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Ghosts, Wolves, and Distractions: Student Debt and the Development Anthropologist

This is an invited post by Douglas La Rose for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20). Douglas is a graduate of San Diego State University’s Applied Anthropology M.A program. He is an applied environmental anthropologist who has been living and working in rural Africa since 2005. He worked as a consultant for both the United Nations Development Program and the African Adaptation Program, and also established his own agroforestry project in Ghana in 2011.  Currently, he works for Nuru International Ethiopia as an agriculture program specialist in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia. His writing on Nuru Ethiopia’s agriculture program can be found here.

In order to make a real difference, you have to go deeply into “debt.” You have to take out a massive personal capacity-building loan to prepare yourself for the rugged terrain that is the world of international “development.” If you carry the heavier cross of wanting to entertain post-development notions – of deconstructing the way the North interacts with, represents, and perceives the South while “practicing” development – you must also drag along its corollary baggage: being a naysayer in an industry of entrenched professionals and experts. If you have had the misfortune of being trained beyond the capacity that is desired of a development professional – a reflexive applied anthropologist always willing to intervene with a “now, wait a second” – then you suddenly become less an asset than a perceived enemy or an implant.

In this academy-abandoned landscape of moving forward with a kind of loosely defined and intensively critical development philosophy, the very contours and nature of debt become something like a ghost. Debt becomes something that is difficult to believe in as a real entity. It is negative capital that must be plodded through to realize a sense of personal freedom. But at the same time it exists in a realm of voices, letters, phone calls, and news articles. One is constantly reminded of it – even distracted by it – but as it howls it is difficult to feel the substance of its howl. The wolves at the door appear to be more holograms than threats. Why throw your livelihood to these beasts when you have a child to feed? Why acknowledge their scratchings when your real task at hand is to co-create an agriculture program in Ethiopia or bring attention to indigenous adaptations to climate change in marginalized areas of Ghana? The ghost of debt becomes something like a joke. The voices, the letters, the phone calls, the news stories, the “bubble” – all of it collapses under the immensity of its absurdity. Of course, this is all wrong and unpatriotic. Right?

These rites of passage are all situated within the Western apparatuses that one must negotiate to free themselves from the epistemological, nationalistic, and economic constraints of Western society. The price one pays for good anthropological training, good field experience, and the multiple lenses through which to analyze the predicament of the “Other” is the need to constantly keep these wolves away from the door. One must slip in, amass knowledge, and slip out. But if I may expand on the above, the threat of a government intervention into your personal life or a dragnet that amasses all of our lost souls and claws into our paychecks seems improbable. We are taught to fear the wolves but to also not take them too seriously. The only fear becomes the fear of an alternate reality where one is linked in enough to weigh their debt against their household obligations.

I had an opportunity to reflect on this some time ago while hacking away some bunches of plantains from my agroforestry project in Ghana. The feeling of my machete connecting with the flesh of the plantain stock and the sticky juice leaking on to my hands was priceless. Afterwards, I was loading up a tricycle-truck with the equivalent of about $150 worth of plantains to help the project break even for the month. I was laughing with my workers afterwards and throwing back calabashes of palm wine. One of my workers asked me, in Ewe, what I did while I was in graduate school. I responded that I had learned how to examine the social world from multiple perspectives and how to analyze human-environment relationships.

“How much did that cost you?”

I simply laughed and looked over at the pile of plantains towering in the back of my tricycle. I thought of all the voices, letters, phone calls, and news stories. I thought of all the accusations of personal irresponsibility and my role in building the student doubt house of cards that looms over academia more ominously, apparently, than the aching and trembling scepter of environmental destruction and climatic chaos.


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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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