Forthcoming, 2002, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Special reviews on foreign-language literature. Cordinated by Caroline Desbiens [Speaking in tongues, making geographies], with Georges Benko, Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin, Étienne Rivard, Pierre Hamel, Simon Batterbury


A discursive review of


Courtiers en développement: Les villages africains en quête de projets by T. Bierschenk, J.-P. Chauveau & J.-P. Olivier de Sardan (eds.) (2000) Paris: Editions Karthala. ISBN 2 84586 013 7.


Simon Batterbury

University of Arizona


There are strong and enduring links between Francophone Africa and Europe, through transnational networks that are material, and symbolic (Falk Moore, 2001). These networks differ in many respects from those established by Britain, Portugal, Spain, Germany and other nations that had a presence in Africa during the colonial period. France's long and chequered colonial history has left an indelible legacy on its former colonial territories. While most colonies in Africa ceased formal administration by the European powers in the late 1950s to early 1960s, imprints of the past are still highly visible. Now dwarfed by the economic might of European Union development programs, France still provides substantial aid to its 'partner' countries in Africa - although it is estimated some 80% of this actually returns to France in "salaries, orders and profits" (Biddlecombe 1993;191). There are French NGOs with wide coverage in Africa like the AFVP (Association Française des Volontaires de Progrès), town-twinning associations, cultural and trade associations, as well as the large donor programmes financed by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and other agencies. Most French-speaking African nations use a currency presently supported by the French Franc (the CFA), and there is a strong European presence in the banking system and in the large private corporations. French-speaking African entrepreneurs have extended their reach to the markets of Europe. Despite indigenisation movements, it is still the case that almost all schools teach in French, and French television and radio is aired daily in most ex-colonies. Most international flights - including those carrying perishable exports and freight - are routed through Paris or Brussels. La francophonie exists in many forms, and not all of them are innocent. But there is a sense that, whatever the ups and downs of political opposition to France or the flagging fortunes of its sometimes fragile ex-colonies, its support (or 'partnership') with its favoured African nations is for the long term.


Against this background, I would like to focus on one particular strand of francophone research that deserves a broad reading, and to briefly review a recent volume that delves into the social responses to a particular form of cultural and economic globalisation in francophone Africa. Relics of imperialism and complex postcolonial histories, means French-speaking African countries have a fascinating social and economic geography that distinguishes them from other nations experiencing globalisation and development. I first lived and worked in the West African Sahel (the semi-arid belt between the Sahara and the humid forests of the coast) in the early 1990s, and I soon discovered how francophone culture interpenetrates with local social structures and norms, to create hybrid identities that are alien to, and poorly understood by the Anglophone world. But, in my work with a German-funded development project supporting natural resource management in two hundred Mossi villages, I saw how important externally funded aid was to everyday life. Villagers and project staff (of different nationalities and educational levels) met on dusty fields not to do battle, but to attempt to cooperate. Some efforts to cooperate were successful. Others were a disaster, and swiftly terminated. I wondered why.


This region has some of the world's poorest nations and its most inhospitable climates, and away from the urban centres, diverse traditional cultures and institutions intermingle. The realities of geography, language, and protectionism has meant that the globalisation of rural economies and cultures is painfully slow, despite the constant elaboration of its links to francophone Europe, better telecommunications, and increases in imports from Asia in recent decades. 'Globalisation' is most visible in international development aid, and the people, goods, 'projects' and new discourses that accompany it. Aid (only a small percentage emanating from France) is worth billions of dollars to francophone Africa, bankrolled by the international financial institutions, bilateral (government-to-government) developed-world agencies, international NGOs, religious organisations, volunteer groups, and so-on. In the Sahel, aid was stepped up during the environmental emergencies that beset most of the dryland nations in the 1970s. National governments, many of them hopelessly under-resourced or occasionally enmeshed in conflict - now share competencies with a plethora of aid organisations, large and small, local and international - that operate project-based lending and long- term programs. Courtiers en Développement is concerned with the social dimensions of this phenomenon, and it helped me understand the patchiness of development 'successes' that I first witnessed ten years ago in rural Burkina.


