Review: Cultivating Development

by Esther Mulders

David Mosse’s groundbreaking book, Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (2005, Pluto Press), focuses on the complex link between policy and practice in development work. Starting with the question as to whether development practice is actually driven by policy, Mosse makes the reader rethink the relation between the two. Cultivating Development critically analyses the course of the Indo-British Rained Farming Project (IBRFP), a bilateral British aid project in agricultural development in rural India, of which Mosse was a part of for more than a decade.

Mosse as an Anthropologist in / of Development


Mosse started working with the IBRFP in the 1990’s, as an anthropologist in development, i.e. as a ‘positive practitioner’ and as such, he was part of the researching consultant team that had to write the project plan. At that moment, he did not yet know that years later he would be writing an ethnographic book on the aid policy and practice of IBRFP; he shifted from helping in development to the study of it. He then became an anthropologist of development, i.e. a critical researcher. Mosse acknowledges that it is his narrative that constructs the meta-narrative of his book. To ensure that his writing is as objective and comprehensive as possible, he sent a draft to different people involved in the project and asked for their feedback. This approach to objectivity is in line with Bruno Latour’s (2000) idea that objectivity derives from giving actors the possibility to object to what is written.

Cultivating Development: A Reflection upon the IBRFP Process

In the introduction, Mosse outlines two views on development policy (policy is understood as development models, project designs and strategies), each of which is are insufficient to explain the relationship between policy and practice, in particular the ‘black box’ of policy implementation, because both views do not do justice to the complexity of their relationship. In short, an instrumental view on policy considers policy to be rational and problem-solving; policy makers are in perfect hegemony over ‘their’ development workers. From the second, critical, view policy texts are nothing more than technical discourses which conceal the negative effects of development interventions. Policy is something isolated from social political reality and does not achieve its intended ends. In this second view, development is a way for powerful countries to dominate. Here resonates the binary of domination and resistance, which characterizes postmodernist critiques of development, as found in Escobar (1995) and Ferguson (1994).

Mosse’s ethnography of the policy and practice of the IBRFP presents itself as a new ethnography, which blurs the lines of the frameworks of the two dominant views. One characteristic of this new ethnography is a growing discomfort with monolithic notions of development. ‘Big’ words, such as dominance and hegemony, are no longer used and understood in an all-encompassing sense since anthropologists point at the different ways in which individuals control power. This is of much importance for the rest of Mosse’s book, since it forms the basis of his argument that, when one really looks into the ‘consumer practices’ of development workers, a world of hidden readings of policy texts come to the foreground. The notion of the ‘consumer practices’ is developed by Michel de Certeau (1984) to better understand the agency of actors. The fact that people (have to) consent to a model that is imposed upon them, does not mean that there is no freedom for interpretation; one can play around with the text and make it something different from what it was intended to be. Mosse refers to Scott’s (1990) division of public and hidden transcripts to show that next to the public, coherent and dominant existence of a policy text, the text has a hidden transcript. According to Mosse the hidden transcript is not monolithic, but shows the ‘polytheism of scattered practices’ surviving below’ (p. 7). Coherence in a development project is the result of the never-ending translation of numerous heterogeneous entities, ranging from people to events and objects, into one order.

In the second and third chapter Mosse presents, roughly speaking, two ethnographies: one on the policy process of IBRFP and a second on the identity, relationships and practices of the Bhil people. In these chapters, he shows that although policy texts are technically expressed, they are in reality politically shaped. The project design is formed in a way that serves a wide range of interests; multiple agendas have to be reconciled into a coherent project design. The tension between multiple agendas and the seemingly unified project design is resolved by the notion of ‘participation’. Participation was a key theme in the IBRFP and the project aimed to have the Bhil villagers shape the project – at least on paper (I will come back to this later on). In chapter three it becomes clear that the policy text did not merge with the social and historical context of the Bhil people. Mosse counters the strategic institutional language of the project design with an understanding of the complex history of Bhil people, and in doing this he shows that the project goals resulted from the former rather than the latter. While reading the second and third chapter, one cannot but help to think about Ferguson (1994) and his work on development discourse in Lesotho, where he found that the object of development was defined apart from its historical and social context.

In chapter four and five Mosse shows how the logic of political mobilisation (policy) differs from the logic of development operations (practice). He argues that development interventions in the first place are the result of exigencies of organisations and the need to maintain relationships. There is a wide gap between policy and practice and although people are inclined to think that policy steers practice, in these chapters Mosse undermines that idea: ‘policy models do not and cannot shape actual practice in the way that they claim. They are ignored, resisted, ‘consumed’, or tactically used in ways that make them irrelevant in the face of more urgent relational demands’ (p. 16). Chapter four focuses on relations (of influence) between Bhil villagers and staff, while chapter five more closely looks at relationships between staff members. It shows how the importance of policy lessens while the agency of individual actors expands.

Chapter six reveals that projects are created to sustain policy models. Development workers play an essential role in constructing representations of the project that fit well, and thus legitimise, a dominant policy model, without regarding the reality of the events on the ground. In the following three chapters, success, failure and their narration are the main topics. Mosse argues that the failure of a project, just as its success, is not directly linked with project implementation but rather with the interpretation of a project. While the success of a project is buoyed by a large support network, failure comes from the loss of this network and with that, the loss of its validity; both success and failure are policy-orientated judgements that are socially produced. Towards the end of the book Mosse looks at the social reality of the villagers and he explores how policy-orientated judgements obscure the way the project effected the lives of the Bhil people. In the final chapter, Mosse stresses that although there is a gap between policy and practice, policy is important: it helps mobilise support; it constitutes interpretative communities; and it validates both action and higher goals. However, ‘for policy to succeed it is necessary that it is not implemented, but that (…) people with enough power are willing to believe that it is’ (p. 232).

