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Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 78

Te Will to Improve:
Governmentality, Development,
and the Practice of Politics
Taxia Muiia\ Li
Duxi Uxiviisir\ Piiss,
Duiuax, NC, :oo;
, ii. :., Paiiinacx
Riviiwio n\ Manii Sanocai
Te Will to Improve is a rich description of
governmental practices eected by national and
international institutions and directed at systematic
improvements for marginal populations. Tis eth-
nography details the way development strategies are
deployed; in particular, Li analyzes the interactions
between the dierent actorsvillagers, development
organizations and non-governmental organizations,
government ocials and institutionsthat take place
in the development encounter, as exemplied by cases
from the Central Sulawesi region of Indonesia.
Te book is divided into seven chapters. Te
rst describes the history of Indonesia for the last
200 yearsin the context of development inter-
ventionsuntil the end of the Suharto regime in
1998. Te subsequent ve chapters present various
programs that were formulated to improve the lives
of villagers in Sulawesi from the beginning of colonial
rule through the rst years of the twentieth century:
their general objectives, contradictions, consequences
and their ultimate failures. Troughout her book, Li
explains how colonial and neo-colonial regimes (but
also national, regional and local elites) have viewed
less powerful people as decient, backward, and
in need for improvement. In addition, indigenous
subsistence practices have been seen as destructive of
the environment and not productive enough, thus
requiring correction. Te institutions in charge of de-
velopment were interested in improving populations,
improving the landscape, and improving productiv-
ity; in the process, people were subjected to forced
resettlement, excluded from their land, and drawn
into intensied agricultural production (p. 61).
In her analysis, Li critiques and extends the
works of Ferguson (1994) and Escobar (1995), and
she uses Foucault (1991) to dene the purpose of
government and sovereignty, to theorize the limits
of government, and to understand social control and
power inequalities. Gramscis ideas (Crehan, 2002)
are the basis for Lis description of the ways people
mobilize for change and protest; and Marx (1887)
constitutes another important source because of his
presentation of analytical tools to study the material
conditions of human existence.
Lis illustration of contemporary development
discourses and practices in Central Sulawesi centers
on the social tension resulting from the creation of
the Lore Lindu National Park in 1982 (nal bound-
aries were established in 1993). Indigenous peoples
were pushed from their traditional lands and gardens
and relocated to less fertile ones outside of the park.
Te development agencies charged with helping
people recover (while still supporting the goals of
conservation in the park) analyzed the situation in
preliminary historical, economic and social studies.
However, when the time came to plan and implement
the designed projects, they disregarded the informa-
tion previously acquired about problems such as
growing landlessness, high indebtedness among
the indigenous population, vulnerability to
displacement, among others (p. 126). Teir excuses
were that these problems identied were not merely
technical, were too complex and could not be solved
by them. Tus, they never accomplished their goal
of signicantly improving peoples lives.
Li argues that by tackling only technical prob-
lemsby dening specic and localized issues and
dissecting them (p. 123)the development organiza-
tions did not recognize the structural conditions that
created the troubles in the rst place. Furthermore,
whenever interventions failed, and problems became
worse, there was always a need for more interventions
(p. 122). Te institutions and people responsible for
the development programs did not initially examine
their own practices as potentially responsible for the
further marginalization of people; instead, villagers
were blamed for their inability to improve their own
conditions and were then subjected to social engineer-
ing to modify their behavior and make them comply
Journal of Ecological Anthropology Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 79
with the mandate of the government and develop-
ment/conservation institutions.
After repeated failures, development organiza-
tions eventually tried to implement dierent programs
and improve their own performance, but these eorts
obtained the same results. Te Nature Conservancy,
for example, in the 1990s failed to achieve its goals
of raising conservation awareness and increasing eco-
nomic gain through sustainable practices (p. 140),
because such goals and the concepts used to dene
them did not match those of the local people who were
primarily concerned with their right to cultivable land
(p. 139). Later, Te Nature Conservancy attempted a
new strategy framed within the concepts of commu-
nity and partnership, supposedly paying attention to
what the villagers had to say (p. 193). Tey did not
succeed however, even though villagers proved adept
in the conservation discourse.
Allied either with villagers or with the pro-park
alliances, other non-governmental organizations also
exerted pressure and added more components to the
problem of access to land in Sulawesi. Wahana Lingku-
nan Hidup Indonesia (Friends of the Earth Indonesia)
and Yayasan Tanah Merdeka (Free Land Foundation)
critiqued foreign donors and ocials plans, and these
two organizations helped villagers claim sovereignty
over some expropriated lands (p. 148). Eventually,
after three demonstrations by villagers demanding a
solution to their land tenure and access problems, the
organizations helped the group self-identied as the
Free Farmers Forum take over the Dongi-Dongi valley
inside the park (p. 153). Nevertheless, after reclaiming
the land, more conicts ensued between the farmers
inside the park and other indigenous groups claiming
ownership over the same land, as well as between pro-
park and pro-farmer alliances (p. 168).
Tis book constitutes an important reference
for those involved in the elds of applied, engaged
or public anthropology and, in particular, for in-
dividuals working for development organizations
or in public and international policy. Li promotes
a reection on academic and professional exercises
of delivering abstract notions of improvement and
appropriate ways of life to others (in less powerful
positions), which rarely correspond to peoples reali-
ties, heterogeneity, needs and wants. Although Li
explains the ways in which improvement organiza-
tions have themselves attempted to improve, the
fundamental causes of problems of marginalized
populations continue to be unaddressed.
In addition, the author appears to provide
concrete examples for James Scotts (1985) argument
that peasants are not necessarily interested in revolu-
tions, or total structural change. Instead, peasants
negotiate their right to a modest or decent way of
life (with work, land and income) as established in
their relationship with the dominant group through
an implicit social contract that tacitly mediates and
expresses the needs of both social groups. Tus,
revolutions, for Scott, appear more as conjunctural
events that respond to an orthodox, middle-class
intention of transformation supported dialectically
by the angry peasantry subjected to unacceptable
measures of injustice. Many of the peasants described
by Li saw the need to protect the environment, but
they also wanted to make a prot and did not mind
giving the government its own share in the form of
taxes (p. 227). Tey were not anti-government; they
simply wanted to participate in and be recognized as
valuable assets to their country (p. 280).
Li disagrees with Escobars implicit premise
that, in development, there is conspiracy (p. 286).
Te shortcoming in this position and Lis analysis
is the lack of treatment of crucial questions that
arise from her own conclusions: Who has the power
to make the structural changes needed in order to
improve peoples lives? And, what would be the con-
sequences for development organizations, govern-
ments and major nancial institutions in allowing
such change? Te failure of institutions to deliver
their promises, to address the real problems, and to
pay attention to (or not ignore) the facts may speak
of a predetermined and tacit agenda that is aligned
with the main goal of capitalist logicto expand
the marketwhich contrasts with the needs of
villagers. In addition, institutions providing funds
for development are often banks, with very specic
objectives of economic growth.
Li makes some interesting observations in the
last chapter. She examines, for example, a World Bank
project called Kekamatan Development Program in
which alternatives that encourage competition, tough
Journal of Ecological Anthropology
Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 80
surveillance, and control practices are proposed for vil-
lagers to acquire resources and fulll their goals, in self-
designed, and self-regulated, projects, funded by the
Bank. It is an attempt to study the mechanisms of local
social capital, but it is also an attempt to insert people
in the market economy, and make them behave in
accordance to the capitalist standards of competition,
accumulation and progress. Even though Kekamatan
Development Program was considered (and replicated)
as successful by the World Bank, it also failed to ad-
dress the real issues in peoples livesalthough it did
succeed in modifying their conduct towards market
and accumulation activities.
In conclusion, it is evident in Lis account that
historical attempts to improve peoples lives in Su-
lawesi while reconciling conservation, capitalism and
social justice is impossible for two reasons: the lack
of attention to political economic structures, and the
absence of villagers participation in decision-making.
At the same time, in many cases populations resist and
eventually reclaim what has been extracted from them.
Te will of some to improve the lives of others does
not cease, however. Li poses an important question:
If there is evidence of populations abilities to resist
and claim spaces of justice on their ownespecially
since partnership, participation and collaboration are
today recognized as crucial in developmentwhy
are there still trustees interested in assisting them to
improve? Trusteeship, and the hierarchy that sepa-
rates trustees from the people whose capacities need
to be enhanced, (p. 278) are embedded in the will
to improve (p. 281). In this sense, it would be worth
the eort to further explore Lis thesis.
Mabel Sabogal, Department of Anthropology, Uni-
versity of South Florida,
Ciiuax, K.
2002 Gramsci, culture, and anthropology.
Berkeley, CA: University of California.
Esconai, A.
1995 Encountering development: The making
and unmaking of the third world. Princ-
eton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fiicusox, J.
1994 The anti-politics machine: Develop-
ment, depolitization, and bureaucratic
power in Lesotho. Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press.
Foucauir, M.
1991 Governmentality, in The Foucault
effect: Studies in governmentality. Edited
by G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. M
iller, pp. 87-104. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Li, T.
2007 The will to improve: Governmentality,
development, and the practice of politics.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Maix, K.
