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Is the foreign aid profession falling into the trap of “Social Physics”?

Let’s consider the foreign aid establishment through the lens of cultural anthropology, the aim of which, as the late Clifford Geertz succinctly put it, “is to determine what this people or that take to be the point of what they are doing.”[1]  The aid establishment has a culture just as much as the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands do, and it is a remarkably uniform one at that – perhaps more now than ever. Whereas in the past there were distinct foreign aid sub-cultures, outliers, dissidents, renegade groups, and as a result small wars of ideology and territory among the diverse aid ‘tribes,’ over the course of the last 20 years or so diversity has given way to sameness. Just as regional diversity in America has given way to look-alike downtown pedestrian zones in every city, with their oldy-moldy gold lettered signs and the oxymoronic national chain of “neighborhood” Applebee’s restaurants, so the once messy world of strident NGOs railing against the World Bank; the Nordic bilaterals with their feel-good approach to participation; the more middle of the road agencies like  USAID or DFID – the cultural differences are fading.  With the exception perhaps of the Chinese, the bilaterals and multilaterals, as well as the NGO ‘community’ and the new philanthropic foundations are all more or less now using the same language, purporting to believe in the same goals, and with little or no questioning, clamoring onto the same bandwagons, the latest being the belief in results based or evidence based development interventions..


A useful underlying metaphor for this widespread concern for results and evidence-based approaches to all things developmental is social physics – the hope of which, to borrow another phrase from Geertz, is “a triumph of prediction, control, and testability.”  In invoking that phrase over 30 years ago Geertz was aiming at the academic world of social science and suggesting that it would be wise to give up such a hope; that it was time to accept that such a triumph would be not forthcoming. In effect he was saying that the world of humans and what they take to be the point of what they are doing, is just not that amenable to ‘social physics,’ and we’d be best off therefore to give it up and move on, living with a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Is there a lesson here for the foreign aid and development profession?  With our current embracing of social physics, a hope that we can predict, control and test our work, focus on results, and do nothing anymore unless we have evidence to show it is “worth” doing, are we missing out on a more real-world and possibly more fruitful view of things?


[1] Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge, Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, New York, Basic Books, 1983.