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Villages, barbed wire and anthropology

Yangon has its fair share of barbed wire. But I found out last week that the home of barbed wire is the small town of Dekalb in Illinois in the U.S. The town even has a special Barbed Wire Museum to give a detailed account of its’ invention.


While barbed wire’s history is probably a super interesting topic, it wasn’t that that took me to Dekalb. Last week was the International Burma Studies Conference. It only happens every couple of years and this time was held at Northern Illinois University.

What struck me about the conference was the amount of fantastic new ethnographic research being done on village level leadership, decision-making and power dynamics.

Field staff in development organisations are of course acutely aware of the nuances of village structures and patterns of formal and informal decision making. They are always dealing with tricky relationships in structures like village development committees or farmers groups. But NGO field staff don’t always get the chance to systematically record and analyse these dynamics.

So having some Myanmar or foreign researchers living for a year or so in villages with the sole aim of giving a really detailed account of the intersections between government structures, traditional leaders, elders, etc is extremely helpful.

What emerges is a picture that challenges the often uniform way that aid projects go about forming structures like village development committees. In development projects that I worked on in Myanmar we always tried to find ways to promote representative decision-making in villages – with committees that aimed to be inclusive of women or minority groups.

But ethnographic research reveals the naivety of thinking that you can roll out a particular project decision-making structure across - for example, fifty or a hundred different villages – and expect a uniform impact. Aid projects are inevitably strengthening certain positions of power, and undermining others, and not always in ways that are nicely empowering the poor and marginalised.

So these ethnographic accounts, in all their complexity, are interesting to listen to. But the question is, what do we do with all of this fine-grained ethnographic analysis. One anthropologist that I spoke to at the conference said the goal of this kind of ethnographic research is simply ‘radical empathy’. Listening and empathising is an end in itself.

On one hand, that presents a welcome challenge to the common aid program idea that we need to ‘solve things’. But the idealist aid worker in me can’t help but think that there somehow needs to be more connection between the fine grained insights of anthropologists and planning of aid projects.

Otherwise the end point seems to be, on one hand, researchers saying that aid workers are hopelessly naïve about the impact that their programs actually have. Or on the other hand, aid workers accuse researchers of never actually ‘doing’ anything.

The trouble is that there is, in the end, very little incentive for interaction between researchers and practitioners. Academics earn their ‘points’ by publishing in journals, and aid workers need to finish their projects and tick all the boxes.

Persistent effort to understand how the insights of granular ethnographic work influences aid programs is not really in the interests of anyone, except of course beneficiaries themselves.

For anthropologists, engaging in the painstaking work of aid reform is a thankless task that doesn’t contribute much at all to the next paper or academic book or teaching position. It certainly doesn’t help you finish your PhD.

Meanwhile for the aid worker in an NGO or in the UN, the messy work of challenging every level of development program approaches - and revealing all of the ugly flaws - is likely a very frustrating process. All of the incentives in aid projects are related to finishing on time and demonstrating how good and successful all your activities were. Rock the boat too much and you might find that you don’t get another round of funding.

I am encouraged that there is a growing body of fascinating ethnographic research on Myanmar. But it also left me disheartened as to whether any of these new insights into village relationships will impact the way that aid programs are run.

There seems to be a fence built between academia and practice. While most people say they want that fence to be pulled down, there are not exactly queues of people trying to do it.

In Dekalb, Illinois they seem to know all about barbed wire fences. But unfortunately this town is more interested in putting them up rather than taking them down.

by Tamas Wells


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