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Prof. Wade on Life (Pt. 1 of 2)

March 15, 2010

Prof. Wade has kindly offered to be the second DESTIN academic to discuss how and why they became involved in Development.

Here, in the first of 2 parts is Prof. Wade’s un-abridged, unedited thoughts:

As Though it All was Planned

“I first encountered tropical places with very rich and very poor people as a 12-year old, when my father, a New Zealand diplomat, was posted to Colombo, Sri Lanka. That puzzling encounter set the direction of my life.  Over the next decade, mostly in New Zealand, I would ruminate from time to time on why young boys my own age in Sri Lanka, ones I had seen in the market place and from car windows, were so poor when I, and everyone I knew, took the affluent conditions of our lives so much for granted, as a fact of nature. My interest quickened when I spent a long Christmas holiday in 1963/64 with my parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where my father was New Zealand High Commissioner. There I spent plenty of time at the semi-colonial club with its swimming pool and golf course (where Malaysian political leaders conducted much of the inner business of government). But I also learned about the “Confrontation” between Sukarno’s Indonesia and Malaysia, a low-grade war in which Indonesian troops invaded Sabah and Sarawak and even came close to Kuala Lumpur, and were repulsed by Malaysia, British, Australian and especially New Zealand soldiers. And I  spent never-to-be-forgotten time travelling through the jungle with an English doctor, Michael Bolton, who was administering to the aborigines — travelling sometimes by helicopter, sometimes by dugout canoe, sometimes by walking.  I also made a side-trip to the village where Raymond Firth, the celebrated NZ anthropologist who was professor of anthropology at LSE for 40 years, conducted fieldwork on Malay fisherpeople around the time of the Second World War.

My research career began at the hands-on end of the scale in 1964/65 while still an undergraduate student of economics, with a field study of the ‘economy’ of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, home to descendants of the Bounty mutineers, population: eighty. After a Masters in economics I set out for Britain in 1967 to do a PhD in development economics. But en route, in India, I decided that what I understood to be economics (based on microeconomics textbooks which contained virtually no word on a real economy) had limited value for understanding India’s development prospects.  On arrival at Sussex University, home of the newly founded Institute of Development Studies, I announced that I wished to switch to a PhD in anthropology, a subject I had barely studied, and Sussex was flexible enough to accommodate. To the extent that I have a distinctive approach to economic questions it is because I studied economics at undergraduate and Masters level but never underwent PhD marination in it; and because as the son of dedicated civil servants, I have always been suspicious of scholars who work with models based on self-seeking as the only motive of behaviour.

More by accident than design, I ended up doing PhD fieldwork in the hardship post of rural Tuscany. The research started out as a study of the impact of the post-Second World War land reform (the biggest non-communist expropriative reform in the world). It morphed unexpectedly into a study of how the cleavages of  Italy’s ‘centrifugal democracy’, which seemed  unbridgeable at the national level, were cross-cut by ties of kinship, neighbourship and voluntary associations as one came down towards towns and villages at the ‘base’; hence Italy was a much more stable democracy than it looked from the outside (Wade, 1975). The research was in effect a study of ‘social capital’, but to my regret I did not think to coin the term. My research protocol amounted to little more than “follow your nose”. It was about as far from the protocol for today’s research students as can be imagined, and I do not recommend it.

I joined the Institute of Development Studies as its youngest Fellow in 1972 and did research in India in 1975–80. I chose to investigate the operation and maintenance of large canal systems, on the assumption that ‘water reform’ might be more feasible than land reform. Long after starting it dawned on me that I had been taking for granted that the engineers aimed to improve farmers’ water supply but faced external constraints like tight budgets, bad communications, aggressive irrigators and the like. The dawning happened one day when I did what I should have done months before: I added up the amounts of money that farmers told me they were paying the engineers under the table for better water supply (a phenomenon I had previously treated as incidental, thinking that too much attention was focused on the epiphenomenon of corruption in Indian life). The amounts aggregated across the command area were staggering. If the engineers were receiving anything like these amounts, which dwarfed their salaries, what were they doing with the loot? And how did the possibility of such loot affect the way they operated and maintained the canals — and hence the productivity of India’s irrigated agriculture?

Maybe the better assumption was that engineers operated the canals so as to worsen farmers’ expectations about water supply, because the more uncertain they were, up to a point, the more the farmers would pay the engineers to shift the scarcity elsewhere. This change of perspective led me to unravel a well-institutionalized system of corruption centred on the auction of the ‘franchise’ to posts (different posts had different potentials for black money),which had been under my nose from the beginning; and which turned out to operate in many other ‘wet’ (well-financed) departments too, not just Irrigation. I shall never forget the sudden chill in the room as I realized how dangerous this knowledge could be. Indeed, as I pressed my queries and the word got around among the engineers they became noticeably less keen to talk to me and threatened to cut off water to villages where they saw me visiting.”


Tune in later in the week to hear how the story ends!

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