All posts by Joana and Pal

Concessions, sovereignty, development

With Seeing Culture Everywhere behind us and Joana busy with Betterplace, we have been working together less than usual, but we do have plans. The shared denominator of our current interests is “development,” obviously a key term in Joana’s work with Betterplace and one that has been of increasing interest to Pal as Chinese migrants overseas — a subject he has been working on for nearly two decades — are increasingly involved in massive infrastructural projects or are otherwise transforming livelihoods and aspirations in poor countries.

A few years ago we already did some very modest research on the absence of development: why a road is not being built to link China and Russia across the Altai, despite all economic rationality. Now Pal wants to do some more substantial fieldwork in one of the numerous places — from Laos to Peru — that are being changed by Chinese-built roads or dams,Chinese traders, casinos, clinics, or factories. Despite all the hype that surrounds China’s “development export,” there is very little understanding of how it is actually impacts people’s lives and ways of thinking. Yet, as we wrote in an earlier post, both the capital and the faith in development that Chinese migrants bring to these places is already changing aspirations in ways that both agencies like the World Bank (whose lending portfolio is already smaller than that of China’s Eximbank) and participatory-development NGOs find hard to ignore. In one of the first ethnographies of the subject, Antonella Diana has shown how highland farmers in northern Laos, whose lives have long revolved around the German development organization GTZ, have converted to the prosperity gospel of Chinese rubber planters.

The subject is so interesting because it connects shifting local understandings of “the good life” in African villages to changes in World Bank decisions as well as to changing modes of sovereignty, as evidenced by the rise of modern-day concessions — large rented territories run by foreign (Chinese or other) investors who promise the local government to build model zones of development in exchange for a degree of what in essence is extraterritoriality. And while Chinese “development export” has a lot to do with the state, of no smaller interest is the sudden emergence of private donors and volunteers in China — people who adopt form of action familiar from Western “civil society” but who may have quite different (or, on the other hand, similar) ideas of what kind of lives their help should facilitate.

This is, of course, where Joana’s interests come in. Our next joint project is comparing Chinese reactions to the uses of aid after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to Western debates about the efficiency of aid to Haiti these days. We hope to use the analysis of these (mostly online) discussions to uncover to what extent ideas of aid and of individual-state interaction differ, but if we find Chinese donors for betterplace.org in the process, Joana won’t mind.

From anthropology to social entrepreneurship

This time it’s Joana writing on her own as for the past two years my life has been largely taken over by an enterprise in which Pál only plays a minor part. As much as I like popularizing anthropology I have discovered that I am even more enthusiastic about social entrepreneurship. Recently I read on this blog that anthropology was „leaning its trendy shoulder onto social media and new economy corporations“. Well, that is me and betterplace.org.

Starting betterplace.org
Three years ago when my family and I went on a trip around the world, we came across a number of local social initiatives, we really liked. There was one in particular – the Choki Traditional Arts School in Bhutan – which seemed to us to embody an alternative to the all too many ill-conceived or failed development projects the anthropological literature as well as other aid critics have documented.

The internet had already turned so many industries around by making the „the long tail“ of music or news visible, that it seemed timely to create a plattform for the long tail of help which matches local project managers with supporters/donors worldwide (many of the latter having serious doubts about the effectiveness and efficiency of large NGOs such as the German Red Cross.

Back in Berlin we linked up with another team, who had just began to conceive of a very similar plattform, whose head, Till Behnke became CEO of betterplace as well as an Ashoka fellow in 2008. Part of our team was also one of the founders and long-time CEO of eBay Germany, who brought highly valuable knowhow about online marketplaces to the table.

Crowdsourcing trust
As a plattform open to projects from all over the world (so far over 2.200 projects use betterplace, a figure which is growing by between 30-60 per week) one of the challenges was how to create trust mechanisms for the many grassroot projects. German donors knew UNICEF, which is not only a highly developed brand, but also registered as charitable by the German tax authorities. The Choki Traditional Arts School had no such references. But it had a number of individuals who knew and valued its work. In order to formalise bottom-up, crowdsourced trust mechanisms, we developed the „web of trust“: Every project on the plattform can be commented on and evaluated by its stakeholders; visitors can describe what they have seen on the ground, advocates can state why they believe in the project, beneficiaries can say whether the intenvention has had a positive impact on their lives (or not!). Donors looking for a project to support can thus get a much more differentiated impression of projects and make a more informed choice.

