Category Archives: Inequality

Doing Development the Right Way: A Conversation with Charles Piot

Anthropologist Charlie Piot has been conducting research on the political economy and history of rural West Africa for over thirty years. His first book, Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa (1999), has gained wide attention for re-theorizing a classic, out-of-the-way place as existing within the modern and the global.

 

His next book, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War (2010), explored shifts in Togolese political culture during the 1990s, when NGOs and charismatic churches reorganized social and political life in the absence of the state.

His current project focuses on Togolese who apply for, and attempt to game, the US Diversity Visa Lottery.

You can find out more about Charles Piot’s work on his Duke University website here.

While pursuing his own research in Togo, Piot now brings undergraduate students from his U.S. campus (Duke University) for short stays in the West African villages of the Kabre people where he has made a second home.  While there over summer and winter breaks, the students have developed and pursued their own, small-scale development projects.  In developing these projects, the students aim to tap into both their own skills and the needs of the villagers.

Neophytes are notoriously doomed to fail in such culturally and politically sensitive work. But these students are lucky to have Professor Piot to guide them in the exceptionally thoughtful and informed way that anthropologists do best.  Many of the projects have already proven transformative, while the failures have proven instructive.

Piot has worked with the students to publish a striking collection of essays chronicling their efforts.  The result: Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates (Duke University Press, 2016).

Anthropologist Brad Weiss calls the book “an innovative . . . eminently readable and teachable text valuable to courses in international relations, political science, and anthropology.”

The book was “Highly recommended” for libraries by Choice.

Recently, Charlie and I had a conversation online about the book.  During part of our conversation, Charlie was actually back in the villages, checking up on recent projects and tweaking them to make improvements.  I think you’ll find the conversation fascinating.

CP: Charles Piot

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  This book features projects that your undergraduate students at Duke have undertaken in a rural area of Togo where you’ve conducted research among the Kabre people for a few decades.  What inspired you to compile a book of essays by and about research in West Africa done by American undergrads?

CP: The idea for the book was entirely student-driven!  One year’s group of students with academic leanings – all three went on to graduate study, with one now pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology – asked if they might write up the results of their summer projects in an Independent Study class.

I agreed and put them through the paces – first week, produce an abstract; second week, an Introduction; and so on.  Before you knew it, they each had short articles, which were surprisingly strong.  One of the students asked if we couldn’t try to publish them, and of course I said, “Sure”–while secretly imagining that we’d end up publishing them on a website of our own design.

But one thing led to another.  We added more essays the following year.  We found some money to fly in to Duke an anthropologist (John Hawkins) who had published a similar book of student essays, and he gave us outstanding editorial advice.  We had lunch with a Duke University Press editor who was super-supportive of the idea – for him, it was a novelty, a book by undergraduates for undergraduates about development – and said he’d send the essays out for review.  But then, of course, the real work of producing a book – of editing and fitting all the pieces together – began.

Then, too, the projects themselves have always drawn me in.  These projects – all, student-designed – are interesting and doing important work in the villages.  And they tell interesting cultural stories.

Recipient of the Writer’s Collective Award for Best Poem (with a Duke Student), in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Finally, the problems and challenges of development in West Africa are vexing and fascinating.  I didn’t used to think so.  In fact, in years past, I would run the other way when I saw a development worker.  But now I find issues of development not only urgent but also (as Lévi-Strauss might have said) “good to think with.”

2017 Group of Duke University Students in a Kabre Village (Togo) 

 

AG:  Let’s start with that last comment.  As an Africanist, I spent three decades lecturing to students about the failures of large-scale “development” programs across Africa.  I suspect you did, too.  Yet we both find ourselves now working with small-scale “development” projects in our fieldsites.  Or maybe, it’s because we found so much wrong with those large-scale programs that we’ve both now embraced much more local, small-scale projects, in spaces we know well.  (Your work with these projects in Togo is exactly why Philip Graham and I invited you to join the Advisory Board of the Beng Community Fund that we founded, to create small-scale projects with Beng villagers in Côte d’Ivoire.)

In helping your students design their micro-projects, do you find yourself thinking explicitly about the failures of so many past IMF (etc.)-funded projects in Africa, and working with these students to design projects that will avoid those well-documented problems?