Many readers will be familiar with the sophisticated critiques launched against inappropriate and damaging 'development' work, of the type that has frequently found its way to West Africa: top-down rather than led from below, ideologically linked to Western interests and visions of progress, too managerial and technocratic (or too wasteful), blundering and inconsiderate. Most notable have been the trenchant critiques of inappropriate development projects by Escobar (1995), Ferguson (1991), and Sachs (1999) . There are examples, too, of such post-modern critiques in francophone social science, and some fine ethnographies of development activity. But criticism of development discourses is less overt than in the Anglophone and the no-holds-barred Latin American literature. There is more talk of 'partnership' to increase regional cooperation and the effectiveness of local institutions. Few authors suggest that Africa de-link entirely from its established cultural and economic ties to France, as more severe development critics, including some revolutionary African leaders,  have argued. Rather, some argue, Africa needs to direct the scale and the nature of its interactions and engagements with the West.


In this regard, the work of a Franco-African group called APAD (Association euro-Africaine pour l'anthropologie du changement sociale et du développement) is particularly interesting. It is steeped within, but not restricted to, francophone scholarship. Founding members include Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, one of France's best- known social anthropologists at the EHESS graduate school in Marseilles, Pierre-Joseph Laurent, Michael Singleton (who is actually English) and Paul Mathieu of the Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, Philippe Lavigne Delville of GRET in Paris, and Thomas Bierschenk, a multilingual German sociologist at the University of Mainz. In viewing the practical process and the discourses surrounding 'development' with a fresh eye, these and other researchers accept the self-evident point that 'development' in Africa exists on the ground, it is unlikely to suddenly disappear, and it actually offers new openings for particular classes or groups to increase their power base in rural society - especially those adept at manipulating the international donors and attracting their funding. In the Bulletin de l'APAD, several papers argue that the huge changes in rural areas brought about by international development agencies cannot be comprehended through a macro-level political economy of development, or by political science that focuses too much on national level politics, rent-seeking behaviour or corruption, to the exclusion of 'the local'. Instead, the tools of the social sciences most concerned with localities and their change - anthropology, but also development studies and development geography to some degree - are essential to explain the potentially conflictual, power-laden and political interplay of communities and development institutions, primarily in local arenas (Olivier de Sardan 1995; Solagral 2000). Detailed ethnography, and fluency in local languages therefore characterise most APAD studies . Their precursors include Georges Bandalier's work on modern African institutions (1969), and Max Gluckman's and Norman Long's different versions actor-orientated sociology (Gluckman 1957; Long, 1992; Arce & Long 1999). Some recent APAD enquiries include Oliver de Sardan's deconstruction and critique of Anglo-Saxon 'participatory development' and agrarian populism (1995), Laurent's ethnography of the communicative strategies of peasant farmers seeking and obtaining development funding in Burkina Faso (1998), and Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan's study of democracy and decentralisation in Benin (1998). These works concentrate on the processes by which human agents communicate with and construct each other - either as individuals or as members of social groupings as 'development' takes place - and the power dynamics that shape these interactions.


Courtiers en Développement, the most recent APAD study, is concerned with the brokers, or intermediaries who work with aid donors and NGOs ("les porteurs sociaux locaux de projets", p. 7), but actively direct project funding towards the communities with which they have connections. These are contemporary actors working on the 'interface' of different lifeworlds (Long 1992), in positions that require communicative skills and an acute mastery of politics. I have met many in my work in Burkina and Niger. Their motivations are both altruistic - motivated by a desire to help their own communities - as well as by the possibility for personal advancement, status, or remuneration, often through project-related employment or contracts. Much of the book consists of a series of case studies by different authors, spanning francophone West Africa - three in Senegal, five in Benin, and one each in Togo, Mali and Niger. These studies offer histories of particular communities and their brokering of aid projects, or they follow through the operations of a particular project and the personalities that brought it to fruition. The authors argue that courtiers, the new intermediaries, are vital in francophone Africa because of the recent proliferation of aid agencies and project support. The ongoing process of decentralisation in Africa as a whole - driven in part by conditionalities of the international financial institutions, to which the poorer African countries are heavily indebted - has also increased the range of projects and actors that are actively encouraged to operate locally in rural areas. Development agencies frequently get involved in supporting and financing the formation of village-level participatory institutions, and a variety of locally managed agricultural and social development activities.


