After decades of seeing close-up the desultory record of Western technology-based development projects in West Africa, cultural anthropologist Charles Piot tells his students to take a different approach: Start by exploring the culture and be prepared to fail at first.
Now after several years of creative Duke Engage projects in a rural area of Togo, his students are writing about their experiences, successes and setbacks in a new Duke University Press book, “Doing Development in West Africa.” The lessons, Piot said, may offer a model for other student-led development projects and underscore how the humanities and social sciences are central to economic development.
“From my experience, where development goes wrong is when it misses the humanities,” said Piot, co-chair of Duke’s Africa Initiative. “The humanities and social sciences bring an understanding of people, communities, agency and culture that has to inform development for it to be successful.
“We have the hubris. Americans have great technology, and we think we can just go in there and remake a community overnight. That never works. People aren’t refusing the help at all. They are grateful. But if you don’t understand the people and culture, things get very complicated on the ground.”
A sliver of a nation tucked between Ghana and Benin, French-speaking Togo is off the radar of most American universities. Piot has spent decades in two small, rural Togo communities with little economic or educational opportunity. Most young people yearn to migrate to Benin or Nigeria to get a little cash in their pockets. They do this by working in the fields or sometimes the sex industry.
Piot has taken French-speaking Duke students to Togo each year since 2008. Their charge has always been the same: Spend the first week just getting to know the people and their daily lives. Then based on what they see and hear, develop a service project that meets a community need, and work with locals to implement it.
Success is measured on a different scale than what Duke students are used to, Piot said. The creation of a health insurance cooperative broadened access to health care for many in the villages. A microfinance project meant a young man earned just enough money to buy his own motorcycle instead of having to leave Togo to earn the funds. A computer class and cybercafé provided residents with a stronger connection to a wider world. A writing class let local youths articulate their experiences working abroad.
“As anthropologists, we’re accustomed to the genre of the folktale,” Piot said. “But these stories are different. They’re about the everyday lives of young people – leaving for Nigeria, engaging in conflict with family members. Writing about their own lives in this way was inspiring and filled with surprises.”
Social relations are central to economic activity in the market in Farende, Togo. Photo courtesy Emma Smith.
Senior Emma Smith initiated a micro-lending project when she traveled to Togo following her freshman year.
“I spent my first days walking through the chaos and excitement of the local markets and understanding what was going on,” said Smith, who contributed one of the student chapters in the Duke Press book. “The first thing I learned is I had to throw out a lot of what I learned in my economics class. Right away I was confronted with how we engage academic questions in our class through theories with what will work on the ground in another culture.”
Smith learned that economic activity in the Togo communities was heavily based on personal relationships. Individuals made rational decisions, and took into account factors such as price and quality, “but I soon realized that generating personal relationships through financial transactions were as important as generating profits.”
Her experience shaped Smith’s academic studies for the next three years. She followed up the project with similar summer work in Morocco and Spain and just completed a senior research project on the use of refugees as human capital.
“All of it is based on tying together humanities study with questions of development,” Smith said.
Piot’s longstanding, personal relationships in these communities and ability to navigate through local politics have aided the projects immensely, Smith said. On one occasion Piot quickly had to appease a village chief who, he had heard, was going to scuttle one of the students’ conferences in the community.
Duke Engage students in Togo.
The continuity of the projects and the amiability of the people creates a reservoir of good will for the Duke students. “Togolese treat outsiders like royalty. They love hosting these students. These are small, fairly remote communities and for them to be acknowledged by American students who come back every year is significant to them,” Piot said.
None of the students expected their work to be published, but Piot said there is a need for this kind of study. There are few antecedents for student-written studies of their own development projects: One was a reader written by global health students on Guatemala, which inspired Allie Middleton, one of the first students to accompany Piot, to suggest the idea.
Book chapters started as independent study reports and reflection pieces written by Middleton, Smith and seven other Duke students who continued to work with Piot following their experiences in Togo.
“When Allie raised the idea of doing a book, I was skeptical,” Piot said. “I thought fine, we’ll create a website and put the articles online. But after two years of independent study reports, we had seven chapters already completed, and I thought they were pretty good. So I started getting ambitious.”
Ken Wissoker, a senior editor at Duke Press, guided the process of converting the reports into book chapters. Duke provided money to bring in the editor of the Guatemalan book to advise the students on revisions.
“Ken looked at the first few pages of each chapter and said he thought there might be a market for this,” Piot added. “Projects like these are cropping up in classes at universities all over the country, and these experiences will be useful to other students. And of what’s out there for US students, there’s not much on West Africa, and even less on French-speaking countries.”
Piot will be back this summer with a new round of Duke Engage students. Some will carry on the projects of previous students, but others may come up with new initiatives.