 

CP: Everything we do in Togo is tied to the spectre of development’s many failures that you reference.  My own feeling is that many of those failures, whether large-scale or small, are due to the failure to understand or engage with local culture.  How can you introduce new systems of debt (that come in with a microfinance project) if you don’t understand local notions of debt?  How can you design farming or health projects if you don’t understand local labor and cultivation practices, the way gender and labor intersect, and even local conceptions of the body?  But, astonishingly, most development projects never get down in the weeds of the local like this.  They assume the benefits of their projects will be obvious to all.  So they hire technicians and economists and agronomists, who are all well-versed in the Western sciences—but, rarely, anthropologists!

All of our projects in Togo – a microfinance opportunity for teens, a village health insurance system, computer classes, a writers’ collective – attempt to draw on local knowledge from the get-go, from design to implementation.  If we’ve had any success at all–and I believe we have– it’s because of our attention to local culture and history.

But there are no guarantees!  Indeed, as a provocation, I tell the students they shouldn’t get their hopes up too much, they should remain humble (and assume that locals know much more than they do – about farming, their bodies, local institutions), and even expect failure.  But such failure can be instructive in informing future efforts.

Another blind spot of many development projects is sustainability and follow-up.  Do they ever think about the time, five or ten years down the road, when the outside director or project manager will no longer be there?  Usually not.  This is a topic I’m preoccupied with right now.  What will happen to these projects after I stop taking students to Togo?  And what happens each year after we leave?  Do the computer classes live on, does the microfinance project continue to function?  I’m actually in Togo right now for a few weeks for that very reason, to follow up on all of the projects and continue to brainstorm the question of sustainability.

Charlie Piot Drinking Sorghum Beer with a Local Chief in a Togolese Village

 

AG: That’s fantastic that you’re writing about this from the village–using Internet supplied by one of your students’ projects.  That would certainly be one of the success stories.   Can you talk about the projects that have been the most–and least–sustainable?  In the case of the projects that are faltering, are the obstacles more technical, or sociological, or economic, or emotional . . .or a combination of some or all the above?  Are there things you now realize you could do in the future to make new student projects more sustainable?

Wireless Relay Station outside a Kabre Village (Togo) Demonstrated by Duke Student

 

CP: A nice question!  I’ll respond by discussing two examples of projects of ours that have had mixed success.

First, the health insurance system we’ve set up in a village clinic.  With this project, member families get free consultation and pay 25% the normal cost of medications, all for $4 a year per family.  The project has had fluctuating membership since it began 10 years ago, with only 25 families out of 200 currently enrolled.  And this, despite the fact that all insurees are unanimous in their praise of the benefits of the system.  Every year, we interview members and non-members to try to get to the bottom of why more families aren’t signing up.

Some of their responses: the health insurance scheme requires payment on a schedule, while the local system of payment and debt is more accommodating to unforeseen contingencies; the indigenous system of medicines is also efficacious and cheaper (you never “thank” a healer until after you are cured, with payment in kind – some beer, a chicken); some worry that paying for a cure before you fall sick might (through mystical means) bring on the sickness; others want to know if they can get their money back at the end of the year if they never attend the clinic.  All these responses make us realize how culturally shaped the idea of “health insurance” is!

The second example involves the cyber café.

                Muddy Flip-flops Left outside the Entrance to the Kudwe Cyber Café                          in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

The computer classes we’ve offered while we’re there have been wildly successful.

Schoolroom Chalkboard Demonstrating the French Keyboard in a Kabre Village (Togo)

And we’ve found a high school student, a real wiz, who took our classes, to teach them to others after we left.  That could make the project sustainable beyond our presence.

Students inside Classroom in a Kabre Village (Togo)

But last month, when I was visiting the villages, I discovered that the cyber café has been closed to classes since we left last August, because the person responsible was transferred to a town fifty miles away,  and the person taking over hasn’t yet done what they call a “transfer of power” (passation de service), because no one has yet compiled an inventory of the materials in the cyber café.

So, as you can see, these are not technical problems–they’re social and cultural.  And while both projects are “successful” – the health plan works well for some families, and we’ve taught computer and Internet skills to several hundred youth in the villages – they’ve nevertheless fallen short of realizing their full potential.

