Workshop 1 - Melissa Leach, 'Experimenting with Development'

Melissa Leach (STEPS, University of Sussex) opened her presentation observing that it has long been said that Africa is a laboratory, used as a site for many projects that exemplify experimentality on a narrow scale – in the sense of clinical and field trials. Following this she argued more broadly that the development project can be seen as experiment, generating its own institutions and industry; its own experimental practices; its own ways of dealing with uncertainty, evaluating and reaching closure. Leach illustrated how more broadly still a far more global ‘experimental condition’ is exemplified, as the global systemic effects of interlocked, unpredictable changes become apparent (i.e. climate change, food and energy crises, pandemics). In her talk she offered some thoughts on how experimentality operates at each of these levels and made several cross-cutting observations and arguments that apply (in different ways) to all.

The following propositions were outlined by Leach:

  • Inequality and Power: Experimentality is part and parcel of power relations. Experimental projects have winners and losers. Too often those who lose are those who are already marginalised. We need to reflect on how experimentality operates within steeply graded landscapes of power and inequality – and to think actively about how it contributes to or might reverse those distributional effects.
  • Perspective and Positionality: As science studies has long taught us, any given experimental project can be viewed and assessed from a diversity of standpoints and commitments, and may mean quite different things to different participants. Diverse and divergent interpretations – of particular experiments, and of what directions experimentation should proceed in – are part and parcel of the experimental condition and need to be appreciated as such
  • Deliberation and Inclusion – arguing for a move from experimentation ON to experimentation WITH – especially with those who are living in poverty and marginalisation.

Leach argued that experimentality can be part of a disciplining governmentality that constructs its subjects along prevailing lines of power and interest. She continued by asking what would it take to move towards being part of a more liberating process of freedom and embracing a common humanity and society.

Melissa Leach focused on places and issues which illuminate these dynamics of power and marginality and exclusion, and hence the challenges and what is at stake in them, using an example of health in Africa.

Her presentation was divided into three parts: ‘trial as experiment’, ‘development as experiment’ and ‘a global experimental condition’.

Trial as experiment

Leach opened this part of her paper with an example of the African case of an efficacy trial for a pneumococcal vaccine against the childhood killers of pneumonia and meningitis, in 2003-5, with Wyeth and UK government funding. This was a ‘gold standard’ randomised, placebo-controlled trial, with the vaccine or placebo given to infants as part of routine infant vaccination clinics. All this was explained, fieldworkers said, as part of informed consent. But when asked, mothers did not see this as either a trial or anything to do with vaccines. Rather, amidst their historical experiences, they linked ‘joining MRC’ – with its symbols of stamps on their children’s health card, and a special number on the compound wall – to something more akin to joining the patronage of a powerful institution. This could bring benefits – people perceived free, good healthcare to come from being ‘with MRC’, even though the trial protocol specified none of this – but also dangers – of blood-theft.

Leach explained how vivid fears linked to framings that connected MRC as a locally-operating ‘vampire institution’ with a global transactional economy in good African blood. Consequently, joining was a quid pro quo – but one that was sometimes experienced as very unequal: desired treatment not obtained, a child who died with death attributed to blood-stealing.

Leach argued that this clash of framings – and experience of extreme inequality and power in being part of the experiments of a powerful institution - happened despite the trial being conducted by a publicly-funded institution with the interests of research subjects at heart. This was not the exploitative, shady pharma of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener or Marcia Angell’s accounts of the scandalous experimentation by biotech companies in poor and middle income countries. No: this experiment employed best practices in ethics and communications – through informed consent procedures, working through local opinion leaders, traditional media and so on. Yet entirely different framings and understandings still operated and failed to connect.

And this disconnection was further fuelled by a cycle of denial on the part of scientists, who in classic 'deficit model' mode, assumed blood-stealing fears to reflect public ignorance and misguided rumour, to be eradicated through more education. Needless to say, amidst prevailing ‘economy of blood’ logics, these attempts tended to misfire in dramatic ways.

Development as experiment

Leach moved onto her second part of the paper through the notion of ‘best practices’, arguing that many have observed that the project of ‘development’ from its colonial origins through to its manifestations through the second half of the twentieth century has been, at least in some senses, a process of reconstructing particular countries, places and people in conformity with a particular ‘development gaze’.

She followed in claiming that part and parcel of this has been the identification of places and practices as backward and in need of modernisation, scientisation or reform – whether in the interests of their (colonial) governability or ease of resource extraction, or because this is understood to be ‘for their own good’ – better public health, less disease, less poverty, and so on.

Leach explained how pursuing this vision is a whole 'development and aid industry' – with institutions, workers, funding mechanisms, consultants and advisors, supporting discourses and analyses. These are the scientists, laboratory workers and orchestrators of development-as-experiment-writ large. She followed in arguing that the whole development project can be seen as an experimental one in two senses:

  1. Through the decades, the development industry has constantly experimented with approaches, defining ‘best practices’ of the moment – and then moving on from them. Reasons for such switches are complex – political as well as scientific/analytic – yet development studies and the consultancy business offers an analytical edifice for learning and reflection, for assessing the results of each experimental mode and moving on – albeit often in very bounded ways.
  2. The development project remains experimental in the sense that people and places never fully conform to the gaze. As Goran Hyden long ago observed about villagisation in Tanzania, much of life remains ‘uncaptured’. Developmentality as governmentality is incomplete; chinks of uncaptured life remain and may erupt in.

Leach pointed out that these two senses of experiment often don’t connect. Rather than clashes leading to re-evaluation and a new approach, they are often occluded. Instead we see a persistent tendency in the development industry to treat failures as failures of implementation, justifying applying the same approach with greater force, rather than questioning the basic problem.

Leach, however, showed that there are attempts to make this connection, using as her example the anthropological intervention of Barry Hewlett related to Ebola control. She presented it as a case of learning – experimentality – involving a broadening-out and opening-up to acknowledge diverse framings and narratives about the nature of the problem, and to incorporate these into development pathways – which may go off in different direction as a result, responding to different interests, concerns and knowledges.

She argued that the processes through which such opening-up happens are complex; may involve a combination of accumulating evidence and method, but crucially, also particular forms of activism and intervention (here by enlightened donors and local health workers, or anthropologists), and taking advantage of openings and crises (here, the entire breakdown of trust relations and the vax/ebola control programme) as opportunities to effect change.

Leach explained how such examples show the inherently unsettled character of what appears to be settled, and the endlessly experimental nature of dealing with what might seem to be quite straightforward problems: eradicating a known disease in a known setting with known technologies.

A global experimental condition

Leach moved into the third section of her paper stating that increasingly the world, the problems that ‘development’ is called upon to intervene in, are not like that at all.Rather, as exemplified by climate change, the financial turbulence of the last year, and global pandemic threats and the emergence and spread of new diseases, they are what some might call ‘super-wicked’.

She argued that challenges like this are part and parcel of the speeded-up dynamics in social, environmental, economic and technological systems, which operate simultaneously across multiple temporal and spatial scales. Yet incomplete knowledge is inevitable; we are not dealing here with calculable risks, but with uncertainties and areas of ignorance and surprise – unexpected interactions, unpredictable viral mutations or co-infections.

Leach followed in claiming that the global outbreak narrative has become a keystone story for our times. She argued that this frames the concern as with global (read northern) populations, and the fear of a virus ‘out of Africa’ or ‘out of Asia’ sweeping across the world, so needing to be stamped out at source. Melissa Leach suggestedthat such contexts of multiple dynamics, uncertainties and framings around major challenges of material, environmental and societal concern define the contemporary experimental condition – as truly global, affecting us all.

She argued that addressing such contexts could go two ways:

  1. It could lead to expressions of experimentality – as governmentality - that are more disciplining than ever. (The outbreak narrative has justified interventions in the interests of global ‘health security’ that ride roughshod over social justice and rights concerns.)
  2. It could lead to realization that it is creating needs and opportunities for forms of societal reflection, action and governance that are adaptive (responding to, learning from and shifting in response to change), deliberative (drawing diverse framings and priorities into dialogue) and reflexive (enabling those involved to reflect on their own positionalities and their implications, and to be more aware of and responsive to ‘others’).

Leach concluded her presentation by arguing that in optimistic moments, one can envision a newly globalised experimental society of the second kind emerging, in which major societal challenges become contexts for reflection and reconstruction of what a global ‘good society’ might be. She proposed that this goes along with a redefining of development – as the pursuit of wellbeing and social justice for all everywhere – although through pathways that will inevitably be multiple, as well as of experimentality – as inclusive, shifting from ‘experimenting on’ to ‘experimenting with’and as liberating, shifting from experimentality as disciplining towards embracing diverse perspectives, experiences and a common humanity.


Following discussion focused around three questions.

Firstly, the positive note of Leach’s conclusion was addressed. Her response pointed to the notion of normative arguments that people are trying to make without saying that they are easy challenges and the possibility for wider and more inclusive kinds of debate. Further, she positioned this problematic in terms of a political project trying to do the social science and generate networks of collaborations thinking about kinds of methods and contents through which this more inclusive debate could take place.

Secondly, questions were posed relating to Leach’s example of the African trial, namely: did people in the trial have any positive experience of it? Leach explained how people engaging with the trial registered without much scope for the dialogue about it and questioned framing of the liberation.

Thirdly, discussion investigated whether any version of adapted complex system theory is appropriate, usable or acceptable in this context. Propositions were made about requirement for the further move (possibly through mobilities theory) to engage in dialogue more flexibly. Here the alternative approach to the experiments with participation was outlined, that would involve part of development studies followed by critique and finally reinvention. Approaches for moving in this direction were said to be looking in particular at the traditions of participatory observation. Finally, questions of resilience, adaptation and transformation were considered.