As I watched chaos unfold at the Kabul airport last week, I couldn’t help but imagine that some of those people caught up in the panic — those running alongside the airplanes, scaling barbed-wire concrete walls onto the tarmac, hanging on to the landing gear; were development workers of one kind or another. Maybe they were a manager of a community health worker program, an administrator at a microfinance bank, or an employee of a ventured-backed startup. People like so many that I have worked with over the years in India, Africa and Latin America.
When I first started working in ICTD (right after y2k), the future of world still looked bright. We were living at “The End of History”, a moment of opportunity where anything seemed possible, especially with the help of information technology. There was a widespread belief that we could transform the world for the better, through a combination of elegant technological solutions combined with the right “partners” in the real world. We were born after Vietnam, growing up after the fall of the USSR, a generation that fundamentally did not understand how power operated in the world or how true violence could manifest.
In this vainglorious interregnum, an almost mythical set of beliefs emerged. Now that we had won, there was still time to save the world. Carbon Credits would protect the climate, Fair Trade would ensure a fair share to producers, Community Health Workers would deliver a variety of social services, and Microcredit would be there to allocate capital to even the smallest of capitalists. Huge infrastructures (enabled by satellite, mobile and wireless technologies) were developed to support and monitor these activities. My research group, along others in ICTD, played a role in developing these infrastructures and the commercial and open source technologies upon which they were built.
In the midst of all this euphoria, the Towers fell. I questioned the response, and how the work we were doing in ICTD was intimately connected to the conflict and violence that was to follow. I was approached several times by large aid agencies in Afghanistan to work on or advise ongoing projects. I was struck by their top-down approach, the hubris with which these administrators considered how to approach the design and implementation of these infrastructures. The people themselves did not matter, as long as they were counted and heard. In many cases, those doing the counting and hearing mattered even less than those being counted and heard.
This was not only true in Afghanistan. So many development projects only did lip service to the goals for which they were supposedly constituted. Much more important was the discipline and monitoring. Fair Trade was a perfect example. When I worked with a coffee cooperative in the remote mountains of Guatemala, farmers hated these multiplying social justice certifications, each implemented by a different aid or non-profit entity seeking to make the value chain more fair, sustainable, equitable. What they actually did was just increase the effort required (paperwork, eventually “innovated” into mobile and web forms) for compliance, with minimal impact on the price or value actually received by farmers. When we built a system that focused on improving the internal procedures at these cooperatives, we were ignored by those same aid agencies. Because it was always about power and control.
Now, with the fall of Kabul, it is impossible to sustain these myths any longer. When President Biden explicitly declared nation building was not part of the American agenda in Afghanistan, he disenfranchised thousands (if not millions) of people who had actively participated in the “development” agenda there. What of their lives, their aspirations and their ideas and visions for the future? Biden decided (or revealed) that they were never part of the real agenda in Afghanistan; that it was all window dressing for an intervention that based on our own narrow self-interest and realpolitik.
The betrayal was consummated when the USA left thousands on the tarmac in Kabul. Who will work in ICTD now, when you can’t even travel between countries? Aid budgets were already declining before the pandemic, and have been slashed since. Who will believe that “development” is a real agenda for countries, when they can’t even comply with pledges of vaccines , or agree on solutions to climate change? Nation states seem increasingly panicked about climate disaster, and protecting their own borders and citizens (with some racialized exceptions, of course). Aid and humanitarian assistance agendas, where they still exist, are even more transparently connected to geopolitics, especially when they involve technology. The emperor has no clothes.
The villain in Afghanistan is being portrayed as Ashraf Ghani. I met his son Tarek several times when he was a development economics Ph.D. student at Berkeley. He was actively involved in RCTs and other development interventions both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including some collaborations with people in ICTD. In many ways, he was like an ICTD researcher, including in where he decided to live — not there. If one had the choice, who would choose to live in Afghanistan, when presented with other alternatives? Surely only those with the most noble aspirations, or the very basest. But even these characterizations are a matter of perspective.
I miss India every day. I remember the day I decided that I would not stay there; that I would come back to the United States, continue graduate school, and hopefully become an academic. I remember my mother, in tears, sitting in an apartment in Ahmedabad, saying “how can you choose to stay in this dusty city?” I remember the feeling of betrayal I had when I told my business partner, Vijay, and all of the other collaborators with whom I had lived and worked. Most of all, I remember the euphoric feeling of actually living and working there, in the service of an optimistic agenda, with a people that you considered your own. Who would not want those feelings for themselves? But are they enough to sacrifice your life and future? Clearly not for Tarek, or for his father, or for me. And, in the end, the future is made by those who choose to stay.
So, what are we, as a subfield, to do, now that we have been abandoned by history? What is to be done, if not “development”? The claimants have rapidly adapted their vocabulary, shouting “Sustainability! Resilience! Adaptation!”. But what do these words even mean in the absence of multilateral cooperation, through the decline of global institutions, and of expert authority in general? What is the shared vision of the future, of the good life, that unites us? Is there even any such thing? What institution would implement it, even if there was? Is there life after development?
These questions have occupied my thoughts for a while, even more urgently after the pandemic and all that has happened after. As many people know, I have not been directly involved in much ICTD work recently. Instead, I chose to invest more time and energy in the local, working with diverse networks of local actors that share collocated physical, social and economic contexts. Universities can help sustain these local knowledge ecosystems, along with libraries, and cooperative extension. The alternative is the failure of knowledge ecosystems altogether, which is a result we are seeing with the response to the pandemic in the USA and other countries.
I have also been reading (and teaching) things that I wish I would have had access to as an undergraduate or graduate student studying technology, that would helped me understand these issues better, before I wasted twenty years of my life chasing the mythical goose that laid the golden eggs. Unfortunately, the development discourse, given its deep association with the Weberian nation state, leaves little room for critical theory, or for highly contextualized and situated actions. We must seek other frameworks to provide ethical and methodological guidance as we navigate this tenuous bridge.
But focusing on the local (and the theoretical) is not enough. The questions that face us as a society are daunting. Technology certainly has some role to play — as a connector, a liberator or a cage. As we watch the fall of Kabul, and those masses gathered at the airport, we are reminded of our obligations to those very real people on the other side of the world, and how our actions in this country can have dramatic (and disastrous) consequences for them. Can we attend to the local, while retaining some global sense of progress and development? Who has the right to form this sense, to create this shared vision of the future? Whose Reality Counts? Whose Development? These are fundamental questions that we face as we approach the post-pandemic and post-development landscape. I hope we can make some (any?) progress on them.