1887 Capital: A critical analysis of capitalist
production. Translated by S. Moore and
E. Aveling. London: Swan Sonnen-
schein, Lowrey & Co.
Scorr, J.C.
1985 Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of
peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
Trough attempts to dig up truths about a so-
ciety destroyed by nuclear fallout, this ethnography
chronicles one of the most devastating chapters in
American history. In 1954, 67 nuclear bombs were
tested in the Marshall Islands by the United States
military. Despite warnings about the possible eects
of this testing on the local inhabitants, the bombing
Te Rongelap Report:
Consequential Damages of
Nuclear War
Bainaia Rosi Jouxsrox axo Hoii\ Baixii
Liir Coasr Piiss,
Waixur Ciiix, CA, :oo8
:1 Pi. :,., Paiiinacx
Riviiwio n\ Lauiix Haiiis
Journal of Ecological Anthropology Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 81
schedule was carried out as planned, spreading ra-
dioactive waste across entire islands and their inhab-
ited villages. For decades, the Rongelapese have been
forced to serve as research subjects for U.S. military
scientists and endure the severe environmental and
health eects of a situation completely outside their
control. Using the voices of the islands residents
collected from decades of research, Johnston and
Barker bring to life the details of Rongelapese resi-
dents experiences.
Te most signicant contribution of the book
is the detailed explanations that are provided of the
eects of nuclear testing on the Rongelapese over the
past 50 years. Te analysis begins with their cultural
practices, values and traditions before the nuclear
bombings in 1954 and ends with testimonies of
relocated Rongelapese attempting to get back to
their homeland. Tese personal narratives all serve
as evidence for the nal Rongelap Report, pieces
of which are carefully placed at the end of each sec-
tion of the book to synthesize authors ndings. Te
full version of this report was used by representatives
of the Rongelapese in court hearings against the US
Before nuclear testing, the Rongelapese were
intimately connected to their land. Food, toys,
shelter, transportation and tools were all created
from natural materials. Land and water territo-
ries were dispersed using local rules maintained
by the traditional hierarchy of leaders within the
community. Spiritual and social values were also
tied to the island landscape. Te authors suggest
that not only was it the place that the Rongelapese
buried their dead, but it brought meaning to
peoples lives. Before nuclear testing, the authors
describe the Rongelapeses relationship with land
as symbiotic, based on individual narratives and
portrayals of life before nuclear destruction. Ron-
gelapese who were interviewed explain that when
hunting, they would kill only male crabs so that
the females could reproduce, never take all the bird
or turtle eggs, and only kill the young birds so that
the older ones could reproduce. Tese and other
resources were exchanged and used to maintain
social relationships and to conrm basic values
essential to Rongelapese culture.
Te contamination from the nuclear bombings
obliterated the social relationships that mediate use of
natural resources on the island. Johnston and Barker
spend the last third of the book discussing the specic
ramications of nuclear testing for the Rongelapese,
which include involuntary displacement from their
homes, loss of access to natural recourses and natural
habitats, loss of land rights, and loss of their every-
day existence including customary laws and tradi-
tions. Because the nuclear fallout was so expansive,
much of the landscape was permanently destroyed.
Troughout this chapter, the Rongelapese talk about
birds found with hard white pebbles in their throats,
radioactive coconut crabs, and arrowroot that are
completely hollow inside, capturing the severity of
impacts on food resources.
Health consequences from the initial nuclear
explosion and from the toxic environment in the
years that followed devastated the Rongelapese way
of life. After the bombs went o, white radioactive
powder fell directly on many people, leaving them
with discoloration and blisters that covered their
bodies. Johnston and Barkers key informant lost his
15-year-old child to leukemia. His story, unfortu-
nately, is only one of many. Almost all Rongelapese
were forced to have their thyroid glands removed
due to concentrated levels of radioactive material, a
surgery that has left them without a singing voice,
and with a daily, chronic need for medication. Te
reproductive eects of the bombing were perhaps
some of the most disturbing. Troughout the third
chapter, men and women talk about having children
without arms or legs, of stillbirths, babies with
Downs Syndrome, even giving birth to grapes.
One woman talks about a child being born with the
entire back side of his scull missing. She states, You
know, it was heart wrenching having to nurse my
son, all the while taking care that his brain didnt fall
into my lap (p. 146). Although dicult to absorb
for the reader, such stories need to be told, and the
authors create a forum for Rongelapese to do so.
Te nal chapters of the book discuss the cul-
pability of the United States, including the decision
to drop nuclear bombs despite the perceived risk of
fallout, and the governmental ocials lack of at-
tention to the needs of the Rongelapese in the years
Journal of Ecological Anthropology
Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 82
following the disaster. While the U.S. did provide
health care to residents after the bombing, it was
much more focused around scientic investiga-
tions than it was on the actual health complaints
of the people themselves. In a letter written to the
U.S. government, a Rongelapese man states, you
have never really cared about us as peopleonly
as a group of guinea pigs for your governments
bomb research eort. Tere is no question about
your technical competence, but we wonder about
your humanity (p. 139).
