Anthropologist’s Worst Nightmare

We are trained to look for problems.  We go into the field armed with theory that tells us that development programs are inevitably ill-conceived and incompetently managed.  We assume that governments and NGOs never learn the lessons of past failures and that they always ignore feedback from local communities.  We know we will always have critiques and criticisms to publish, because development is a sham, a perpetual boot stamping the face of the powerless.

But here’s a not-so-hypothetical situation: what happens if those government employees have learned from the mistakes of the past?  What if those misguided NGOs are actually paying attention to what the people they are trying to help need and want?  What if, by some crazy twist of fate, someone actually dreams up a way to combat climate change and poverty at the same time?  And what if, despite the inevitably flaws in the attempt, it really is possible to change the world? Does anyone want to read about programs that work?  Will we still get tenure if we say nice things?

I fear for my grade, but I have some ever-so-slight hope for the planet.

4 thoughts on “Anthropologist’s Worst Nightmare

  1. “Will we still get tenure if we say nice things?”

    Yes, of course. Won’t we? Granted, I know very little about the work of academic anthropology, but it seems to me as if all criticism–whether it’s about a group of people or a work of art or literature–tries to be honest in its balance of positive and negative.

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