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Utopias of development
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Through an ethnographic study of the Barefoot College, an internationally renowned non-governmental development organisation (NGO) situated in Rajasthan, India, this book investigates the methods and practices by which a development organisation materialises and manages a construction of success. Paying particular attention to the material processes by which success is achieved and the different meanings that they act to perform, this book offers a timely and novel approach to how the world of development NGOs works. It further touches upon the general discrediting of certain kinds of expertise, moving the book beyond an anthropology of development to raise wider questions of general interest.

The author argues that the College, as a heterotopia and a prolific producer of various forms of development media, achieves its success through materially mediated heterotopic spectacles: enacted and imperfect utopias that constitute the desires, imaginings and Otherness of its society.

Founded by the charismatic figure of Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College has become a national and global icon of grassroots sustainable development. With a particular focus on the Barefoot College’s community-managed, solar photovoltaic development programme, this book considers the largely overlooked question of how it is that an NGO achieves a reputation for success.

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Selling the Barefoot College
Stewart Allen

This chapter provides an overview of the book, its central argument and themes. A brief introduction is provided to the Barefoot College, giving an indication of its philosophy, goals and reach, and the kinds of utopian tropes and ideals that it aspires are sign-posted. This leads on to a discussion of the main theoretical concepts informing this book, namely Guy Debord’s notion of ‘spectacle’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’. Drawing upon these concepts, it is suggested that the modern development landscape is one embedded within ever-deeper capitalist relations, necessitating the production of the kinds of spectacle seen in other areas of life, but rooted in particular kinds of historical and heterotopic development landscapes.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
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Stewart Allen

This chapter explores the history and development of the Barefoot College in relation to wider social and political contexts, in particular the progress and advancement of the voluntary sector in India from an industry largely based on voluntarism to one of professionalisation. Against this backdrop of a move towards modernity and conflict between rural and urban ideals, it charts the emergence of the Barefoot College from the early 1970s: how it developed, its aims and philosophy, and some of the challenges it faced as it sought to establish its authenticity.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
Stewart Allen

This chapter documents the story of the Aga Khan Award saga, a controversy around an architecture award that enveloped the Barefoot College in the early years of the new millennium and which concerned claims of authorship for the building of its new campus. Light is thrown on the complex relations that evolve over time between various stakeholders and networks, the theory of ‘translation’, the role and agency of objects, documents, websites, written and verbal testaments, and the built project itself, as well as ways in which the College’s interpretive constructions, concealments, silences and mobilisations helped it to overcome rival knowledge systems and narratives of process.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
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Stewart Allen

This chapter centres around a discussion of the topic of domestic rural solar photovoltaics (PV) in India, its history, development and current status, including state-led policies governing rural solar electrification and macro-economic issues of energy production. Consideration is given to the commonplace issues associated with the electrification of rural areas using solar PV, its challenges and contests, yet also its rewards and returns. Furthermore, the chapter explores how material aspects of technology and energy have become embedded within notions of development, modernity, enlightenment and the formation of the state.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
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The witnessing of development success
Stewart Allen

This chapter considers how the Barefoot College enrols donors and supporters through the act of witnessing and the use of Callon’s (1986) notion of translation. Drawing upon Shapin and Schaffer’s (1985) concept of the virtual witness, it is argued that the College’s success depends largely on the visual spectacle of its lamps and solar training to enrol supporters worldwide. The College achieves this firstly through the limited capacity of first-hand witnessing in the solar training workshop, and secondly (and more significantly) through the virtual witnessing of solar projects by the interpretive community of partners and donors worldwide via multi-media activities including literary technologies, but also short films and presentations made available on video-sharing websites and DVD.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
Stewart Allen

This chapter introduces the solar workshop training programme of the Barefoot College that aims to turn subaltern women into Barefoot solar engineers (BSEs) through perhaps unusual learning methods. It presents a challenge to the discourse prevalent in neoliberalism of the ‘developed woman’ as a self-maximising subject, a beneficiary of empowerment, able to channel voice and power through these newly developing knowledge spaces. Such discourses often fail to register the particular kinds of material assemblages through which they are enacted, and the tangible ways in which knowledge and subjects are formed, yet also silenced by different materialities.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
Stewart Allen

This chapter explores the production of success through the replication of the Barefoot College’s solar programme worldwide: how knowledge, people and technology move through different orders of translation, including the attempts to give the women selected for training a new identity as solar engineers. This is illustrated via an account of the apparent failure of two Barefoot solar projects, in the process bringing to light the difficulties and labour involved in the generation of replicable development success.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India
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The frayed edges of the spectacle
Stewart Allen

The concluding chapter summarises the findings of the book, articulating along the way how a heterotopia of development may be further explored. This includes further discussion of the future impact of the spectacle with reference to the marketisation of development, including how multi-national corporations can generate income from extreme poverty and the role NGOs play in unlocking this market. This leads to a discussion of the spectacle’s relation to current ‘post-truth’ debates in wider society, how it generates spaces of ignorance, and the black-boxing of development work.

in An ethnography of NGO practice in India