COLLISION AND COLLUSION - Reviews
The Journal of the American Ethnological Society
Volume 27, No.1, February 2000
Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989-1998.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. xvii + 286 pp., maps, figures, notes, selected bibliography, index.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
On June 19, 1999, thousands of people from many countries protested the World Economic Summit (also known as the G7/G8 Summit) in Cologne, Germany, parading in front of the city's famous cathedral: a golden calf with the horns of capital and trade. Protesters formed a human chain many kilometers long and engaged in what they called a laugh parade against the supposed beneficial aspects of neoliberalism and free trade policies.
In her lucid and courageous book, Janine Wedel makes the Cologne protest meaningful and understandable, having written one of the most important chapters in the recent history of neoliberal globalization. Wedel narrates the avatars of the alleged transition from communism to capitalism and democracy in much of Eastern Europe. The book is based on an impressive record of research spanning almost a decade, chiefly in Central Europe (the so-called Visegrad countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia), Russia, and Ukraine.
Collision and Collusion is, however, much more than an expose of the economic disaster wrought on many of these countries by Western aid and Harvard economists, as the book's well-deserved press attention has emphasized. It is a richly documented argument regarding what went wrong, and occasionally right, as the Western aid and development apparatus was deployed to transform the former communist bloc. Written engagingly, the book is a tribute to the high caliber of Wedel's journalistic and anthropological abilities alike, and a re-minder of the need for a re-envisioned and effective anthropology brought to bear on pressing social issues.
Through an "ethnography of levels and processes" (p. 8), Wedel focuses on the interaction between Western donors and Eastern recipients. She begins with the heyday of "trimphalism" in the early months after the fall of the Berlin Wall; describes a phase of "disillusionment" characterized by frustration and resentment on both sides as the goods and promises of aid failed to materialize; and concludes with a third phase of "adjustment" as the decades, unfolding, yielded more realistic approaches in Central Europe but little success further east.
Throughout the book, the author makes ample use of existing anthropological and sociological analyses of the region's cultural and political context, precisely the context most glaringly absent from U.S. aid strategies. Equally important is the author's creative use of recent anthropological literature on development, particularly those works focused on the production of development discourses. Indeed, much of the Eastern European aid story resembled, and was modeled on, post-World War II Third World development—from the assumption of miraculous overnight transformation to be brought about by a Marshall Plan-type effort with the West as savior, to the political use of aid and the reliance on aid packages and consultants.
Many consultants had only Third World experience, something that Eastern European counterparts deeply resented. The book is, however, not really a study of development discourses, as in those cases focused on the Third World. Deeply rooted in the Eastern European experience, Wedel shows why the encounter over the issue of aid between two radically different cultural, socio-economic, and political systems was repeatedly characterized by a profound disconnect of intentions, knowledge, and understanding. By focusing on the relationships established between the various social actors, Wedel's careful hand maps what went wrong and why.
Although the detailed institutional ethnography is restricted to a few examples, chiefly from Wedel's best-known country of Poland, there is great richness in the book for those interested in learning about the social, cultural, and political dimensions of the business of aid in this very important testing case of development and aid beyond the traditional Third World.
Successive chapters deal with relationships among consultants, cliques, reformers, financiers, and the changing strategies in which they engaged. Upon their arrival in 1989-91, the scores of consultants hired by the World Bank, the IMF, the European Union, and U.S. AID to effect the dismantling and privatization of state enterprises were almost perceived as Big Men bringing in the cargo from the West. Known variously as "the Marriot Brigade" or "econolobbyists," the consultants and aid representatives were "deficient in cultural and historical sensibilities" and "often made social fools of themselves" (p. 90); meanwhile, "Central and Eastern Europeans ... applied to unsuspecting foreigners the persistence and sophisticated wheeling and dealing skill honed under communism" (p. 91).
This is, in fact, one of the most valuable traits of the book: the author's ability to show people's adaptation, transformation, and reconstitution of pre-1989 social and cultural practices precisely to meet the demands of the aid-fueled economic and social transformation. In this way, a few favored cliques with connections during the communist period were able to act as elite gatekeepers of Western aid, but imbued now with the right ideology of civil society, privatization, and NGO speak. This led not infrequently to great personal gain.
One such group—the so-called Chubais Clan—was able to broker much of the aid effort to Russia in the period of 1992-1997. This group was named after its leader, Anatoli Chubais, who rose to prominence under Yeltsin; most of its members had connections to elite economic institutes in St. Petersburg. On the American side, the aid effort was spearheaded by the "Harvard boys," who were led by Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs had similarly close connections to officials in high places in Washington, the World Bank, and U.S. A.I.D.
Wedel is particularly critical of the "great grab" of state assets fostered by this relation, and rightly so—more so because (as earlier in his Latin American adventures) Sachs's promises of quick adjustment and all-encompassing change not only failed to materialize but also made matters worse for most people. As the period of adjustment was ushered in, donors were able to establish more stable relationships, particularly when aid was focused on the type of small- and medium-size industries Poles called biznes, whether they were privatized state enterprises or small new private businesses.
Wedel's book is not a tirade against capitalism. In each chapter Wedel dissects the consequences of collision and collusion while at the same time offering lessons learned and potential alternatives:
Wedel constructs guidelines for establishing better connections and more successful relationships between donors and recipients and offers advice to Central and Eastern European experts on how to review the records of consultants; she explains how to recognize entrenched practices that cannot be amended and describes the kinds of NGOs that might more genuinely contribute to strengthening democracy; and she shares in-sights ranging from state conditions favorable to effective use of aid to savvy adaptation to local conditions to overcome the cultural ignorance of donors.
Towards the end Wedel introduces the promising concept of "transidentity capabilities," (p. 191) such as those shown by the Harvard-Chubais partnership whose members drew on the identity of either side (donor or recipient) and played interchangeable roles. These "trans-actors," (p. 192) to be sure, will be part of capitalist globalization in the years to come; and anthropologists must start paying closer attention to emergent transidentities (both dominators and resisters!) that are now part and parcel of the landscape of our so-called globalized world. Wedel's fine study is a step in this direction.