In this seminar, Brendan Whitty presents an ethnographic analysis of how a country office of a public agency administers aid.
The argument has two parts. First, it suggests that the limits of the development imagination – what programming is considered legitimate – are circumscribed by the technical logics of certain development sectors. These technical logics, arranged sectorally, are formalized in the agency’s social structure through ‘professional cadres’ (e.g. health, education, governance) each with their own shared causal and policy beliefs. Drawing on the work of Mary Douglas, the research shows how this sectoral professional authority is enacted in day-to-day practice of administering the aid budget, and in particular in its interplay with institutions of collegiality and hierarchical authority.
Secondly, the argument emphasizes the role of the fields of professional expertise. It affirms critical literature, which describe development organizations as ‘rendering technical’, and thereby depoliticizing the countries in which they work. Yet these accounts are often unable to describe the practices by which these technical presentations are produced, due to access limitations. This research fills that gap by looking at how persistently technical justifications for programme expenditure – rooted in the project logics identified above – are a result of the bureaucratic form, and its accountability and approval processes. Yet while representations of the country’s political and social context are framed to justify the technical models, officials also exploit with considerable craft the disjunctures between policies and practice to create programming space and flexibility for their preferred approach to programmes.