Shifting power-balances by giving beneficiaries a voice
I am very excited about the potential this bears: one of the reasons why so many social and development programmes fail has to do with the malfunctioning accountibility practices (especially towards beneficiaries) and we seriously hope that this can slowly be corrected by giving people a voice who have so far been mute.

Despite the obvious technological hurdles, we already see beneficiaries posting their own projects on the plattform. Let me give you one example: The small German NGO Twende Pamoja has been operating in Sansibar for many years, devising projects with their local counterparts. Last summer they organised a betterplace-workshop for their local partner organisation and shortly afterwards the Zanzibaris posted 2 projects themselves.

Increasing transparency by enabling easy feedback
Online donors can get in touch with project managers directly and collaborate with them, thus becoming co-creators and they get something back for their donations: direct feedback. In his blogpost about Social entrepreneurs Adam was asking how social entrepreneurs measure „para-economic value“. This is something we constantly ask ourselves: „what constitues success and how do we measure it?“ One answer we come back to is: „project needs fullfilled“ and „feedback received“, i.e. project managers are happy when they get money with which they can realise their projects and donors are satisfied if they get a story back, in writing, photos or videos. And we can proove that projects which give good feedback receive significantly more donations. (You may also want to take a look at Ashokas document on impact measurement in social entrepreneurship).

Enlarging the pie
It is important to us to reach groups who haven’t been socially active before. For example, the largest German online gaming website – Pennergame – invited its players to contribute to homeless-projects on betterplace, raising more than 27.000€ over the course of a few weekends. We also started a cooperation with Payback, a German loyalty card company with 20 million cardholders, who can now, instead of aquiring yet another frying pan or heating blanket, donate their points to a wide variety of small and large NGOs. Since we started the cooperation in mid December 2009 over 750.000€ were donated to social projects. Nearly all of this being „new money“.

Social Business
Our team currently consists of 30 people, from programmers to accountants and campaign managers and although many people volunteer for us, our young full-time employees need to be paid. The start-up capital was provided by us funders and we have since been able to attract a number of other high-powered individuals to support our work. Yet we need to be self-sustainable in the medium run and although we transfer 100% of all donations directly to project managers, we do charge commercial companies for their use of betterplace. Thus corporations such as Daimler pay us for our CSR-services, such as disaster relief actions. So far we are able to generate 1/3 of our income in this way.

Does any of this have to do with anthropology?
Writing Seeing Culture Everywhere was already a step away from deconstruction, as Pál and I really tried to think up very hands-on tools and rules which could help people critically interrogate the claims about culture they encountered in their workplaces and everyday lives.

At betterplace it’s all about application. But much of what I do is informed by what I learned as an anthropologist, from trying to give voice to a wide range of stakeholders to trying to inform donors about the many unintended consequences their donations may have. In contrast to my work as a writer, I love the way we can experiment with certain features, measuring their effects on project activity and donation volume, thus constantly testing our assumptions about how different people and groups act.

Call to action
I want to end this rather long post – sorry –  with asking you for support and advice:

Although betterplace.org mainly targets the German donation market, we have projects and visitors from all over the world . Among the ways we’d love to get anthropologists envolved, let me name just 3:

  1. Tell us about organisations and projects you are excited about. We’ll contact them and invite them onto betterplace.
  2. Visit projects already on the plattform while travelling and write down your impressions on the projects betterplace-page. This helps grow the Web of Trust.
  3. Check out projects in categories you have some expertise in (health, education, good governance) and critically interrogate project managers on their theory of change etc.

What is happening to the obsession with culture?

In our previous post, we suggested that, in “the development field,” culture talk may already look different from the time we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere, and that the kind of para-ethnographic approach we argue for is gaining ground. What about the rest of the areas of public and corporate policy we cover in the book?

Huntingtonianism still rules in IR
In international relations, there is little evidence of cultural determinism becoming less popular at the level of explanations, although with the shifts in U.S. foreign policy rhetoric and the fatigue that has set in regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the emphasis is more on solving day-to-day issues. In China, the local version of “Asian values,” centred on Confucianism, is doing better than ever and is increasingly infused into writings on foreign policy, although it is curiously combined with universalistic claims that suggest a new world system usually signified with the word tianxia, “all under heaven,” understood to mean a kind of non-Westphalian system vaguely reminiscent of tributary relations. (More on this in a forthcoming post.) Ethnic explanations of the “ancient hatreds” kind also appear to remain the most popular in armed internal conflicts.

