Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Adam D. Kiš, author of The Development Trap.
The Development Trap is a compelling account of the challenges of eradicating poverty, and the possibilities for meaningful change at a smaller scale. It will be perfect for international development professionals, students and scholars, and for those with a general interest in the future of aid and development.
Read our interview with Adam and discover what sparked his interest in the subject and what he hopes his audience will take away from the book.
About the book and the subject area:
Congratulations on the recent publication of your book The Development Trap. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?
I want readers to know that there are more options than just the extreme narratives that get all the press time: the cheerleading hype that poverty is defeatable through development assistance, and we’re almost there (à la Jeffrey Sachs) vs. the cynical notion that all development intervention is doomed to failure and inappropriately hegemonic anyway (à la Dambisa Moyo). I propose an alternative view that is somewhere in between: an acknowledgement of some of the failures of development in the past and the unlikelihood of things changing enough to actually defeat poverty completely (a nod to the cynics) while also holding out hope that the development industry can still effect positive change if it reorients its objectives in line with realistic goals (a nod to the cheerleaders). But this reorientation must be more than just cosmetic. I am truly advocating nothing less than the complete abandonment of thinking too big so that development assistance can really have a positive impact where it is best poised to do so: at the level of individuals and communities. It may not be sexy to support a couple dozen people in their own goals instead of aiming to transform an entire society. But it’s sensible. And it is within reach of most development agencies.
What inspired you to write this book?
I felt a bit lied to once I entered deeply into the development industry. Not lied to by any specific person or organization, but lied to by the overall industry in how it had marketed itself to me before I had joined it. There was a strong disconnect between what I had been led to believe that development was achieving as an average layperson and what I was seeing on the ground as a development professional.
Writing was cathartic for me. It also helped me to sort and organize the disparate pieces of information that were coming at me from various sources. I jotted down field-based anecdotes in my journal as they happened – many of which migrated into the book virtually unchanged. I read prolifically from the best development literature I could get my hands on in an attempt to find some relief from my daily dissonance. And ultimately I realized that I had a front-row seat to a perspective that most people will never have: that of the field-based practitioner, albeit one with a penchant for scholarship and writing.
That is exceedingly rare. Many of the perspectives I lay out in this book are readily agreed to by my former colleagues; they just don’t have the desire to write them down in a book. Conversely, many other development scholars have written books in the past; they just don’t have the field-based experience that I do: ten years of living in developing countries, six of those directly engaged in international development practice. Nothing can replace deep field immersion like that – not even decades of occasional two-week visits to various developing country field sites or periodic month-long development consultancy contracts while maintaining primary residence in a developed country. It’s just not the same. And I believe that the field-based perspective should have far greater representation in development discourse today. I offer my book as one voice from the field, enriching the debate with a largely neglected perspective.
Tell us more about your background, and how you came to write this book?
I come from a very international background. My father was an ethnic Ukrainian, born and raised in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), who went to study in France where he met my American mother. I was born in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in the United States. I took a gap year from university and volunteered as a student missionary for my church in Benin. My wife is an American missionary kid who was born and raised in Malawi and attended high school in Kenya. Our families of origin include missionaries to Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt. So international work is in the family DNA!
My first foray into international development was working as the Deputy Country Director and HIV/AIDS Technical Assistant for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Guinea (2005-2006). I also collected dissertation data for my PhD in Anthropology from the University of Florida while working in Guinea. My next international development assignment was with ADRA Sao Tome and Principe (STP) as the Director of a USAID-funded public health project (2007-2008), followed by serving as the ADRA-STP Country Director (2008-2010). Next, I worked as the Programs Director for ADRA Madagascar (2010-2012) and also served as Chief of Mission for a World Bank-funded HIV/AIDS project. Finally, I served as the Director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center and Assistant Professor of Research and Statistics at the Adventist International Institute for Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines (2012-2015). Most of the anecdotes and insights in my book come from these international experiences.
What advice would you give to an aspiring researcher in your field?
Get lots and lots of field experience. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I cannot emphasize it enough. You will have far more credibility with others and you will take yourself more seriously as well. International experiences tend to have a cumulative effect, and some patterns cannot be seen until you have accumulated a critical mass of field exposure.
Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I would like to write a textbook covering the major historical eras of development, but honestly, right now my pipeline is jammed up with scholarly articles that need to be polished and submitted for publication. This April (2018) I will present my third conference paper that hasn’t been published yet, and that’s an unacceptable backlog for me! But I have been so focused on getting this book out that those other projects had to sit on the backburner for a while. Once I clear that pipeline (and investigate a few more research questions I had put on hold for a while), I may be in a position to produce another book in several years.
More About Adam D. Kiš
Adam D. Kiš is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the International Studies Program at Burman University in Canada. He holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Florida, USA. He has lived and worked in the United States, Benin, Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, Madagascar, the Philippines and Canada.
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