The Anti-Politics Machine revived?

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It is almost three decades ago that the American anthropologist James Ferguson first laid out his arguments on the “Anti-Politics Machine” (Ferguson 1990). His empirical work on migrant labour in Lesotho during the 1970s, on which his argument is based, dates back another decade. However, his observations continue to hold relevance for processes of “development”, and in particular for external interventions in countries of the “Global South”. “Development”, so he argues, covers up (geo)political interests and strategies through supposedly neutral technical interventions. Whilst his work has had a substantial influence across disciplines for scrutinizing interactions and development programmes between the “Global South” and the “Global North”, it has hardly influenced debates on China’s involvement in Africa and, more generally, South-South cooperation (SSC) (Mawdsley 2012). This is surprising, given that many of Ferguson’s original arguments center around the focus of “Western” development interventions during the 1970s on infrastructure projects and criticize that those serve as an extension of state power and “Western” influence to make accessible previously remote territories and populations. Meanwhile, China has replaced “Western donors” as the main investor in infrastructure projects in Africa. In the focus are in particular projects with high publicity and visibility, such as the headquarter of the African Union in Addis Ababa or the Thika Superhighway in Nairobi.

Whilst there is no illusion in African societies that Chinese engagement follows Chinese state interests, the decisive political nature behind many of the large-scale, at first sight technical, Chinese implemented or financed development projects remains understudied. The frequently cited “hands-off” policy of non-inference in internal affairs of African countries aids the narrative of Chinese engagement as purely project-based, technical business, negotiated bilaterally “on eye level”. The workings of a possible anti-politics machine, that depoliticizes technical development interventions, and the underlying political ambitions of these interventions, are hardly addressed in a thorough conceptual manner. Why is this so? Does the abovementioned emphasis on mutually beneficial investment and business deals invoke perceptions different to those of Western development cooperation that continues to be framed in notions of “aid” or “assistance” – including power hierarchies? In other words, are the “true” political intentions less concealed in Chinese business deals as they are in Western development “aid”? I have no straightforward answer to these questions. It is for this reason that I offer the thoughts presented here to stimulate discussion on the application of Ferguson’s arguments to the heterogeneous ways of Chinese engagement in Africa – and South-South cooperation more generally.

Ferguson, J. 1990. The anti-politics machine : development, depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mawdsley, E. 2012. From recipients to donors : emerging powers and the changing development landscape. London: Zed Books.

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