that, at the aggregate level, aid is provided to the point where its marginal benefit (including non-pecuniary effects, altruistic goals, and possible externalities) equals its marginal cost. At the same time, the marginal benefit to marginal cost ratio should be equalized across alternative uses of the aid funds. Donors' utility functions are highly complex, and include the wellbeing of the population in the recipient country as well as the level of activities in specific areas supported by taxpayers and bureaucrats in the donor nations (i.e. literacy, women's health, protecting the environment, improving governance, and so on). These utility functions also include distributional weights, and political considerations both in the donor and recipient nations. A direct way to incorporate into the analysis the ownership issue is by assuming that the "productivity" of aid depends on the level of "effort" exerted by the local government and community. Effort, in turn, will depend on a number of factors, including how well the donors' intentions and goals are understood, the beliefs of the recipient community, and the degree of participation of the local population in the design and formulation of aid programs. Greater ownership may reduce the volume of resources devoted to some of the donors' favorite projects, but it is likely to increase effort, and, thus, the effectiveness of those resources. By eliciting an increase in effort, a higher degree of "ownership" may generate Pareto superior outcomes, where utility increase for both donors and recipients." (p. 186-187)

New Publication: Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and the Global Land Grab

Cochrane, L. and Amery, H. (2017) Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and the Global Land Grab. Arab World Geographer 20(1): 17-41.

Abstract: A rapid increase in large-scale land acquisitions associated with the food-commodity price spike in 2008 resulted in a flurry of journalistic, non-governmental organization, and academic publications. One of the primary narratives that emerged was that oil-rich Gulf states were driving a "land grab" from resource-poor countries. However, little was known about who was making deals and where. This article assesses the extent to which the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are, in fact, primary players. We first compare the total number of deals and land areas involved, finding that individual GCC member states have been relatively minor players compared to the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Singapore, and Malaysia—each of whom, moreover, finalized more deals than all the GCC countries put together. We next compare the geographic distribution of acquisitions, comparing the trends for GCC member states with those of the major investing countries, and assess which countries have acquired land from the most financially constrained nations. We conclude with a critical discussion that reflects on the narrative of oil-rich Gulf states as a driving force behind the global land grab and the potential reasons for its prominence.

Full version available via author. Send me an email if you would like a copy.

Decolonizing the Mind

Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote "Decolonizing methodologies" (1999). Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote "Decolonizing the Mind" (1986). This is essential reading and the insights are numerous – from curricula design and literary critique to social transformation and liberation. In this post I focus on one of Ngugi's central and influential arguments about the power of language.

The author outlines how colonial and neo-colonial language policies and practices entrenched power and dominance, while simultaneously marginalizing and excluding the majority. Ngugi writes: "Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle" (p. 9). The legacy was more long lasting, more transformational, because "language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and the soul of the prisoner" (p. 9). Furthermore, language is "central to people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe" (p. 4). At the end, Ngugi concludes that while the book is about the politics of language, it is in fact about "national, democratic and human liberation" (p. 108).

The 'gentle' manifestation of colonialism and imperialism Ngugi calls the 'cultural bomb', which acts to "annihilate a people's belief in their names, their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own." (p. 3)

  • "African children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of the immediate environment, was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of the universe. The earth moved around the European intellectual scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre. This in turn fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism. In this book I have in fact tried to show how the economic control of the African people was effected through politics and culture." (p. 93)
  • "I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya – were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the languages of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation." (p. 28)

What makes Ngugi a influential person is not just his words, but also his actions – this included engaging in community theatre to move beyond the bounds of academia as well as working to re-centre African languages and African literature in curricula. For his actions, he was imprisoned, barred from employment in Kenyan universities, experienced an attempted assassination, and had to live in exile for more than twenty years. It is also his self-critical approach to the question of language:

  • "The question is this: we as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro-America. Right. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level of continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit? What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?" (p. 26).

For scholars and practitioners of international development, Ngugi presents a challenge well beyond educational policy and curriculum. His work should also challenge us to reflect upon the ways in which we replicate the enshrinement of foreign languages – languages not spoken by the people for who, or with whom, it is claimed that we work. As a bare minimum, we might ask, how many of our papers and reports are available in local languages? Ought not community members be given the opportunity to know what we have outlined in our proposals and reports, what we have found in the baseline and endline evaluations? Is neglecting to work in local languages disenfranchising the people we claim to be working to empower? In so doing, is it not the same paternalistic attitude of the self-determined 'experts' know best while community members are excluded? This does not even begin to grapple with the question of who ought to have the right to participate and who ought to decide what is done, where, for whom and why. Yet, even these bare minimum questions should be cause for serious reflection.

Banting Fellow, Carleton University (2017-2019)

​The 2017 Banting Fellows have been announced. Honoured to have been selected and looking forward to joining Carleton University.

From Banting:

Carleton University announcement available here

Will be continuing my research in East Africa, with a focus on enabling environments engaged citizens and responsive governance.

A History Not Told: American Slavery & Capitalism

What is the half of the story we've not been told about slavery? Baptist explains that "America's first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement by telling a story about the nation's past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking" (p. xviii). Historians "of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations" (p. xix). The half not told, is how integral slavery was the rise of American power, and how it was driven by capitalism. However, the "idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." (p. xxiii-xxiv). The "the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism" (p. 421).

This is the argument made by Edward E. Baptist in "The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" (2014). The book is just well researched and extremely well written. The author uses narrative to bring to life statistics and uses the art of storytelling to convey this history in meaningful and powerful ways. A book this well researched, and this length (522 pages), is impossible to justly summarize in a short post. I am hopeful this peak into the book will inspire readers to pick it up. A highly recommended read.

Baptist draws on a wealth of historical records in telling the story of how slavery and financial capitalism became the "driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and other up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry" (p. 33). It is a story about how an economic system push for the expansion of slavery, and how a much broader population benefited from that – be they financiers far distanced from plantations or those engaged in the international trade of cotton. It is a story that challenges us to think about how injustice is not just by the one with the whip, but those who enable that system, benefit from it, and support its continuation. It also connects acts of oppression to the driving force of capitalist expansion – as indigenous peoples' lands were confiscated by the government, , including those for which they held title, "in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms" (p. 227). Investors and bankers played an enabling role from afar; "People who have money want to lend it if they can make still more money doing so, especially if they can feel certain about repayment. Lending to the South's cotton economy was an investment not just in the world's most widely traded commodity, but also in a set of producers who had shown a consistent ability to increase their productivity and revenue" (p. 245). He writes:

  • "For seventy years, southern and northern economic and political elites – and many average white citizens – had cooperated to extract profit and power from the forced movement and exploitation of enslaved people's bodies and minds. Always, the proslavery forces had made the rest of the United States choose between profitable expansion of the slave country or economic slowdown. Between slavery and disunion. Between supporting a party turned into a colonized host for viral proslavery dogma, or defeat in national elections. Between bills for expanding slavery into Kansas, or passing up the opportunity to build a transcontinental railroad" (p. 385).

As a story about slavery, this book is also about the brutalities – how torture was used as a factor of production. "For many southwestern whites, shipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions,' burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds." (p. 141). Even in moments of hope, such as the emergence of anti-slavery actions, the reality was less than hopeful. Baptist shows that freeing slaves and advocating for the abolishment of slavery was not "because of a belief in black equality" but to strengthen the political might of northern elites in response to the political bullying of southern politicians.

Decolonizing Methodologies

What are the ways in which research approaches and methodologies replicate colonial attitudes and processes? In "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples" (1999), Linda Tuhiwai Smith makes these ways clear, while also presenting new pathways for research – not simply a decolonization of research, but a reformation of research that is embedded within a broader struggle about reclaiming control over knowledge and ways of knowing. Despite being written nearly two decades ago, the book remains highly relevant, particularly for graduate students and researchers.

The book starts out powerfully: "the term 'research' is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, 'research', is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful. It is so powerful that indigenous people even write poetry about research. The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world's colonized peoples." (p. 1). The first half of the book continues to advance a critique of research. The second half presents research projects that were emerging at the time of writing, and a list of twenty five 'projects' indigenous people are engaged in. Due to the more context specific nature of the second half, this post focuses on the critical examination of research.

The problem with research is not historical, or the past experience of poor practice. Smith explains that research "within the late-modern and late-colonial conditions continues relentlessly and brings with it a new wave of exploration, discovery, exploitation and appropriation. Researchers enter communities armed with goodwill in their front pockets and patents in their back pockets, they bring medicine into villages and extract blood for genetic analysis. No matter how appalling their behaviors, how insensitive and offensive their personal actions may be, their acts and intentions are always justified as being for the 'good of mankind'. Research of this nature on indigenous peoples is still justified by the ends rather than the means, particularly if the indigenous people concerned can still be positioned as ignorant and undeveloped (savages)" (p. 24-25). Furthermore, even when exploitation is not explicit, there is also "a cultural orientation, a set of values, a different conceptualization of such things as time, space and subjectivity, different and competing theories of knowledge, highly specialized forms of language, and structures of power" (p. 42), which act to reinforce the dominance of one way of knowing over another.

Not only are the means problematic, but also the assumptions about what knowledge and evidence lead to. "For many people who are presently engaged in research on indigenous land claims the answer would appear to be self-evident. We assume that when 'the truth comes out' it will prove that what happened was wrong or illegal and that therefore the system (tribunals, the courts, the government) will set things right. We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and 'Othered' (p. 34).

Logan Cochrane

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