 

AG: You’re unusually honest in assessing the weak spots of promising projects. I’m guessing this is because your training as an anthropologist compels you to see the social fissures that are invisible to the directors of so many large-scale development projects, who often focus on the technical components alone.  Our propensity as anthropologists to see the invisible but powerful lines of the social universe may make it easy for us to spot problems that elude the gaze of others.

But, does that skill also enable us to fix the problems?  For example, once you discovered the personnel problem with the cyber café, did you perceive any viable way to tackle it?

The insurance situation strikes me as even more challenging, because there, you’re dealing with a clash of values, and that’s almost always far trickier to address than other challenges.

Thinking about both these projects–with their encouraging yet mixed successes–I wonder if you have thoughts about how the next group of Duke students you bring to Togo might brainstorm solutions that could further address this thorny but critical question of sustainability.

CP: I do think our training as anthropologists aims our attention to the social life of communities, with all its messiness and conflict and fissure.  Do these insights also enable us to find solutions to the problems of development in small-scale contexts like this?  In principle, yes.

To stay with the example of the cyber café we’ve installed: despite the frustrating loss of time – eight months of inactivity – my students and I have familiarity with the lines of authority at the cyber café and in the larger community, and we know what jealousies might be in play—so we are able to brainstorm solutions with local allies.

In this case, a promising outcome is in progress – and one that may vault the cyber-café into a whole new orbit of activity, with a private entrepreneur from a different ethnic group managing it, while adding a photo-copier and printer, and installing a money transfer kiosk. (Local wisdom is to go outside the community to look for a manager, as locals might attempt to poach on the goodwill of a family member or close acquaintance, quickly bankrupting the enterprise.)  So – perhaps!  Only time will tell if this will be a failure-into-success story.  If it does, even a success will surely generate its own new round of challenges and setbacks.

But, development in such a context is always like this.  If we’re lucky, we might take three steps forward for every two steps back.  And, in any case, staying with the challenges has its own rewards.

2017 Teen Microfinance Awardees (and Family Member Guarantors) in a Kabre Village (Togo)

 

Poems about Refugees

Adrie Kusserow is one of an increasing number of anthropologist-poets.  Or maybe more anthropologist-poets are just willing to come out of hiding.

Either way, I was delighted to catch up with Adrie and interview her about her wonderful book of poems, Refuge, that was published by Boa Editions (a leading literary publisher) in 2013.  Although the book is now a few years old, the subject of its title poem, and many others collected in its pages, remains all too relevant.  For more information, and a sample poem, check the publisher’s website here.

Adrie Kusserow, Refuge, Front Cover

If you’d like to find out more about Adrie Kusserow’s work as a researcher, an author, and the founder of an NGO, check out her website.

Her latest, short book that I’m featuring here contains 61 pages of 30 poems. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet packs a richly moving punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Brooklyn-based Renato Rosaldo–himself, a recipient of an American Book Award for his poetry–has this to say about Adrie Kusserow’s latest book:

“Kusserow’s splendid verses bring us devastatingly close to the recent horrors of the southern Sudan and its lost boys.  Her ethnographic gaze is compelling and her poems plunge us into unfamiliar social worlds, bringing us the news we need to know.  Both anthropology and poetry stand enriched by her work.”

I recently talked with Adrie Kusserow about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

Interview with Adrie Kusserow

Adrie Kusserow Head Shot

Alma Gottlieb (AG): As a scholar trained in anthropology, what motivated you to write and publish this book of poetry?

Adrie Kusserow (AK): There were many reasons, but mostly I didn’t have a choice. Poems are always able to handle the emotions and subtle nuances of bodily habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term) that I encounter in field work. Poetry is also something I prefer to write and comes quite naturally. Once I had tenure I felt I could risk not writing as much academic prose. This is my second book of poetry, so I knew I could write another, and hopefully publish with the same great publisher (BOA Editions, New American Poets Series).

