Special Section: Political ecology of professional practice: plurality and possibilities in environmental governance, edited by Sam Staddon, Floriane Clement and Bimbika Sijapati Basnett

'I was like a one-man band': the theory and practice of national development experts' work at the messy-middle



Despite their importance to project outcomes, the work of individuals who occupy the meso-level of international development projects at the interfaces between an ever-growing number of actor groups is often poorly reflected on. Using four typically disparate bodies of literature (brokers and translators, street level bureaucracy, policy entrepreneurs, and institutional bricolage), I analyze how the work of national development experts (NDEs) at the meso-level influences how project intentions become social realities that reshape local lives. Normative and personal-professional motivations underpin NDEs' work at the messy-middle, encouraging them to work in a 'bottom-up' manner and to formally and informally create room for maneuver for all actors involved, drawing on relational skills and negotiating and utilizing multiple aspects of their individual identities. NDEs also work through conscious institutional bricolage, which they try to manage formally through contracts and informally through relationship-building, to integrate the project with the social environments in which it is being implemented. The analysis helps address key questions in existing meso-level actor literatures. It also shows that understanding meso-level work can facilitate improved understandings of how development projects move from intentions to social effects, which is a key concern for political ecology. I conclude by proposing that critical reflection could be a suitable methodology for assessing meso-level practice as it allows meso-level work to be discussed and learnt from without fully removing the spaces of informality and discretion that are vital to its success.

Keywords: Development projects, Meso-level actors, Bricoleurs, Facilitators, National development experts

How to Cite: Covey, J. (2023) “'I was like a one-man band': the theory and practice of national development experts' work at the messy-middle”, Journal of Political Ecology. 30(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.3046