Why research by the Centre in the Periphery has little validity
Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”
Cross-posted from Branko’s Substack Site
In “Orientalism”, Edward Said spoke of an orientalist as an interpreter of local custom and knowledge to the foreign intellectual. A common term in neo-Marxist literature of the 1960-80, for the absence of articulation between the domestic areas that interacted with the rest of the world, and the hinterland that was cut off from it, was the comprador bourgeoisie. In the past thirty years, the world might have created a “comprador intelligentsia” too.
What I have in mind here is the following. On the global level, the West is unquestionably the creator of most of knowledge. Its only two significant competitors are China and Islam. However, it still dominates, economically as well as in its readiness to spread its knowledge and to influence what is produced elsewhere. Sometimes out of best intentions, sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes out of ulterior motives, a number of academic, non-governmental, quasi-governmental, and fully governmental, associations have been created with that objective in mind.
These institutions tend to finance the projects that deal with the issues that are currently considered important or fashionable in the Center. They could hardly justify doing otherwise to their donors who are not interested in whether such topics are of relevance in the “faraway countries of which we know nothing”. The projects, or more exactly, the funding which comes with them, create a small local elite, the comprador intelligentsia. The elite becomes very savvy in packaging and presenting the results of the research so that they appeal to the Western funders. The problem, however, is that the comprador intelligentsia—being focused on pleasing the donors—is often cut off from the domestic intellectual life. Like the comprador bourgeoisie it has very few links with the “hinterland”: it exists purely thanks to the foreign donors. Once the foreign donors move somewhere else, the comprador intelligentsia disappears. (If the donors move to another topic, the comprador intelligentsia will move with them to the new topic too.)
Intellectual activity which is largely unrelated to the real issues in a given place and time, and responds to the epistemic desires of an entirely different place is meaningless. It leaves hardly any trace domestically. It does permit the country to remain within some vaguely defined orbit of international knowledge-creation, but the motivating forces of this knowledge-generation are entirely external. They produce little domestically, other than allowing the comparator intelligentsia a nice life of intellectual and material comfort.
Such phenomena are seen in all peripheral societies where financial resources to fund research are meager, and the intellectual class needs to survive. I have seen it, in rather technical matters, too. Until about ten years ago, statistical agencies in many African countries were very weak, both in terms of personnel and money. They could not organize household surveys that have been routine in the rest of the world. Thus very little such information existed. What did the foreign donors do? They each, responding to their temporary interests or whims of their bosses, funded a study of this or that area, or of this or that population. Thus one got (e.g. in Tanzania) most disparate surveys, none of which could be combined in any time-series, and none of which allowed to find out whether things were changing, improving or not. The Swedes would fund surveys of poor rural households in area X, the US AID would fund the survey of single mothers in Y, the British, not to be outdone, will discover sudden interest in youth unemployment in Z. Domestic statistical office will oblige—with indifference—because of need of money. The surveys will be done, the reports written, and sent to the higher authorities in Stockholm, Washington and London. To be promptly forgotten there. And they would be entirely ignored locally.
The same is happening with the so-called Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) which were crowned with the Nobel prize. In order to proceed to many ethically questionable practices (on which much has been written, see Sanjay Reddy, Angus Deaton, Martin Ravallion), domestic support by few individuals is invented, in many cases probably in return for promises of fees or foreign travel. When the RTC project that subjected people in different parts of Nairobi to arbitrary water cuts led to the worldwide outcry, the Principal Investigator Paul Gertler wrote a pathetic defense of the project by arguing that it had local “purchase” through an ill-defined cooperation with local government: “through joint discussions between the World Bank and Nairobi Water teams, it was agreed to additionally test a softer less potentially harmful nudge [disconnection from water services!] as an alternative”. Even if one leaves out the ethical problems of RCT (on which I am not focusing here), this is yet another example of a foreign-funded project with no links to any creation of useful domestic knowledge. Its only result—other than leaving poor people without water–and perhaps the only objective to start with, is the personal aggrandizement of the Center’s researchers. (One wonders if Kenyan researchers could engage in a similar exploratory project by withholding RTC researchers’ salaries for several months to study how they would react.)
Similarly to the comprador-driven domestic development which never resulted in economic growth, the comprador-driven intellectual development is sterile. It will continue to be produced because it supports the ideological needs of the Center and the financial needs of the periphery, but it will never have much influence in either: the Center thinks it has nothing to learn from the periphery, and nobody in the periphery is much interested in the topics given to the comprador intelligentsia as a homework to study.