Book Review: Cultivating Development by David Mosse

‘How am I able to follow a rule?’ — if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following a rule in the way I do. If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say : ‘This is simply what I do.’
– L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations –

“What if development practice is not driven by policy? (p. 2)” The conventional belief is that development projects are designed and implemented by policies. Participation, gender equality, measurable result, they are the examples of overarching policies which shape the activities and outcomes of development projects. Yet, in reality, it is not the policies that drive projects, it is the projects that sustain the policies instead, Mosse argues. He postulates his propositions by posing the key question that challenges unquestioned belief, then elaborates the relationship between policy and practice through his ethnography by reversing the widespread wisdom that good policy leads to good practice.

He writes the ethnography of aid from his experience in Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project (IBRFP) that involved one of the first participation approaches used in the big scale bilateral projects. Through this long-term project, he reveals what constitutes the complex project site as an arena of competing ideas and groups generating struggle, ambiguity, confusion, and conflict. Contrary to the belief that development practice is driven by policy, he presents that development practice is the outcome of the events coming from this complex project site that involves diverse social relations. Mosse illustrates the process of project development unravelling interwoven relationships of development workers in different fields — technical and social —, government officials, villagers, and suppliers, and they all share varying weight of power, suspicion, interests, and mutual understanding. Strategies and details of practice are indeed formed through these relations and during the process, they are translated into what encompasses the policy rather than the other way around.

Practice, according to Mosse, is also the outcome of the political logic and the culture of organisations that shape the system of working and networking in different ways. Those who have worked in development organisations will agree that maintaining the organisation’s goal is as important as achieving donor goals. When it comes to organisational impact in administrative work, it can be argued that bureaucracy has been the main target of the ineffectiveness in development process and decisions. In fact, the culture and the system of organisations were often simply paraphrased as bureaucracy or external value imposition rather than described as complex and heterogeneous mixture of factors. By investigating deeper as an insider, however, the author proves that what happens in the project site is more complicated than the simplified claims that problems arise from bureaucratic inefficiency and ineffectiveness. That is, organisations with education goals will pursue projects that are related to education, and those who conduct cash transfer for poverty reduction instead of delivering projects, for instance, will continue delivering cash to poor people not projects even though they discovered the potential for other projects which could benefit people. This is because it is the promise they have to deliver to their organisation employees and all involved stakeholders including donors. “The practice of ‘implementation’ were shaped less and less by formal goals and more and more by the ‘system goals’ of the organisation (p. 104),” Mosse reflects. He points out that the work of the organisations cannot be separated from their system, not to mention the supports from networks and donors. Without maintaining those support and interest from them, project also fails to be maintained. As a result of pursuing their system goals first, the organisation is then left with the task of meeting the formal goals so that the project can officially be legitimised. Meeting the formal goals, however, is not as challenging as designing for organisation’s goal as formal goals can be achieved by interpreting them to organisations’ own needs. Mosse argues that the formal goals are ambiguous enough to be translated into the same model the organisations developed for their own system goals (p. 43). In an effort to maintain the legitimacy of projects, broad and flexible interpretations are applied to match both of the goals, organisation’s and donor’s. In addition, he argues, achieving the project goals means the organisation can successfully construct “acceptable” stories out of the loose translation of the goal. He writes, “development success is not merely a question of measures of performance; it is also about how particular interpretations are made and sustained socially (p. 158).” Policy, which primarily functions to maintain support and legitimise projects in order to socially sustain, is the goal. It again echoes his proposition that policy exists first, then projects are designed to sustain the policy and the exigencies of organisations. He adds;

Policy discourse generates mobilising metaphors (‘participation’, partnership’, ‘governance’) whose vagueness, ambiguity and lack of conceptual precision is required to conceal ideological differences so as to allow compromise and the enrolment of different interests, to distribute agency and to multiply the criteria of success within project systems (p. 230).

His position as an anthropologist directly involved in the project offers readers a unique sight of both insider and outsider. His articulation of the relationship draws on from his experience and the self-critical reflections on practice, which makes his work more valuable. What is mostly appreciated from his work in terms of development practice is the fact that he distances himself from the debates of anthropologists’ way of engagement in development and instead, delivers the story and the insight by being observant participant, and by being an anthropologist in the development scene. He writes;

One of the principal failings of recent debates on anthropology in, or of, development is the failure to acknowledge the heterogeneity of hope, politics and critical reflection. Instead the debate has reproduced the same institutionalised distinction between constructive engagement and disengaged critical analysis that results in the divergence of the careers of anthropologists as either development professionals (consultants, advisers, policy researchers), or as scholarly academics (p. 241).

Simple caricatures of anthropologists in development as well as development work, he argues, is the form of neglecting the varied spectrum of positions and context. In this regard, Mosse’s book does not show the simple picture of what is right or wrong. Instead of searching for those absolute values, he provides what anthropologists are best at: finding how things are related and how differently people perceive them. It paints pictures of what made people decide certain things and how everyone and everything interacted with each other in which context in the scene. In so doing, he shows the glimpse of how things are communicated and performed in complex project sites. Mosse’s work is valuable in understanding project designs and implementation processes in that it, in contrast to the tendency of common criticisms on development impact which highlights the defective side of development policies and projects, albeit their legitimate findings, shows how beneficiaries perceived the development impact and also how different the perceptions are depending on what their individual or collective aspirations are (pp. 205-208). By showing the makings of development work through his reflection and fieldwork, he provides a window of opportunity to improve the practice by guiding how things can be done to compensate what is lacking rather than what should be substituted with new plans or at all eliminated. The dismantling of the orthodox ideas in development makings makes the book challenging and intriguing, and the reflective description of the chaotic project site makes the book and the work of development understandable and human.

Originally submitted for Special topics in cultures and development, KU Leuven.


Wittgenstein, L. (1963). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Published by


An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *