Development Goes Wrong When It Misses the Humanities

Thursday, May 5, 2016
Duke Today

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.”

Referenced People

Professor of Cultural Anthropology, African and African American Studies and Women's Studies, Bass Fellow

Referenced Projects