Tese events lead the authors to discuss the need
for justice and reparations, citing specic historical
circumstances in which the U.S. government was
forced to repay local civilians for breeches of contract
and/or losses of critical resources. Under what is
termed Te Memorandum of Decision and Order
they call for restitution, indemnity and satisfaction
under four general categories. Tese include: 1) the
hardships, injuries and consequential damages of
the loss of healthy, self-sucient way of life; 2) the
natural resource damage and related socio-economic
stigmatization; 3) consequential damages to human
exposure to fallout from the nuclear weapons testing
program; and 4) negligence, negligent misrepresen-
tation, battery and related consequential damages
of involuntary participation in human subject re-
search. While the Rongelapese were awarded some
consequential damages by the RMI Nuclear Claims
Tribunal, the authors continue to demand further
compensation for each individual abuse that falls
under these four main categories of concern.
To date, most of the literature on the eects of
nuclear weaponry on human populations has been
produced by medical personnel, focusing primarily
on the physical consequences of radiation, which
include reports of thyroid cancer and leukemia (Na-
tional Research Council 2003; Institute of Medicine
1999). Other studies, produced outside of the medi-
cal elds, have focused on the social and cultural ef-
fects of nuclear fallout in the United States (Caldwell
2007; Johnson 1996; Fradkin 1989; Rosenberg
1980) and the Marshall Islands (Johnston 2007;
Dibblin 1990), however they tend to be primarily
subjective. While these reports provide emotionally
charged personal accounts of the victims, they con-
tain little evidence to connect environmental and
health problems to the actual bombings. Tis is one
of the main contributions of Johnston and Barkers
ethnographythe way they link these impacts to
the bombings with convincing evidence. Te major
reason for this gap in other reports is likely to be the
highly condential nature of the research subject.
U.S. military personnel are in control of all activities
surrounding nuclear weapons testing; therefore it is
incredibly dicult to obtain any information without
an ocial international criminal hearing.
By joining forces with local and government
personnel, Johnston and Barker were able to weave
together ethnographic accounts of nuclear testing
victims with data collected from the U.S military.
Tis combination of qualitative and quantitative data
gives much needed validity to their ndings, leaving
the reader with a more complete understanding of
the experiences of the Marshallese people by captur-
ing what this event means to their lives individually
and collectively. Unlike previous books on this topic,
one comes away from this ethnography with a bet-
ter understanding of diering perspectives, a sense
of responsibility for what happened, and a desire to
provide the voices speaking out through the pages
with the reparations that they deserve.
Tis ethnography is appropriate to use in un-
dergraduate and graduate level anthropology courses
to illustrate how meticulous ethnographic eldwork
can serve as essential evidence in cases concerning
human rights violations. In addition to demonstrat-
ing what applying anthropology can accomplish,
this book also suggests the importance of long-term
ethnographic analysis and multiple methodologies
for acquiring data, as well as what can be gained from
engaging with professionals both in and outside of
anthropology. Te readability of this ethnography
makes it highly accessible to the public, and more
importantly, to policy makers and military personnel
who can make a contribution in working to prevent
these atrocities from occurring again.
Lauren Harris, Department of Anthropology,
University of South Florida,
Journal of Ecological Anthropology Vol. 13 No. 1 2009 83
Caiowiii, S.J.
2007 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
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1990 Day of two suns: US nuclear testing and
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Fiaoxix, P.L.
1989 Fallout: An American nuclear tragedy.
Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona
Ixsriruri oi Mioicixi (U.S.), Narioxai Ri-
siaicu Couxcii (U.S.), x NirLiniai\, Ixc.
1999 Exposure of the American people to
Iodine-131 from Nevada nuclear-bomb
tests Review of the National Cancer
Institute report and public health im-
plications. Washington, DC: National
Academy Press.
Jouxsrox, B.R.
2007 Half-lives and half-truths: Confronting
the radioactive legacies of the cold war.
Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced
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Narioxai Risiaicu Couxcii (U.S.), x NirLi-
niai\, Ixc.
2003 Exposure of the American population to
radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons
tests A review of the CDC-NCI draft
report on a feasibility study of the health
consequences to the American population
from nuclear weapons tests conducted
by the United States and other nations.
Washington, DC: National Research
Rosixniic, H.L.
1980 Atomic soldiers: American victims of
nuclear experiments. Boston: Beacon