Socio-anthropological analysis: What support for development assistance?

Photo: Oriane Zerah, for AFD
Photo: Oriane Zerah, for AFD

Importance of the anthropological approach

The contribution that sociology, and even more so social and cultural anthropology, makes to the definition and supervision of development assistance programs and projects, without being really new, is still subject to diverse, and sometimes contradictory, standpoints, both on the part of the practitioners of these academic disciplines and professionals from aid agencies, where the economic approach to poverty reduction often predominates.

From a fully operational perspective, since 2013, the Research Department has mainstreamed this approach into its research programs, which makes it possible to avoid the “ethnocentric” attitude, even in its most dangerous unconscious form, which involves imposing one’s own patterns on another environment, at the risk of an ultimate failure of inappropriate options in the field. Anthropology, combined with history, allows a more effective “contextualization” of aid in all its forms in order to shape sustainable solutions that respect the fundamental principle of “do no harm”. Indeed, while all cultures are constantly evolving, both inside and outside, it is also true that the introduction of innovations that prove to be unacceptable at local level can be destabilizing both for the projects in question and for the society itself: a mortal danger for both development and the international balance.

In this respect, the anthropological approach provides a precious contribution to the design, implementation, supervision and final evaluation of specific development assistance programs and projects.

AFD’s research programs

The typological diversity of the final products – from short-term or cyclical seminars to in-depth studies and scientific articles – expresses the necessary flexibility of the overall program, which by nature is destined to develop with the expression of operational needs. There are, however, three main thematic areas for 2013-2014:

1.    Institutional governance and its modalities, which are no longer considered from the dominant perspective of the political economy and power relations, as is still too often the case, but from the point of view of the “concrete functioning of the State” (according to the expression used by the Nigerien political scientist Mahaman Tidjani Alou) and of local authorities in their daily action and the sociocultural mechanisms that it presupposes. This research on governance is subdivided into two clearly distinct programs, one on the central administrations of French-speaking Sub-Saharan African countries and the other on the municipalities of French Polynesia, with field surveys which should be completed in late 2014.

2.    A more in-depth understanding of the contemporary changes in the societies that benefit from aid, by focusing on the complex dialectic of the most societal and least contingent aspects of tradition and modernity: this open reflection is currently focusing on Africa, which remains a priority for AFD. For 2014-2015, it is manifested in the launch of studies on religious issues (Central Africa, Sahel region), a cycle of seminars on “traditional practices and governance in Africa”, as well as collaboration with the specialized journals (Afrique Contemporaine, Politique Africaine) and support to APAD (Euro-African Association for the Anthropology of Social Change and Development).

3.    The scientific analysis of the impact that conflict and fragile situations have on public policies, with a broad and “integrated” approach (“3 D” – Diplomacy, Defence, Development) to international relations, as recommended by the OECD’s DAC. With an increasing number of this type of situation in AFD’s field of operation, continuous theoretical reflection on social and institutional resilience has been combined with the periodic organization of seminars allowing researchers to work together on national and regional themes related to topical issues (Mali in 2013, Sahara in 2014).


Last update in December 2015

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