From multiculturalism to interconfessionalism
The trends we describe in the way most Western states — including Western Europe and Australia — manage diversity continue, too. There remains a tension between the ongoing and increasingly stringent attempts to wrench rights and obligations away from previously designated ethnic “communities” and drag them back onto individuals through all kinds of “integration courses,” citizenship exams and bans on headscarves or arranged marriages, on the one hand, and the promotion of “interfaith dialogue,” with officially recognized religious leaders, on the other. Many of the problematic aspects of multiculturalist policies are now resurfacing in the form of interconfessionalist policies. We are looking forward to the findings of Thijl Sunier, Pál’s colleague, who is beginning a multi-country ethnography of Muslim organizational leadership.

Nor does the proliferation of “intercultural communication” trainings show any signs of abating, and Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions” still rule the seas. We must confess that IC is an area that we particularly enjoyed lampooning; it was a pleasure, for instance, to quote from Brendan McSweeney’s brilliant piece in which he scrutinizes Hofstede’s assertion that Freud’s theories had to do with Austrian culture’s “combination of a very low power distance with a fairly high uncertainty avoidance,” which means that “there is no powerful superior who takes away one’s uncertainties.” McSweeney points out that Adolf Hitler and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, both Austrians of Freud’s generation, were rather keen on submitting to powerful superiors, although in different ways.

The Rat and the Rabbit
And finally, the battle for the group ownership of “native culture” continues. The inclusion of two bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace in Peking in last year’s auction of the Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Berge collection triggered both official and popular protests in China, which had earlier been relatively subdued about claiming artifacts back from foreign museums. Later in the year, a Chinese archaeologist sponsored by a liquor company organised a high-profile tour of Western museums to take stock of art looted from the Summer Palace. On another front, the New York Times recently (23-24 January) reported that a performance by world ice dance champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at the European Championships that employed Australian Aborigine motives in outfits and music was condemned by the New South Wales Aboriginal Council as another instance of “stealing Aboriginal culture.”

From culture to class, wealth and work?
All that said, we do have the impression, that the world’s mind has been taken off culture to some extent. The perceived (and perhaps real) crisis of “neoliberal” economics means a renewed attention to class, wealth, and work as generators of conflict and common interest. This attention is not always well-conceived and can be downright sinister; it can also resurrect earlier generalizations about group culture, this time linked to money. But it does perhaps generate a welcome opportunity for micro-level studies of powerful institutions.

Culture in Development

This was supposed to be the title of one of the chapters in Seeing Culture Everywhere, except in the final proof it somehow got reduced to just “Culture,” which in a way is a more striking title. The chapter describes two types of “culture talk” in the world of development professionals: one, exemplified by Lawrence Harrison’s Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, that sees certain national cultures as development-prone and others as development-resistant, and another, reflected in Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton’s excellent Culture and Public Action, that takes a bottom-up ethnographic approach and emphasizes the need for understanding local cultural mechanisms while refraining from general statements. The former is a close relative of Samuel Huntington’s views, except that where Huntington is consistent (cultures cannot be changed so don’t tamper with them) Harrison is not (cultures cannot be changed, but sometimes they can, so keep trying). Of course, this tension between the idea of a national culture and the idea of individual self-realisation in spite of it goes all the back to  the Enlightenment.

Exporting Paternalism
A few weeks ago Kerim blogged about David Brooks’ New York Times opinion piece on Haiti, which is squarely in the Harrisonian mold: we need to go in and change their culture so they can develop. He (erroneously, we think) quotes Huntington in his support, but at least, contrary to Huntington’s infamous comparison between South Korea and Ghana (they were at the same level of development in 1960), Brooks’ argument compares Haiti to places like Barbados and the Dominican Republic, which means he operates with more specific cultural categories (which implicitly include political and social history) than Huntington’s “civilizations”.

But what we found remarkable in Brooks’ article was something else:

it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance. It’s time to take that approach abroad, too.

Wait a minute. Sure, Brooks is a conservative commentator, but still – what? A piece in the New York Times advocating promoting locally led paternalism and exporting paternalism abroad?

How is this different from what China is doing in poor countries – for which it gets all kinds of flak, none more than from U.S. conservatives?

