Rwanda © Inge Tvedten

Commissioned Anthropology

The account of the history and current position/role of anthropology has effectively been co-opted by academics, at the expense of the many anthropologists who “choose instead to practise anthropology along career paths outside of academia: for example, in public service, NGOs or commercial organisations” (MacClansey 2017). One of the main employment arenas of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge – at least in the Nordic countries – has been in development and aid in the form of commissioned research and evaluations.

Academic anthropology has taken a very critical stand on development and aid along the past few decades (Escobar 1991; Edelman and Haugerud 2005; Crewe and Axelby 2013). The scholarly attention has mainly focused on the deconstruction of the global aid architecture and critique of the approaches and methods of aid interventions and their evaluations (Mosse 2005; Harrison 2015). Most applied anthropologists/practitioners of aid, on the other hand, argue that there is space for qualitative/anthropological insights and they want to contribute towards making development interventions as successful as possible.

For some of us, working as applied anthropologists and consultants is a matter of “political” choice and well within the confines of anthropology. The politics does not refer to the research process as such, which must adhere to normal academic standards, but to the choice of projects and the nature of dissemination of their findings. Doing commissioned work and consultancies entails an opportunity to target research findings at institutions and people who can make a difference – in government, among donors and in communities.

In some ways, applied anthropologists turn the “moral imperative” around: In a world of poverty and injustice anthropology has a unique contribution to make and there is room for such a contribution in development and aid.More anthropologists should aim to move out of their ivory towers – at least temporarily – in order to reach decision-makers and have a real impact rather than only write for the anthropological congregation.

I have myself combined academic work with commissioned research and consultancies for decades. An example of the former is the project ‘Reality Checks Mozambique’ carried out for Sweden in order to inform their development work in the country over a five-year period between 2011-2016 (Tvedten et al. 2016). An example of the latter is an evaluation of a Swedish higher education program in Rwanda, aimed at institutional development, research capacity building and broader impact of research at the University of Rwanda (Tvedten et al. 2018).

In 2010, Sweden commissioned a series of Reality Check studies (2011-2015) in the remote Mozambican province of Niassa. The explicit objective was to use anthropological/qualitative approaches and methods to monitor and evaluate development interventions done by the Government, Sida and other donors in agriculture, governance and private sector development ”from below” with a focus on poverty and gender.

A team of three senior researchers and six research assistants carried out the studies in three project sites, with fieldwork of three weeks per year in each site. The studies were based on a combination of official quantitative information; baseline and end line surveys; participant observation/household immersion; and a set of qualitative/participatory methodologies including wealth ranking. A key finding was the social marginalisation and exclusion of the very poorest from the development interventions, which made it necessary with alternative and targeted project components.

Three issues separate this project from a conventional academic anthropological study on poverty. One is the fact that it is commissioned, with Terms of Reference indicating a set of objectives, evaluation, research questions and deliverables. While this restricts “academic freedom” (which of course also has its own conventions), most progressive donors (including Sweden/Sida) are open to and appreciate academically based alternative approaches and points of view.

The second deviation is related to methodology. The limited time at disposal makes it necessary to develop alternative approaches, in this case combining qualitative/ participatory work with survey data. Qualitative approaches are key to understand the impact of interventions on the dynamics of poverty and well-being, but quantitative data are necessary to assess possible changes in consumption-based poverty over space and time.

A third and final difference lies is in style of writing and modes of dissemination. With a non-academic (development stakeholders) and often illiterate (target population) audience, the normal academic channels of publication and jargon will not do. The writing must be accessible in form and content, and be supplemented by workshops, briefs, community radio, local exhibitions/performances etc. in order to reach the target groups.

The purpose of the evaluation of Swedish support to the University of Rwanda was – according to its Terms of Reference – to “analyse, assess, generate knowledge and provide lessons” for the ongoing and possible future project periods with reference to the standard OECD/DAC evaluation criteria of relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability.

