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  • Astria Zahra Nabila

Book Review: The Will To Improve - Tania Murray Li

Astria Zahra Nabila

“Alert to what could and could not be included in a ‘‘development’’ program, they focused upon conducting the conduct of villagers, while leaving the conduct of senior officials, investors, and the military unexamined and unimproved. Capitalist enterprise and the search for profit appeared in their narratives only as a solution to poverty, not as a cause.” (pg. 267)

Tania Murray Li, an anthropologist with a wealth of research experience in Indonesia, debunks the myth of expert-led development programs in her book The Will to Improve. A professor at the University of Toronto, Li has spent decades working in multiple fields across Southeast Asia, most notably in West Kalimantan and Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, and in direct contact with not only local communities, but also officials, policymakers, and activists. This allows her to study the multi-faceted nature of development programs and all their disorders in the field, challenging the dominant paradigm’s portrayal of development as methodical and linear endeavors.

In The Will to Improve, Li’s objective is to contextualize textbook depiction of development programs and unveil their limitations. Li particularly scrutinizes the role of “experts” and “professionals” in designing development programs based on simplified and isolated analysis of the targeted population in a practice which she coined as “rendering technical”. Rendering technical, according to Li, is the construction of problems in a manner that is amenable to technical diagnosis and solutions while discounting, or even silencing, parts that do not fall neatly under technical calculations. The endpoint of rendering technical is to create a site of intervention with clear boundaries where professional expertise could be implemented.

The Will to Improve is anthropological. It aims to de-naturalize the widespread positivist models of development programs by exposing their contingent nature and their unintended consequences. Through an ethnographic study consisting of documentation of development programs, coupled with primary ethnographic and historical accounts, her study focuses on two levels: government programs at the top level and program implementation at the grassroots level. This gives an exhaustive view of governmental interventions as well as their volatile entanglement with the lives of the population.

The case study undertaken in the book is several development programs intended to help hill farmers in Napu, Palolo, and Kulawi valleys, Central Sulawesi. The author scrutinized how Central Sulawesi had been subjected to resettlement schemes presented as a means to develop the locals. Stating their objectives as improving farmers’ livelihoods, increasing land productivity, and protecting the forest, the resettlement schemes, which have been implemented since the colonial era, assume that the swidden agriculture adopted by the farmers degrades land. Now, under the lens of contemporary governance where green actions and forest protection receive more attention, resettlement is touted as a solution for swidden agriculture’s alleged contribution to abusing the resources of Lore Lindu National Park, a protected area of forest which is located at the center of the three valleys. Resettlement is expected to curtail hill farmers’ nomadic habits and, thus, prevent swidden practices and their assumed harmful impacts on the environment.

Forced resettlement, however, has inadvertently exacerbated farmers’ precarity and social tension among the locals. Amid prevailing legal uncertainties over land ownership, resettled farmers form a landless class instead of as the allocated land for the resettlement scheme claimed by other parties. Tenurial insecurity encourages farmers to sell their land as well, leading to the processes of capital accumulation benefitting the elite class, most notably local village headmen. These unexpected consequences occur amid the failure of the programs’ officials to critically interrogate the role of the elites in environmental destruction; further analysis reveals that it is not the swidden agriculture per se that has hampered forest regeneration in Lore Lindu National Park, but rather the burning of the grassland for livestock owned by local elites.

Here, Li pinpoints the gaps in the technical analysis upon which the development programs are often based. By rendering the circumstances of the hill farmers as purely technical matters, political-economic relations are conveniently circumscribed from the analysis; in order to make technical solutions applicable, the case must be apolitical.

One of the main foci in Li’s study is how, despite the promotion of capitalist processes as the main drive for increasing farmers’ productivity and income, the link between capitalism and dispossession is absent in the technical analysis of development programs: how the violent processes of primitive accumulation inherent in capitalism naturally deprive a section of the population, how displacement and poverty are the usual products of capitalist growth, and how the zero-sum game deep-rooted in capital accumulation reinforces group divisions along religious and ethnic lines in the valleys. Political questions such as farmers’ lack of access to land, resources, and means of production, among others, are excluded. The apolitical nature of development programs, Li argues, is intentional to curb potential challenges to the status quo, limiting the scope of development programs right from their embryonic stage.

One particular strong suit of Li’s analysis is that while it provides an alternative for positivist models, The Will to Improve does not fall victim to romanticizing or glorifying local communities and wisdom without critical inquiry. Li’s study on the repercussions of development policies does not treat the targeted population as helpless victims, but rather as active agents whom she labeled as “the prickly subjects”, namely subjects who fully grasp the impacts of development programs on their predicament and are more than capable to counteract the programs, regardless the extent of the counteraction’s effectiveness.

In her case study, for instance, Li points out how the capitalist relations inherent in the development programs lead to the unintended processes of class and identity formation among the targeted population, which then culminates in mobilization as the population forms a resistance; the failure of the resettlement scheme induces hill farmers in Central Sulawesi to forcefully occupy a section of the protected Lore Lindu National Park as their new place of residence. The settlers reportedly received several ultimatums and threats, with the local district head comparing the settlers to the notorious separatist group in Aceh, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM). However, up until this book was published in 2006, the settlers were still living in the protected park. This perfectly captures the messy unfolding of development programs; in defending the occupation, farmers employ concepts and terms promoting indigenous rights that they learned from pro-community organizations. This subsequently poses important questions on the hill farmers’ status of indigeneity, which is reportedly ambiguous at best. The heterogeneous and overlapping identities of members of the local communities, which are the products of decades of resettlement schemes, show how not only the targeted population of development programs cannot be easily characterized and categorized, but they are also autonomous actors with their own political agendas.

In the end, The Will to Improve is a refreshing alternative to the dominant positivist, evidence-based models of development programs. In this regard, Li’s analysis is suitable for interpretivist studies as she does not offer ready-to-use solutions, which could be a hit or miss depending on the research paradigm adopted by the readers. As the writing of The Will to Improve is rather academic, prior knowledge of Michel Foucault and critical theory, in general, would improve the reading experience.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 02 June 2022


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