Ever since college I’ve had one foot in poetry and the other in social science, feeling like each “side” really needed more of the other. When I was in graduate school, anthropological writing seemed stiff. It was fascinating but not always engaging. At this point in my life, I write more poetry than I do academic writing. Poetry can take us into places of nuance and subtlety that can get pounded out by academic jargon. I use poetry to take me to places of insight and truth that I couldn’t get to through regular prose. For me it’s like moving from one- dimensional reality to three-. I wanted to write poetry because I felt it could hold all of the subtle dynamics and emotionality of doing work in South Sudan in a way that academic prose couldn’t. I also don’t just view it as trying to accurately reflect any given situation or ethnographic encounter. It is a tool for me that I use to get to places of deeper understanding. Connections and insights come up for me about my “data” in the process of writing a poem. I’m also a big fan of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and poetry allows me to depict the tremendously subtle nuances of habitus.

I also wanted to have a book that I could use in my teaching. I very often use fiction, plays, and poetry to help students understand and appreciate core anthropological themes. Most of the courses I teach (on refugees, medical anthropology, and inequality) have a social justice current running through them, and I always try to get readings that will move my students not just intellectually, but viscerally and emotionally.

I also love writing poetry because it can sometimes help me reach a wider audience than I might with a scholarly journal that attracts readers who are, in a sense, already converted to anthropological jargon.

 

AG: For most people, poetry inhabits a different universe from a social science such as anthropology. Yet Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict, two of our discipline’s most illustrious American forebears, were respected as published poets, and we’ve had plenty more anthropologist-poets since then. Like Sapir and Benedict, you’re a scholar who writes and publishes in both academic and poetic genres. Do you see your two kinds of writing as fundamentally linked, or fundamentally discrete?

AK: Fundamentally linked….I have no interest in writing solely confessional poetry that has no insight into the role that culture plays in shaping individual lives, hence I tend to gravitate toward ethnographic poetry. I also have no interest in writing the kind of straight ethnographic prose that has no metaphor, rhythm, color and vivid imagery in it. So I am perpetually writing both. I see ethnographic poems as taking me to a powerful, liminal place that can harness both “sides,” rather than each having its own territory.

 

AG: You’ve done research in places ranging from New York City and small-town Vermont to Bhutan, India, Nepal, Uganda, and war-torn southern Sudan. What’s inspired you to research life in such wildly diverse fieldsites?

AK: I’ve always been drawn to the Himalayas. After my freshman year at Amherst College, I left school and lived in Nepal with Tibetan refugees and then in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. From there, I became a religion major studying Buddhism with Robert Thurman, and then I went to Divinity School to study Buddhism. The landscape of the Himalayas, and Buddhism, are what pull me back time and time again. I love how small the ego feels there, the lack of a kind of hyper-individualism.

I never had an early interest in going to East Africa. It was the Lost Boys of Sudan that pulled me there and changed the course of my work for a time. I became so close to them in Vermont that I followed them back to Sudan to try and find their families, interview their friends in refugee camps, took students with me, and interviewed refugee girls about the challenges they faced. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we had built a school for refugee girls in the very southern part of Southern Sudan on the Congo/Ugandan border.

The whole time I missed the Himalayas. And now, I’m unable to set foot inside of Southern Sudan because of the brutal civil war, so I’m back to working in India, which I love. In April I’m making a film to raise awareness on trafficking of girls from tea plantations in rural Himalayan villages around Darjeeling, which will be used by a local NGO with Nepali subtitles. I’m very excited, as I will get to combine my love of trekking with applied anthropology. The film is going to document the trek along the Indo-Nepal border as I follow a local NGO/Stop Human Trafficking team.

 

AG: You write poetry, you publish scholarly articles, you teach college students, you founded and run an NGO based in the Southern Sudan, and now you’ll be working on a film. How do you perceive these very different activities? Do they all feel part of the same project, or independent from one another?

AK: They all feel part of the same project, a kind of obsessive exploration of inequality and how people cope with suffering.

I teach not only because I love it, but I feel students need to wake up to and be challenged by worlds larger than themselves. I believe this leads to tolerance and compassion.

I co-founded an NGO (Africa Education and Leadership Initiative) because I couldn’t witness the extreme inequality in access to education that girls face in South Sudan, and not try and do something to help try and even it out.

Africa ELI School T-shirt (back) Africa ELI Students

I write poetry because I have to, and it centers me into a place of truth (the truths of what exist under the generic conventional wisdom that often parades as truth). It brings what is most meaningful and challenging for me to think about, into a kind of sharp, almost meditative focus. Poetry lets me describe and awaken to the world in all its true complexity.