The programme is implemented in partnership between the University of Rwanda and its seven colleges and 12 Swedish universities. It includes PhD training, Master’s training, development of curricula, joint research projects and institutional capacity building. The overall objective of the UR-Sweden programme is to “Increase production and use of scientific knowledge of international quality at the UR that contributes to the development of Rwanda”.

Against this background, the evaluation is embedded in a context analysis of the political economy as well as higher education and research in Rwanda. It goes beyond studying outputs (such as number of PhD graduates, publications, citations etc. even though this is also done) to assess results at outcome and impact levels with focus on changes in research capacity and contributions to better policy making and improved products or services by the private sector and civil society organisations in Rwanda.

The evaluation uses a mixed method approach: document and programme data review including bibliometric information; semi-structured interviews with relevant UR/programme and external stakeholders; case-studies of specific research projects and their impact; and a tracer study of PhD graduates from the programme. Fieldwork was carried out over a period of two weeks, and involved four team members including from Rwanda.

In line with recent international trends (IDRC 2016), the evaluation gives special attention to defining and assessing the impact or benefit of research cooperation to society. This was found still to be inadequate. One of the main recommendations to accomplish this – related to UR’s decision to focus its research on a set of ten interdisciplinary research clusters – was to include a social science component in all of them including those dominated by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Both evaluation projects presented above relate to central anthropological issues such as the relation between structure and agency, the dynamics of social change and the impact of external interventions. For anthropologists doing this kind of work, there is a trade-off between the limitations inherent in being “commissioned” and the possibility to have influence on real peoples’ lives.

It should matter that the consultant doing commissioned work and evaluations is an anthropologist. Good applied work and consultancy must adhere to normal academic standards – but not to academic publications as genre as readers are less interested in for instance elaborations of theories and methods than they are in the research findings about impact.

The anthropologist as consultant should bring in academic insights and communicate those in a way that both the and target population can relate to; bring in new locally based perspectives; challenge the client by being explicit at critical points; and give clear recommendations that are manageable as points of departure for action.

In order to generate knowledge within the time frame and scope set by the funding agencies, the anthropologist/consultant needs to use innovative methodologies which can capture relevant issues over a short time frame. Also, in order to communicate well with policy makers and reach key decisions-makers, anthropologists need to adapt their style of writing and modes of research dissemination and publish in creative and innovative ways.

Commissioned work and consultancies are interesting and challenging. The extent to which they actually have an impact on the lives of the poor or other target groups depends on the ability to position ourselves as anthropologists in relation to central development actors and decision-makers and make anthropology relevant.


Crewe, Emma, and Richard Axelby. 2013. Anthropology and development. Culture, Morality and Poltics in a Globalised World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edelman, Marc, and Angelique Haugerud. 2005. “Introduction: The anthropology of development globalization.” In The anthropology of development and globalization, edited by Marc Edelman and Angelique Haugerud. Malden: Blackwell.

Escobar, Arturo. 1991. “Anthropology and the development encounter: The making and marketing of development anthropology.” American Anthropologist 18(4): 658-682.

IDRC (2016). A Holistic Approach to Evaluating Research. Ottawa, Canada: International development Research Centre.

Lewis, David. 2005. “Antropology and development: the uneasy relationship.” In A handbook of economic anthropology, 472-86. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

MacClansey, Jeremy. 2017. “Transcending the academic/public divide in the transmission of theory: Raglan, diffusionism, and mid-century anthropology.” History and Anthropology 28(2): 235-253.

Moss, David. 2011. Adventures in Aidland. The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. New York and london: Berghanh Books.

Tvedten, Inge, Minna Tuominnen and Carmeliza Rosário (2016). Reality Checks Mozambique. Final Report 2011-2015. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Tvedten, Inge et al. (2018). “Evaluation of the Sida supported research capacity and higher education development program in Rwanda, 2013-2017”. Sida Decentralised Evaluations [2018:1]. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Agency

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