Issue Number Nine: Little Development Devices / Humanitarian Goods

Précis: Little Development Devices / Humanitarian Goods

A brief introduction to the idea behind Issue Number Nine, and the concepts associated with it.

“Little Development Devices/Humanitarian Goods” seeks to explore objects or instruments designed to care about and improve the welfare of infrastructurally marginal populations (i.e. those lacking connection to “networked” forms of modern provisioning—such as water, sewerage, communication, electricity—or to services such as health care and finance). As our title suggests, we perceive two trajectories into this phenomenon.

The first derives from the legacy of the large, capital intensive and spatially fixed infrastructural projects of post-World War II development — such as dams, power plants, and road networks — which embody a substantive vision of societal transformation as laid out and organized by technocratic experts and government officials who act in the name, and for the benefit, of a whole nation. In contrast, the devices we highlight arose against the backdrop of sustained and polymorphous critiques of this older paradigm of development. They combine elements of earlier attempts to define more “appropriate” technology with new techniques for monitoring, calculation and testing. In reacting to perceptions of past failure, their normative rationality is oriented to immediate, measurable and testable outcomes.

The second trajectory stems from the parallel emergence of humanitarianism as a mode and set of techniques for crisis response, including the establishment of intergovernmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations devoted to the care of distant others, as well as the standardization of associated mobile technologies like refugee camps. The devices we examine here respond to perceived incapacities, failures and perverse outcomes of this very aid regime, even while seeking to further its general goals of alleviating pressing needs and saving lives. Many rely on market logic and present themselves as commodities more than gifts, ostensibly enrolling profit motives into the service of a greater good.

In this issue of Limn we seek to ask: What are we to make of the proliferation of such small devices? What do they tell us about the state of “development” and “humanitarianism” as projects? And what do we make of the convergence of humanitarian and developmental projects around them? What forms of life, and what kinds of subjects, do they work on and constitute? What relationships do they establish between expertise, government, and the purported beneficiaries of these devices? What politics do they make possible – or preclude? Do some appear analogous to hacks, exploiting the vulnerability of existing infrastructures for other ends? And what might a critical social science have to say about them?

Little: These devices are little in a number of senses. First, they are light, inexpensive, scalable, and portable; they may be deployed experimentally and flexibly, for small units of population. Second, they are little in the sense that they operate at the level of the “micro” in economics – their target is not the “national economy” or macroeconomic aggregations but individual preferences, aspirations, and calculations. Third, they are “minimal”; they are, for better or worse, deployed with relatively limited assumptions about the form of life into which they are to be inserted. None of this is to say that they need remain small scale. Some have, indeed, been deployed by national governments and have large aspirations (e.g. affecting national poverty or mortality rates).

Development: Although these devices may not define development in terms of national populations, they do aspire to social transformation, to improvement of conditions of existence and the quality of lives – even to saving the planet! They thus require and entail the assembly of new kinds of expertise, new visions of a better future (whether for individuals, communities, or nations), new articulations of populations and new instruments.

Devices: Here is where the assembly—as technical or techno-political work—takes place. Because they are deployed with “minimal” assumptions about context, a very great deal is packed into these devices themselves, and it has to be unpacked. Many are technologically-laden, depending on everything from GPS to mobile phones to solar panels. But they are not merely machines in the conventional sense of that word, drawing on forms of accounting, and various kinds of expertise in modeling and forecasting. They also embody norms, models of how people make decisions, assumptions about what people want, what might translate across scales, and what constitutes a good life.

Humanitarian: These are things that are designed to do good, intervening in worlds where large-scale infrastructures, like those for the delivery of health and energy, do not reach or have collapsed. They reflect an explicit desire to alleviate suffering and save lives. They focus on moments of present crisis and a future in which states may no longer have the capacity to build, manage or sustain universal infrastructures in territorial grids. As they move through contexts of design and use, and through spaces of poverty and humanitarian emergency, they remind us of just how difficult it has become to imagine ways of expressing care and concern without fostering markets.

These are things that also seek to do well (financially) while doing good. Humanitarian goods that are premised on conditions of state fragility often hold out the promise that they can transform that fragility in productive or profitable ways. Things like solar lanterns or nutritionally fortified foods, for example, are also built to generate economic value for a diverse array of investors, via sales to institutional consumers like humanitarian or aid organizations as well as directly to the poor. Thus, they present themselves as caring commodities rather than disinterested gifts.