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The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics Paperback – 11 Jul 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 374 pages
  • Publisher: Duke University Press (11 July 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0822340275
  • ISBN-13: 978-0822340270
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 2.4 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 452,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


""The Will to Improve" is an exceptionally valuable and well-conceived book. It speaks to some of the most significant theoretical discussions of recent years, effectively linking studies of 'governmentality, ' debates about neoliberalism, and the increasingly rich literature on the social history of colonialism."--James Ferguson, author of "Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order"

"Magisterially linking the contradictions of peripheral capitalism with the limits of governmentality, Tania Murray Li offers a view of developmental rule that draws productively on Gramsci and Foucault. She provides perhaps the most brilliant account to date of neoliberal development in action. A tour de force."--Michael Watts, Director, Center for African Studies, and Class of 1963 Professor of Geography, University of California, Berkeley

"Insightful and engaging, this is a fascinating book. Drawing on an impressive array of historical and ethnographic sources, including her own fieldwork, Tania Murray Li offers a brilliant account of 'expert' interventions that, since the end of the nineteenth century, have endeavoured to improve the welfare of a number of communities in Sulawesi (Indonesia)."--Dimitri Tsintjilonis, "Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute"

From the Back Cover

"Tania Murray Li brilliantly combines the analytic rubrics of Foucault, Marx, and Gramsci to explain 'the will to improve' as an essential though poorly understood component of rule in Indonesia. This is not your grandmother's ethnography: the well-written chapters are packed with the conflicts, contestations, and uncertainties that characterize power relations. Deeply engaged with the processes and practices that shape peoples' lives, Li's book should be required reading for scholars interested in how power works and for development practitioners everywhere."--Nancy Lee Peluso, author of "Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java"

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Murray excellently reveals what is excluded from many past and present development schemes. A sometimes difficult but we'll argued read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x920a04f8) out of 5 stars 3 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9224b9b4) out of 5 stars A few more comments 3 July 2008
By ingonyama - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In characteristic style, Gene Anderson has written a great review of a great book. I would add (having read ch. 1-6)--along the lines of his comments on Foucault and Weber at the end--that this book draws upon Ferguson's Anti-Politics machine, and shares some of its shortcomings (see Lipton's review in Development Southern Africa ca. 1992): the accounts of the "developers" rest heavily upon a reading of official documents. Li points out repeatedly that conservation interventions avoid confronting the shortage of agricultural land, and thus "render technical" a set of political questions, but I'd like to hear--in the words of development planners--why they avoid the land issue, and how they justify this omission. Li provides great examples of speaking with villagers about the various interventions put in place, but rarely treats development workers in the same way -- they primarily appear through their documents, rather than as positioned social actors in the field. This asymmetry is frustrating -- it's understandable when she's dealing with historical material, but I had hoped the contemporary ethnography would be less textually-focused in its treatment of "developers."
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9224ba14) out of 5 stars Development Messes Up Again 29 Mar. 2008
By E. N. Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a stunning job of tracking yet another case of failed development. The main ways this book differs from a long, long literature on such matters are, first, that Li provides a long history (going back through the centuries of colonialism), and, second, that she gives an extremely detailed account of the political processes that led to stagnation in rural Sulawesi over the last 10+ years. A national park to preserve biodiversity, various agricultural projects, and a lot of untapped local potential for top-quality coffee and cocoa exports did not add up to success. In addition to presenting a superb job of reporting, Li writes clearly and straightforwardly, without undue social-science jargon.
The problem was the same old one that we have seen in literally thousands of similar case studies: people with "the will to improve" but not the common sense to listen to what the local communities actually think and want and need. Everybody, from the Dutch of colonial times to the NGO's of today, "knows what's best" (shades of Alice Miller and her revealing the sinister side of "for your own good").
What's best often bears a strange resemblance to what's best for the rich developers rather than what's best for the locals. As indigenous people around the world describe the improving enterprise, "We had the land and they had the Bible. Now we have the Bible and they have the land."
Li is generous to the change agents--the colonial missionaries and developers, postcolonial government agents, and international development banks and conservation agencies. She credits them with a genuine desire to do good. Maybe it's just because I'm older and have seen more, but I suspect something else. It seems odd that all the mistakes are in one direction--i.e., to increase the wealth and power of the change agents or their backers.
Li does point out the role of both power games and unthinking prejudice against the poor, the uneducated, and the rural. Few people who have not lived and worked with rural Third World families know just how extremely sharp, competent, and aware these families are. Their poverty is the result not of their incompetence but of centuries of oppression and disease.
There are some limits to this book. I am not complaining--the book is long and detailed, and nobody can cover everything. Still, further work on the problems of Sulawesi is needed. First, there is little biology herein. The desperate need for conserving Sulawesi's biodiversity--its highly endemic flora and fauna--does not come through. The people were displaced from the national park, because of oppressive government and incredibly inept conservation NGO efforts; obviously, they had been coexisting with the biodiversity for at least 60,000 years, and may even have created a lot of it (there has been plenty of time for coevolution here). So somebody should have been working with them to find out what they were doing right, and then pay them to keep doing it. One thing they were doing right is growing some of the world's best coffee in the place. (Sulawesi's coffee is up there with the best of Colombian and Jamaican, and some of it--I hope some of the best--was growing in the park area.) Coffee goes well with wildlife, and good coffee deserves support anyway. Yet no one seems to have done anything to develop the organic/fair trade option (as has been done in many other countries).
Second, Li does not deal with the extensive critical literature on development (except for the Indonesia literature). One misses references to Tom Dichter, Joseph Stiglitz, Thayer Scudder, Jim Igoe, or dozens of others who have chronicled the well-meant (?) failures of development and of international conservation efforts. All the same problems have surfaced everywhere else, including the United States, from Appalachia to Alaska. They are endemic to bureaucratized, top-down, distant-office development plans. Li does point out that this point was being made in Dutch colonial literature 150 years ago--famously in the novel MAX HAVELAAR, still a good read, and, alas, still up to date--as Li points out, colonial policies go on. Meanwhile, many areas of the world develop, but only in so far as local people can take the initiative--find something that works for them, and develop it on their own. Where I work in Mexico, for instance, the government brought in citrus, but the locals found the markets and developed the efficient farming systems.
Finally, there is that motivation question. Change agents are often animated by a complex mix of motives. They want the best for "their people," but they also want to increase their own power and/or wealth, to advance their own agendas, to outcompete rival NGO's or agencies, and, alas, they sometimes want to bully the locals, or to cheat and rip and run. Governments, of course, want to assert power first, whatever else they may want. Li draws primarily on Michel Foucault for her theory, and thus is fine on the latter case--she is very aware of the structural imperatives of bureaucracy and the state. But the former is neglected. Max Weber's theories would have been very helpful here. He saw the emergent properties of bureaucracy (indeed, Foucault seems to have drawn on Weber pretty heavily) but Weber always grounded his theories in individual agency and psychology.
Thus, if you are even slightly interested in development and the environment, read this book! Read it along with some general works on development, and something on the biology of Sulawesi and why this is a desperate problem that goes far beyond the unfortunate people of Li's field work site. And, as you read, think how to reverse the decline of coffee there--I haven't had a really good cup of Sulawesi in years.
1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91e2d24c) out of 5 stars when thick because too thick 27 Feb. 2014
By J M - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
These provocative and ambitious ethnography offers a thick description of development projects in Indonesia. Document analysis, interviews, observations and conversations equip the author with information to form an opinion. Unfortunately, the writing fails to emphasize key examples, events and arguments. The excess of information, examples and focal points obscure the arguments.
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