China’s emergence in the development/aid field – its Eximbank is now a larger lender than the World Bank – is beginning to impact approaches in the whole field. In China, there is little patience for the kind of participatory development approach that has recently been so popular in the West (but is widely criticised as failed) and endless faith in ‘60s-style, highly interventionist development projects that combine large-scale infrastructural development with instilling a “modern work culture,” bodily discipline and all. (China is often described as differing from the West in its lack of a missionary agenda, but this is hardly true for Chinese investors; they are very like so many Henry Fords.) And this approach has appeal. People, at least some people, in Africa and Southeast Asia feel like the hopes for development that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s have been given back to them.

So where does that leave “culture” in development? Our hunch is that its place has already shifted since we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere. On the one hand, there is China and David Brooks. On the other, there is a new trend in “development thinking” around the World Bank and elsewhere (like Narayan. Pritchett and Kapoor’s Moving out of Poverty and Jessica Cohen and William Easterly’s What Works in Development) that seem to abandon the term altogether and focus on micro-scale interventions – rightly, we believe.

Writing Together

We’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on authorship in anthropology. The overwhelming majority of anthropology books are written by a single author. This is understandable if you look at the conventions of fieldwork, as well as the hiring processes of universities, for which co-authored works weigh far less than single-authored ones. Yet to us, this seems a real pity, as our experience has been that co-authorship has a number of great advantages.

Increased productivity
Although we both have very different careers – Pál being a full-time university professor and Joana being a „free-lance anthropolgist“ and running an internet start-up – we have (in addition to many single-authored works) over the last 10 years written dozens of articles and three books together, as well as devised e-learning courses and workshops. One of the reasons for our large output has been that we were able to cover very different audiences in a few strokes. Not only has nearly all our writing been published in both German and English, we also wrote up different versions, one academic, the other targeting a general audience.

With different audiences in mind and living in different social spheres we had access to a large pool of research ideas, thus Pál made us study the lifeworlds of Soviet theoretical physicists and Chinese migrants in Eastern Europe and Italy, whereas Joana got us into the comparative study of mass tourism and pushed our exploration of the pervasive uses of culture outside of anthropology, which would eventually lead to Maxikulti and Seeing Culture Everywhere. Pál was sceptical at first – is this academic enough? Is this interesting enough? – but never regretted having been persuaded. Not all of our ventures ended up in serious research or writing – trips to a monastery in Serbia and to a Mennonite farm in Belize yielded only titbits and a trip to the Turkish coast to study Russian tourists, only a car accident. But they were all fun.

Reaching a larger audience
With access to different networks, we published in academic journals such as Current Anthropology and  Development and Change, as well as in mainstream German newspapers and magazines, such as business monthly brand einsGeo and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Writing together also counterbalances our weaknesses: Pál‘s tendency to write too densely and Joana‘s inclination to overgeneralize.

How do you write a book together?
Many people ask: „How does writing together actually work?“ Except for a short while, when Pál was at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, we have never lived in the same city. Instead we have met in dozens of different countries. When Pál is doing fieldwork, Joana might join him for a few days to get the feel for the place necessary to write about it. We also travelled to many places together, from Central America via Eastern Europe to Russia and China, doing „fieldwork light“ along the way.

When our writing is not based on detailed fieldwork by Pál, we usually devise an outline together. Then it is Joana’s task to collect and aggregate the relevant theses and case studies, as she – as a generalist — has a better overview of relevant anthropological material. After this we meet (in Budapest, Sydney, Nice,  Berlin or Luang Prabang to name just a few of the places) for two or three weeks of intensive writing, both sitting in front of one laptop, with Joana often proposing a general structure of the argument and Pál argueing against or refining it and coming up with the final formulations. Back in our respective homes Joana starts the first revision, sending it back to Pál for a final edit. Thus it is a real joint venture and we feel that very few, if any of our output could have been written by one of us a alone.

And last but not least, one of the main rewards for co-authorship is the fun and inspiration we get from working together.

How to write an anthropology book that people will read?

Many thanks to Kerim and Alex for inviting us to Savage Minds to share our experiences writing Seeing Culture Everywhere, a book that explicitly targets a general audience. Over the next two weeks we’ll be writing both about the pervasive use of the concept „culture“ in a broad range of global, national and interpersonal settings, as well as about the challenges and successes we encountered in our effort to popularize anthropological perspectives in two settings, Germany and the US.

Our involvement with the „culture of cultures“, as Marshall Sahlins has called it, dates in Joanas case back to her anthropology studies at Berkeley in 1989/90, where she also participated in some intercultural communication trainings and was struck by the complete disconnect between the way „culture“ was used in the anthropology discourse on the one hand and workshops organised for the employees of multinational companies on the other.

