29 February 2012

MUCH of the formal interaction between international aid agencies and local officials in countries where they work can be seen as “performance”, according to new research published by a University of Queensland anthropology lecturer.

What goes on behind the scenes is often — sometimes deliberately — ignored, say Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter and co-author Chris Roche from Oxfam, whose research explored recent critiques of international aid agencies, particularly in relation to governance and accountability.

Their article All the World’s a Stage appears in the latest edition of the Journal of the Asia-Pacific Economy.

The authors argue that good governance and accountability have been the source of much debate, centring on how international aid can be made to work more effectively for those it seeks to benefit.

“The performance aspect of developing states is relevant,” Dr Hoffstaedter said. “In order to continue to access international aid or funds, developing states may ‘perform’ or present a certain image of the Western ideal or ‘best practice’.”

From an anthropological perspective, the authors critique dominant perceptions of development that privilege Western conceptions of governance, both political and economic, and which are based on externally derived notions of best practice.

Dr Hoffstaedter says an expanded space should be created for alternative forms of governance, particularly Indigenous, hybrid and local forms of governance.

“This is not intended to suggest that corrupt or unstable governments do not exist, but it is rather an understanding that democracy and governance have not ‘failed’ simply by virtue of being inconsistent with Western ideals,” he said.

The authors argue each country has its own historical, political, social and economic context and therefore a generalised development model is inadequate as a program for aid agencies.

This model also embeds the rationale for the separation between what is presented, or ‘performed’ and what occurs outside of the centre, or ‘backstage’.

“Essentially, with a starting point of a single generalised state model, we are limited in terms of potential actions as well as a potential for greater understanding of alternative governance models, ones that may be more conducive to successful development outcomes and, which need to reflect the societies from which they emerge,” Dr Hoffstaedter said.

Media enquiries: Gerhard Hoffstaedter +61 7 3365 1211, g.hoffstaedter@uq.edu.au
Kristen Bastian (UQ Communications) +61 7 3346 9279 or k.bastian@uq.edu.au