Navigating fields

Maira Hayat

Navigating Fields

The Orrin travel grant enabled me to attend the Stockholm International Water Institute’s World Water Week (WWW), held in Stockholm from August 23rd – 28th, 2015. This was my first time attending the WWW – it was and is a challenge to see how such fora link with my other field site/s. It was to better understand this challenge – why it is so, what it signifies, why am I perceiving a huge gap between sites such as the WWW and the irrigation offices in rural Punjab when most of the reform projects in the latter are funded by organizations that organize the WWW – that I applied for funding to attend the WWW. The major part of my dissertation fieldwork is in Pakistan’s Punjab. My dissertation is tentatively titled, Ecologies of Water Governance: the Colony, the Corporation, and the Contemporary. It is to understand how ‘the global’ and ‘the local’ come to be constituted and recognized as such – the politics of scale making – that I decided to attend the WWW. (Attempts at) Multi-sited ethnographies often flounder for lack of funds, so I was fortunate to be able to attend the forum.

The WWW was an opportunity to see how the private, development and government sectors engage with each other in the water sector. I attended panels jointly organized by corporations such as Unilever, PepsiCo and Nestle, UN agencies such as UNDP, and government representatives from multiple countries, as well as representatives from the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, JICA etecetra. The WWW also showed how underrepresented anthropology is at what is described as the largest ‘water gathering’ of the year – what other fora, and are they better, are there for those interested in an anthropology actively engaged in public policy and administration?

The entire tenor of the WWW was built around the upcoming UN General Assembly session that would inaugurate the SDGs, and bring the MDGs to a close. Several themes became apparent during the week: one, for instance, was the fascination with ‘the field’ and ‘the farmers’. This was particularly interesting for me as my field sites in Pakistan are (mostly) the realm of middle/upper class farmers/landowners. It made me think about the diversities/discrepancies in land tenure systems across the world and how unsatisfactory a blanket reference to ‘the farmer’ is.

Another set of interesting conversations centered around data collection and ‘taking [projects] to scale’. The field and experiences in the field were used as bases for crafting ‘best practices’ and ‘taking to scale’. I heard repeatedly, “you can not manage what you do not measure” (the first time I read this was in David Lilienthal’s journals 1959). As one development practitioner said to me after hearing about my work, “fascinating – but I need numbers before I can take you seriously.” There was a time when I would dismiss such interlocutors. But perhaps given their sheer numbers, or the authority they command especially in policy circles, I am beginning to think, perhaps, that the space for conversation opens up after recognizing this near-ubiquitous ‘trust in numbers’.

Maira Hayat is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology.