Humanity co-editors Nils Gilman and Miriam Ticktin spoke with James Ferguson on May 31, 2013, at Stanford University.
Humanity: Your book The Anti-Politics Machine (1990) has become perhaps the single most influential text in the historiography of development.1 Its thesis is that the latent function of development is to extend the bureaucratic power of the state, which explains why, despite the endless failures of development to achieve its overtly stated ends, the practice of development continues to be pursued. Let us begin by discussing the genesis of this thesis: where did this framing come from?
James Ferguson: It began with my dissatisfaction: with the very repetitive policy-focused discussions going on at the time (in the academy and outside it) concerning “development failure.” The question was always, “Why do development projects fail?” and “How can we do it better the next time?” But these did not seem to me very productive questions. Lesotho was knee-deep in “failed” development projects, and to come in and say that they were failing seemed to me to be not actually saying very much—that was obvious on its face.
So I instead found myself more and more interested in a new question, which was, “What is it that these projects are in fact doing?” I said, let us set aside these normative questions of success and failure, and let us be good anthropologists and be descriptive: what is going on here? Once I started asking that question, I found that the intellectual work that was being done in these development agencies and development reports and in development discourse generally was quite substantial. There was a tendency toward academic snobbery, I think, to look at these development intellectuals as people who were just being really bad anthropologists, to point out that what they were saying was not very well supported, and to pick it apart. What I wanted to say is that they are not doing good anthropology because they are not trying to do good anthropology—they are trying to do something else, and they are actually very good at doing that something else.