 

AG: Some of your poems are obviously “ethnographic” in that they’re “about someplace else,” but others are more “personal,” about your children or your husband. Do you see those as “ethnographic” as well?

AK: No, I don’t really see those as ethnographic, but at the same time it would be hard for me to describe the exact line where a poem becomes officially ethnographic. When I write about my children, I am still writing about them from a white, American, upper-middle-class perspective, and I often try and convey this in a poem, so the personal is often intentionally depicted as seeped in the cultural. And yet, sometimes, I just write personal poems, like a love poem to my toddler son. I try not to force myself to write either kind of poem, but I’m noticing that most often these days, I’m writing ethnographic poems. It is a way to process and sift through all that I’ve experienced doing field work in another country in a way that I cannot do when I am there in the midst of participant observation. When I’m in India or South Sudan, I write in a journal and don’t attempt to edit at all, just pouring out impressions and reactions and observations. When I come home, I start the weighing and sifting and looking at the entries in a slower, more creative way, and that’s often when more insights come.

 

AG: In a poem titled “What to Give Her–A Confession,” you write:

In our clumsy home of incense and dog hair,

I crave the weight of old cultures,

Cranky and outdated as they may be.

I crave sediment,

whole layers of history upon us

like a wet blanket, but without the stink,

the itchy suffocation.

Some anthropologists might see that sort of cultural nostalgia as old-fashioned. Did you feel more comfortable writing about it in a poem rather than in a scholarly text?

 

AK: Yes, I did. In poetry, I can say things I’m not supposed to say as an anthropologist–visceral, gut feelings that don’t obey anthropological theory or political correctness. In this poem, I am describing a mother who feels lost, and without the guidance of an orthodox religion. Motherhood now involves hearing hundreds of different perspectives on the best way to raise your child. Sometimes this can feel dizzying and overwhelming, and I crave one solid Bible telling me what is right. Indeed, I can know on an intellectual level that the weight of old cultures is……..but that doesn’t keep it from rising up from the gut into a poem.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

AK: Oh, actually I love to be surprised. I love it when someone asks me a question that sheds a whole new light on the book or makes me think about field work or the writing process in a new way. I love when a question forces me into new terrain instead of the same old generic answers and stories about ourselves we come to rely on and just automatically offer up. I like when questions make me question some of the narratives I get used to giving. It’s important that narrative not become too predictable and one-dimensional; after all, it’s just a story, and no story can encapsulate any one reality .

 

AG: Since this book has been published, the US has elected a president in good part because of his hostility to immigrants and refugees, especially those from the Muslim world. You’ve worked intimately with refugees, who have already been targeted by our new president’s two restrictive executive orders. What are your thoughts? Do you plan to teach classes educating students about the issue? Write more poems responding to the issue? Write more scholarly articles about it? Write Op Ed pieces? Something else?

AK: I plan to keep teaching courses on refugees, working with refugees in Vermont, introducing my students to refugee field work, and promoting internships and careers for my students in refugee-related fields. Beyond that, I will continue my work with AfricaELI.org, and supporting refugee students in South Sudan when the civil war allows us to. (The refugees I work with are almost all Hindu or Buddhist, from Bhutan, or Christian, from South Sudan.) On a more personal front, I have lots of work to do with supporting my South Sudanese family here in Vermont, one of whom is struggling in a psychiatric hospital and the other just had another child who they named after my mother, Suzanne, which was a great honor. I also support a young Nuba student in a camp in South Sudan who is trying to just stay alive and be able to return to school some day.

In general, I’m tending towards writing that gets published in more mainstream journals and magazines, as I like the wider audience.

 

AG: The American Anthropological Association has embarked on many new initiatives to promote anthropology to a broader reading public beyond our students and colleagues. Do you see your poetry as contributing to this goal? What about your NGO?

AK: Yes, I do see my poetry and my NGO as contributing to this goal. Reaching a broader reading public is extremely important to me. I recently wrote a short story called “Anthropology” for a magazine called THE SUN which has a much wider circulation than many of the journals I’ve published in. I am in full support of trying to reach a broader reading public!