SCA2014: Working to Build a “Better” World: Interventions, Effectiveness, and Efficiency

To express interest in this panel, please use the comments feature on this page and/or contact Fiona Gedeon Achi and Nicole Rigillo: nicole.rigillo [at] or fiona.gedeonachi [at]

With increasing involvement by non-state entities into the work of building a “better” world – safer, healthier, free of poverty, environmentally sustainable, etc. – interventions are increasingly guided by the coupling of effectiveness and efficiency. To provide a few examples, World Bank grants are issued to Russia in an attempt to render infrastructures both more equitable and cost-effective; in the past decade, we have witnessed the application of randomized controlled trials to measure the success of anti-poverty programs e.g. assessing the differential uptake when selling vs. giving free bed nets. In many fields of interventions, it has therefore become imperative to generate solutions that actually work (well) while at the same time responding to claims of ever-tightening financial constraints. This panel seeks to investigate what this coupling does to the “work” of intervention and how it reconstitutes its ends and means. It also considers how the requirements of efficiency and effectiveness seem to engender different forms of relating to those who are intervened upon. For instance, the widespread adoption of cash transfer programs in developing countries to attend to the very poor stems from an idea that they, better than experts, know what their needs are. Further, the twinning of efficiency and effectiveness may trouble ideals such as equality and justice, as well as how to achieve them. The introduction of corporate interventions targeting specific groups most likely to yield a high return on investment – women in developing countries, for example – has come to serve as alternatives to universal forms of welfare. Often called “neoliberal”, these rationalized forms of intervention ask anthropologists to move beyond critique and to engage with their complex logics to find vocabularies to account for what they do to the work of intervening upon the lives of others.

Our panel thus considers the following questions: Does the coupling of effectiveness and efficiency reconfigure what it means to state that an intervention “has worked”? How are contemporary forms of intervention - state-led, global poverty alleviation, corporate social responsibility, humanitarian consulting, etc. related to earlier forms of planning the future? How are the principles of efficiency and effectiveness justified, and what tools have been developed to measure them? What does the claim to ground interventions in empirical evidence rather than ideology concretely mean? What kinds of collective life are envisioned through these kinds of interventions, and what idea of “the good life” do these forms of work make possible?  How are inefficiencies addressed and conceptualized? What kinds of responses emerge to intervene against efficiency-led programs?