Aid agencies do not give out money without some guarantee of accountability; they prefer to work with peasant leaders or institutions that can accept and disburse funds with a modicum of administrative efficiency and in accordance with their own norms of acceptable behaviour. Finding communities where they can work successfully, without too much conflict or corruption, creates mutual benefits- villages benefit from sustained project funding for natural resource management or social welfare as well as gaining a set of parallel externally-supported institutions that may exist alongside their clientelistic chiefs or leaders. Meanwhile aid donors get some tangible results to demonstrate to their own supporters or financial backers, and project staff can savour their achievements. The courtiers, and indeed some traditional leaders too, have learnt how to phrase and present requests in accordance with the lenders' agendas and bureaucratic requirements. Thus a whole new class of local actors has arisen that differ from the educated middlemen or the chefs du cantons (local leaders empowered to act as tax collectors and so-on) of colonial times, to respond to the possibilities opened up by external aid. One important insight is that the actual geographical distribution of development projects in francophone Africa is determined in part by the success of the intermediaries in steering these projects to their own locales - not just by decisions taken in remote aid agency offices to work in certain regions or to target a certain number of villages.


Courtiers have room for manoeuvre ('marge de manoeuvre'), because configurations of power at village level are sufficiently pliable and unstable to permit these new actors to assume an important role, sometimes challenging traditional hierarchies or setting off new conflicts in the process. Local politics, and the politics of development aid, are therefore linked. The 'patrons' can become the 'clients', and vice versa. NGOs or other agencies can become dependent on courtiers in ways they might be unwilling to admit in their annual reports. In his chapter on Senegal, Jérôme Coll profiles several courtiers associated with peasant associations in the region of Malem-Hodar. All come from the region, learned  French in school, and have worked initially as local representatives of different associations before founding their own institutions or coordinating the development activities of several more. In the process they have obtained international and national financial aid for their associations, developed allegiances to different political parties, but also retained a toehold in village life. New wells, agricultural implements, grain mills, or training programmes they have instituted are the 'products' they can demonstrate to important local leaders, and to future donors. Their position as intermediaries offers the prospect of petty corruption and personal gain, but only to the limits of local norms, lest it prejudice future activities or result in a brief spell in prison. One courtier prefers to go directly to his contacts in several foreign embassies in Dakar to seek funding for local development, seemingly with some success. Certainly, without his presence "in two worlds" (p122), local development financing would have been harder to come by. Courtiers are not only the products of rapidly changing worlds of development funding and increasing powers given to the local associations by the state, but they are also promoting and enabling these changes.


Philippe Lavigne Delville, by contrast, describes the actions of associations in France consisting of economic migrants from Senegal and Mali. These associations, themselves led by dynamic and sometimes radical migrant leaders with a familiarity with French society, first evolved to channel the modest financial contributions of their members back to their villages in Africa, in order to finance projects desired by village leaders (mainly new wells and mosques). But with time, they became more proactive, suggesting new projects themselves, sometimes in conflict with older village leaders, and soliciting funding not only from their members but also from French NGOs and town twinning associations. In effect, migrant associations increased their own political power to the detriment of traditional leadership, through their success as 'absent' intermediaries. Several well known political figures in Senegal and Mali were once members of such migrant associations. 


Courtiers en développement, and the intellectual tradition on which it is based, challenges anthropologists and other social scientists to look hard at contemporary transformations affecting West Africa, thus creating an interdisciplinary dialogue between traditional and modern objects of anthropological enquiry, and between francophone and Anglophone cultural traditions. The APAD approach, with its attention to micro-politics and contemporary social transformations, has much to offer students of development currently polarised between post-modern critiques of the concept itself - often lacking in empirical referents and vague about realistic 'alternatives' - and a less critical and sometimes utilitarian 'development management' literature that is insufficiently attentive to local political realities. While the APAD approach could only have developed in the intellectual terrain of francophone scholars with established contacts and research skills in Africa, its origins - and its potential contributions to knowledge - are much broader.






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