A New Perspective on Development: Stressing the Agency

Anthropology’s historical engagement with colonialism has been problematic and it took some time before anthropologists analysed the colonial power structures within which the discipline was shaped (Asad, 1973). Yet, in the 1990’s, the link between anthropology and development was under fire and critics started to wonder to what degree development had to be understood as an extension of colonial power. Multiple postmodern thinkers argued that development practices re-established structures of global dominance. According to Escobar (1991) development work is about the imposition of Western agendas, which makes international development a means to control. Mosse dismisses this theory as too simplistic, and highlights instead the complex agency of development actors. In doing so, Mosse adds a new and refreshing look to debates on development work; one that is a lot more positive about agency and accountability for all actors within development projects.

However, although throughout his book Mosse stresses the agency of different actors, the second chapter occasionally provides data that supports Escobar’s ideas on Western dominance. Escobar (1995) applies a discourse analysis on development agencies to uncover their hidden, political agendas that, according to him, aim to extend their control. With this theory in mind, let us have a look at the relation between IBRFP and their local partner KBCL, an Indian agro-input cooperative. Despite the fact that KBCL had its own agenda to enrol in the project (mainly to improve its image), which admittedly gives KBCL some agency, it should be pointed out that the ‘partnership’ between IBRFP and KBCL was extremely unequal. KBCL was not only silenced in the project design, a key ODA advisor also states that ‘[KBCL] was able to do what you wanted it to do rather than what it wanted to do’ (26). KBCL was the means through which IBRFP could achieve their own interests while speaking in the formal language of partnership. There was not a true conversation between ODA and KBCL, which is characterized by a horizontal dialogue in which two parties are respectfully working with each other; such a dialogue could be considered to be an act of creation (Freire, 1993). Instead, KBCL, being in a vertical order, received messages.

Moving towards a New Binary? From Domination/Resistance to Domination/Adaptation

Mosse emphasises the social relations and contexts that frame policy and practice, but the majority of the relationships within the project are coloured by the power structures through which they are shaped. Is there then a polytheism of scattered practices or is in there in reality still a monolithic West? Mosse aimed to ‘reinstate the complex agency of actors in development at every level’ (p. 6), and he succeeds in showing that different development actors have a certain agency which does not fit in the dominance/resistance framework. It is questionable, however, if Mosse completely departs from a binary structure; I want to suggest that instead of talking about resistance to dominance, we should talk about adaptation to dominance. With this I mean that actors, indeed, have a degree of agency, but this agency is restricted to the dominant actor’s preferences, goals and ideas. Mosse does not mention the notion of adaptation as a kind of structure or framework, but from reading his book it seems a possible way to understand the power relations that he describes. Underneath the ambiguity of ‘participation’ and ‘partnership’, lies a structure of adaptation.

The process of adaptation to a dominant party works at different levels, illustrated in the following examples. First, KBCL has to adapt to ODA, who in turn perceive KBCL to be a party ‘onto which ODA advisers could strategically inscribe their emerging agenda’ (p. 25). Second, there is adaptation at the level of field staff members who, if we believe Mosse, are rather autonomous actors with great influence on project implementation. These workers feel pressure to answer to the project’s need to reach implementation targets, and thus ‘adapted by reducing the time spent on uncertain community processes that were invisible as output’ (p. 112). Finally, at the level of beneficiaries, there are villagers that did not truly participate in the project, but instead presented themselves as (i.e. adapt themselves into) fitting subjects of development, anticipating the deliverables of the project (but see Escobar, 1991 on the power of donors despite aims of local participation).

The different levels at which there is an adaptation to the dominant organisation and its narrative, undermine and put limits on the agency of the development actors. This understanding of the power structures fits uncomfortably with Escobar’s statement that development anthropologists ‘disturbingly recycle, in the name of cultural sensitivity and local knowledge, conventional views of modernization, social change, and the Third World’ (1991: 658).

Mosse’s book offers truly informative insight into the world of development policy and practice. Ferguson (1997) states that anthropological critiques, even those that contain policy implications, are only given a marginal position when it comes to policy formation. Mosse would not consider this to be a problem, given that good policy is not fit for implementation. With this new perspective on policy and practice, Mosse undermines ideas on development work that most people take for granted and in doing so, he challenges his readers to critically engage with and reflect upon the (development) world as we think we know it.


Asad, T. (1973). Anthropology and the colonial encounter. Ed. by T. Asad. London: Ithaca Press.

de Certeau, M. 1984. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Escobar, A. 1991. Anthropology and the development encounter: the making and marketing of development anthropology. American Ethnologist 18(4) :658-682.

Escobar, A. 1995. Encountering development: the making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ferguson, J. 1994. The anti-politics machine: development, de-politicisation and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ferguson, J. 1997. ‘Anthropology and its evil twin: ‘development’ in the constitution of a discipline’; reprinted (2005) in Edelman M. and Haugerud A. (eds). The anthropology of development and globalization. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp 140-154.

Freire, P. 1993. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Latour, B. 2000. When things strike back: a possible contribution of science studies. British Journal of Sociology 5(1) : 105–23.

Mosse, D. 2005. Cultivating development: an ethnography of aid policy and practice. London: Pluto Press.

Scott, J.C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: hidden transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Esther Mulders is studying for an MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. Her undergraduate degree was in Creative Therapy and she hopes to work and do research in global mental healthcare.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s