Development and the Cash Economy

I spent some time this summer in Uganda with a few different undergrads, many of whom were on their first trip to a developing country. One conversation that came up several times (admittedly, I kept bringing it up) was the difference between a Western conception of development versus what Ugandans might actually want. I’ve been thinking about these conversations, and others, because I’ll be teaching a course on development this fall, and I’m likely to have these conversations with some of my students over the remainder of the year. Pardon the disjointed narrative below as I plod through a few things that are still taking shape.

In 2010, when I was on my first trip to Uganda, a friend told me that sometimes the organization she worked for had trouble keeping staff employed because, once people made enough money for the time being, they would quit. While in the U.S. one may work hard to earn a raise, and continue working to earn more, several people in Uganda, it seemed, were working long enough to make a decent amount of money and then choosing to not work for as long as that money would last.

I don’t know if this is true, but it surprised me when I first heard it as a naïve twenty-year-old. But, true or not in this specific instance, these types of stories are commonplace in the developing (and development) world. The capitalist mindset and assumed motivation for accumulation and profit are far from universal, and yet are part of the baggage that many practitioners from the Global North carry with them, often without even realizing it.

But why work more when you’ve made enough to just spend time with family, or drink, or tell stories, or do literally anything but work? The literature in the anthropology of development (and anthropology of capitalism) is rife with these types of stories. Six years, many books, and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa later, these types of stories are expected. Capitalist wage labor gets equated with slavery1 or tied to devil worship2, just to cite some examples. People don’t focus on wealth in money when they could strive for wealth in cows. They might not strive for individual independence, but rather seek “wealth in people”3. The forms of development we see often have waged employment as a goal, through vocational training, for example. Desire for employment is assumed. Some of the people I met this summer were working on internships or applied research projects that made similar assumptions – that wage laborers wanted to make as much money as possible, that people could be incentivized through bonuses.

I mention all of this not to point out that these students came to Uganda with their own set of assumptions (although that’s certainly true, just as it is with me and everyone else). After all, these assumptions are what make up the foundation of the IMF, the World Bank, and the entire global development regime. I point it out because all of these experiences – my own and those of countless others, from undergrads and newly minted development professionals to those of established scholars, practitioners, and critics – have yet to undermine capitalist development as it is experienced. Even when IMF economists say that neoliberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be [here’s a pdf of the report], it’s a half-hearted apology from an institution that is still 100% behind capitalism (see Chelwa and also Hengeveld). I mention this because the assumption of a capitalist desire to make profit is an enduring one, and one that informs virtually all of development, despite development being implemented in societies whose history of capitalism is much briefer than the U.S. or Western Europe, and despite capitalism being a system that is more likely to exacerbate inequality and poverty rather than reduce it.

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In Gulu town since the war shifted across the border, things have changed remarkably. Just in the three intervening years since my MA research and this summer, the town has changed a lot. Roads are paved, a new market has opened, the town has grown. This is, some would say, development.

I was walking with a friend a few weeks ago, and I mentioned to him that I enjoyed living in town. He made fun of me for liking town so much, and told me that he didn’t really like staying there. When I asked why, his answer was simple. “People here are trying to make money.” This was a young university graduate who had multiple jobs and was aspiring to gain a state salary, but he was adamant that life in town was hard (“kwo town tek,” if I remember correctly), and that life in town was marked by people being preoccupied with earning money. Life in the village, though, was simpler and more enjoyable. Several of my friends in town mentioned either yearning for or being in the process of cultivating land outside of town.

This all hearkened back, pretty much explicitly, to Adam Branch’s study of Gulu town during and after displacement [gated, here’s an earlier version as a pdf]. In it, Branch discusses how town changed as displaced people went back to the villages, the region’s poor and returnees ostracized by village life were funneled into town, and the cash economy came with urban development and the NGO influx. While many women and youth saw positive changes in town, many elders (those who were on top of the old system) were wary of these changes, arguing that they eroded Acholi society and values.

But beyond the social structures of life in Acholiland before, during, and after the war, there are also fundamental difficulties that come with a more urban, more capitalist way of life. Branch quotes one women as saying that “village life is better than town life. Life in town needs money at all times and every day which is not the case in the village. In the village you can just dig and eat well even if there is no money there” (p. 3158). Life in a cash system doesn’t come with a safety net.

Development has often focuses on the rural poor, trying to “modernize” people’s farming habits, provide education to those far from schools, etc. But many NGOs now work in cities as well, often with similar goals of bringing people into the economic system. And surely there are a number of entrepreneurial people who embrace this way of life and excel at opening up shops, building up successful businesses. But not everyone wants to make money. What will development offer them?

1. Graeber, David. 2007. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

2. Taussig, Michael T. 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

3. Mier, Suzanne and Igor Kopytoff, eds. 1977. Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, cited in some excellent recent books that look at why people seek to be dependent on others: Jim Ferguson’s (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution and China Schertz’s (2014) Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda.

Branch, Adam. 2013. “Gulu in War… and Peace? Town as Camp in Northern Uganda.” Urban Studies, 50 (15), pp. 3152-3167.