James Ferguson on seeing what isn’t there
24 February 2011 § 4 Comments
One of the things that bothers me about a lot of what I read the in social sciences that’s, as you say, ‘globally oriented’, is that it seems to start with a bunch of certainties, a bunch of assumptions – a kind of Western liberal common sense – that we know how countries ought to be organized. They ought to be democracies; they ought to respect human rights; they ought to guarantee the rule of law; they ought to be at peace with their neighbors. And then you look at, say, a country in Africa and all you’re able to see is a series of lacks – of things that should be there but aren’t. And you end up constructing huge parts of the world as just sort of empty spaces where things ought to be there but aren’t. And it leads to a kind of impoverished understanding, I think, because you don’t really understand what is going on here. How do people conduct their affairs? How is legitimate authority exercised? How are rules made and enforced? You know, all the kinds of questions that ought to be the starting place tend to disappear or recede into the background. So, I think the real challenge is to approach this whole question with a sense of openness, a willingness to be surprised and learn something new and not to be so deductive.
I certainly believe that there are a number of Western development practitioners who have taken this perspective – of the limits of their own understanding – to heart, in useful ways. And it’s also quite clear to me that any number of practitioners persist in seeing the developing world as a series of gaps and lacks, filled with people who are not inherently passive, but are still incapable of generating substance and meaning on their own. When you look at a dirt road, and immediately wonder why it isn’t paved, rather than pondering the ways that people use it and the spaces it connects, your normative vision of the world is likely standing between you and a more proximately accurate understanding.
I remember having this instinctive reaction myself when I took the above photo in Kinshasa (on my BlackBerry, apologies for the poor quality). Ha, a Congolese shoe store! That’s not the right way to move beyond bricks-and-mortar retail… I didn’t notice the creative display (maximum visibility of shoes in a minimal space, compared to piling them on a table). I didn’t think about the processes by which sending Western cast-offs to developing countries, to be purchased by the bale by clothing merchants, had become a normal and even admired aspect of globalization. It didn’t even occur to me that this particular vendor had thoughtfully specialized in white trainers. I only saw what wasn’t there. It’s the steady challenge of life, and especially work, in a globalized world, to learn to focus on what is there.