After teaming up with Pál, who was at the time researching Chinese migrants in Hungary, we decided to introduce our anthropological perspective into the German management scene and published (in 2001) an article in a leading management journal, critizicing the „intercultural communication industry“ (ICI) for perpetuating reductive views of cultural difference that were based on false premises and, rather than helping bridge cultural misunderstandings, often amplified them.

Where is the alternative?
The article created quite a stir within the German “IC community.” But one reason why intercultural „experts“, as well as books such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, were so successful was that they were offering very hands-on advice, whereas we as anthropologists had just been able to deconstruct simplistic notions of cultural differences without offering alternative visions that were as clear and accessible. A growing number of anthropologists — among them Thomas Hylland  Eriksen and Ulf Hannerz — had recognized this as an urgent problem and called for anthropologists to find their way back to the coffee table (our term, not theirs).

Finding a publisher
With two chapters written, we started thinking about publishers. After some tentative questions addressed to famous colleagues who published bestsellers and not getting encouraging answers, we realized we didn’t know how to find a commercial publisher in English – even though this had been our aim. So we gave up and turned to the University of Washington Press, where Pál had good experiences publishing an earlier book. Fortunately (and a bit surprisingly, considering we were not targeting an academic readership), they were interested.

Meanwhile, we approached Joana’s literary agent in Germany and almost immediately received an offer (and an advance) from Campus, a well-known mainstream German publishing house. We weren’t used to this kind of speed: we signed the contract in the summer of 2007 and the book came out in time for the Leipzig Book Fair in March 2008.

Dealing with commercial publishing was a new experience – especially for Pál. A few weeks into our contract, Joana received a phone call from a very agitated editor: She had just received news that the „price winning“ German author, Ilija Trojanow, was about to publish a book also dealing with „culture“ and arguing against a Huntingtonian determinism. We were told that our  topic had thus been taken and the public certainly wouldn’t buy a book about a similar topic a few months later.

A completely new storyline
The editor now wanted a much „lighter“ and shorter version, in which the whole story line was changed. Pál bristled at this, but thanks to Joana, who had had positive experiences with popular presses before, we persevered and ended up with a manuscript less than half the original length. The positive side is that we had a very constructive exchange with the editor and were forced to concentrate on the main messages we wanted to convey and to be as clear as possible.

Fighting about titles
The original English title of the book was going to be “Because It’s Their Culture!” The editor would not have it and in a brainstorming session with marketing reps came up instead with a title we hated. After dozens of rejected counterproposals, we gave in to another title we found embarrassing at best and misleading at worst: Maxikulti. Der Kampf der Kulturen ist das Problem – zeigt die Wirtschaft uns die Lösung? (Maxikulti. The clash of civilizations is the problem – can business show us the solution?) The last part of the subtitle was supposed to resonate with managers — Campus‘ core clientele — and could be vaguely justified by the fact that our last chapter presents the use of ethnography in corporate settings as an alternative to the generally prevalent abstract notions of culture.

Meanwhile, we received a very positive initial response from UWP. But it took another 20 months until we finally, in November 2009, held a first copy of Seeing Culture Everywhere in our hands. Working with UWP was smooth: constructive comments on the book‘s substance and no conflict about titles.

Did we succeed?
While Seeing Culture Everywhere was a success at the AAA book exhibit, it is too early to say anything about its reach and impact. We are very curious to find out whether we have managed to reach a broader readership than professional anthropologists, the „converted.“ Yes, we would love to get reviewed in the NYRB!

The results of the German book are already in. Unfortunaltely, ingratiating ourselves with „the general reader“ didn’t pay off. The book received a number of positive reviews in major German newspapers and radio interviews and was toured through bookstores and universities but still sold badly (We don’t have the current figures, but in the first year only a fraction of the minimally envisioned 4 – 5 thousand copies were sold).

Perhaps the most positive outcome so far is that, through constant arguments with each other and the publisher about the level of nuance needed in order to write such a book, we realised that what we, as anthropologists, deem accessible and relevant, may be cryptic and marginal to the public at large.

Calls to write for a broader audience are regularly made and debated among anthropologists (we recall a post by Lisa Wynn on Culture Matters). It is clear that such writing is done more often and more successfully in some places (notably Scandinavia) than in others. We would be interested in hearing about other experiences with such publications.

Joana Breidenbach (Berlin), Pál Nyíri (Amsterdam)