Over a decade ago, I decided to write a novel about “development.” The decision came about partly because I have always been a secret scribbler of odd bits and pieces – short stories and narratives of events that have engaged me in ways that social science doesn’t quite work for. But particularly because the story behind the novel presented itself to me unbidden in a country where I have worked and lived and that is very close to my heart. That country is Bangladesh and the story which came to haunt me is one of good development intentions gone disastrously wrong.

The Inheritance Powder

In the 1970s, and following a very successful programme to construct deep tubewells for irrigation to increase agricultural production, international agencies turned their attention to using this technology to provide clean drinking water for the rural population. The pumps were adapted for domestic use and from the 70s onwards, millions of wells were dug. Rural people soon adapted to this new technology and stopped drinking bacterially contaminated surface water. The availability of groundwater from tubewells was a major contributor to the rapid decline in morbidity and mortality due to diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases, especially among children.

But over the decades it became clear that there was something deadly in this water. The first reports had come from over the border in India in the 1980s, where tubewells were also common. That something turned out to be arsenic – naturally occurring in many deltaic regions and liberated from under the layers of sediment by the action of constructing a deep bore well. As infant mortality rates were tumbling, millions of people were being slowly poisoned by some of the highest arsenic levels ever recorded in drinking water. While various mitigation measures exist, the scale of the problem has so far defeated a comprehensive solution. Estimates are that 50-80 million people are affected by what has been called the world’s worst mass chemical poisoning.

It is a terrible story which raises many questions about the project that we call development. Where does accountability for this disaster lie? Could it have been foreseen? Which actors and agencies should take responsibility for resolving it? There are many sober, well-researched accounts of the arsenic situation in Bangladesh. I wanted to tell it differently, to explore these troubling questions through the prism of individual lives, to imagine how characters caught up in this situation in different ways might respond.

It is these individual and interconnected stories that I tell in my novel The Inheritance Powder. The novel is told from the alternating viewpoints of a visiting British consultant working for a European development agency that wants a grand plan for dealing with arsenic, and a Bangladeshi woman leader of a grass-roots organisation that is working to develop local solutions. Their subsequent emotional entanglement throws into painful relief the dilemmas and compromises inherent in their relationship as a consequence of their very different positions in the world of development.

Why write fiction about development?

In ‘The fiction of development: knowledge, authority and representation,’ (LSE International Development Working Papers, Vol. 5, no.60, 2005), David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock wrote one of the first scholarly articles to argue for the value of fiction as an important form of development knowledge. Fiction, they suggest, can sometimes give us a “better” representation of development realities. In exploring the private and informal worlds of people and institutions and giving voice to the experiences and emotions of those who often go unheard, it reveals the complexities that are so often glossed over or selected out of academic accounts.

Further, they point out, “development” fiction also reaches a wider audience and thus can have more influence than any number of peer reviewed journal articles. One only has to think of the major novels produced by African, Asian and Latin American writers in the late colonial and post-colonial worlds to acknowledge the truth of both of these arguments.

Since that important article, there has been even more of a “turn” towards writing about development in ways that increasingly blur the boundaries between forms and styles of writing. The epistemologies of feminism and participatory approaches, grounded as they are in debates about subjectivity and positionality, have encouraged greater self-reflection and reflexivity as well as the use of story and testimony. In their vividness, some ethnographic accounts can feel like the narratives of fiction. And within the increasingly porous borders of fiction, memoirs and “life writing” genres can feel much like some types of development writing produced by social scientists.

But there are necessary differences too. The ‘freedom of fabrication’ noted by Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock is not primarily to provide a “better” reflection of the world than the social scientist. Through its concern with emotional truths and truths of the imaginary, fiction amplifies the interpretational possibilities. By unfettering us from the literal and empirical, it allows the imagination to roam through places that we may think we know until that familiarity is upended by a different narrative.  In its exploration of character and motivation, fiction invites us into our own interior worlds, into our dreams and desires, our secret fears and personal failures.  And fiction is not bound by the conventions of fairness. It is not required to meet the canon of “balanced reporting.” The best characters are always the flawed ones, the anti-heroes, the ones whose lives veer off-course in unexpected ways. Fiction thrives on contrariness.

Most importantly, fiction is about enjoyment – of compelling narrative and good writing. Given the number of excellent academic writers there are in this field, it is surprising how few contemporary “development” novels have been written. I hope other development practitioners will take note and allow their creative imaginations an outing.

Hilary Standing’s novel The Inheritance Powder was published by RedDoor Publishing on 8th October 2015

ISBN-10: 1910453145

ISBN-13: 978-1910453148

It can be purchased from the IDS bookshop, and ordered from any UK bookshop or worldwide through most online retailers.

Stream or download the podcast from the book launch: