The Cost-Benefit Analysis Dilemma
Strategies and Alternatives

by The Corner House

first published 10 October 1999


Decision-makers around the world use cost-benefit analysis to make decisions about whether to build dams, roads and airports; what actions to take over global warming, biodiversity loss and soil erosion; what health care and occupational safety policies to adopt; how to determine damages for oil spills or toxic leaks; how to regulate pesticide use or dispose of radioactive waste; whether to modify automobile design to save lives; and so forth.

Grassroots opponents of roads and hydroelectric dams around the world have persistently contested the ways CBA values land, forests, streams, fisheries and livelihoods, as well as its reliance on unaccountable experts, its neglect of equity issues, and its incompatibility with many forms of reasoned negotiation.



Cost-benefit analysis is often advertised as a device for clarifying, rationalizing, and simplifying societal choices and avoiding social conflict. The experience of several decades demonstates, however, that the more widely it is used, the less credibility it tends to enjoy and the more conflict tends to be created.

On the one hand, the technique has been enlisted by decision-makers around the world as a way of justifying or scrutinizing choices about whether to build dams, roads, and airports; what actions to take over global warming, biodiversity loss, or soil erosion; what health care and occupational safety policies to adopt; how to determine damages for oil spills or toxic leaks; whether to undertake family planning programs; how to regulate pesticide use or dispose of radioactive waste; whether to modify automobile design to save lives; how to use military lands; and so forth. Entrenched in bureaucratic "common sense" and used by international lending institutions and aid agencies, CBA is likely to be applied even more widely in the 21st century.

At the same time, however, cost-benefit analysis faces growing resistance at a variety of levels. Grassroots opponents of roads and hydroelectric dams around the world have persistently contested the ways the technique values land, forests, streams, fisheries and livelihoods, as well as its reliance on unaccountable experts, its neglect of equity issues, and its incompatibility with many forms of reasoned negotiation. Ordinary people surveyed by cost-benefit analysts have commonly refused to answer questions about how much money they would pay to save a wilderness or how much they would accept to allow it to be destroyed. Engaged intellectuals have argued that the technique does not clarify but rather obscures rational deliberative processes involving plural values, faces intractable difficulties regarding predictability, discount rates, and opportunity costs, and is based on a deeply controversial political theory.

The conference "The Cost-Benefit Analysis Dilemma: Strategies and Alternatives" brought together diverse progressive groups to think and strategize about how to deal with cost-benefit analysis as a social and political problem. Sponsored by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, with additional financial support from The Netherlands foundations NOVIB and HIVOS, the meeting was co-organized by the British non-governmental organization The Corner House. Its purpose was to give activists and intellectuals critical of CBA an opportunity to begin building an information-sharing community with others from whom they may have hitherto been isolated -- a community which can gain a better understanding of the nature of the conflicts which CBA creates, reflect on campaign lessons, cope better with the political challenges posed by CBA, and promote less conflict-ridden decision-making practices. This summary of what happened at the conference is one contribution toward that goal.

II. Putting Cost-Benefit Analysis In Perspective

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA), Larry Lohmann reiterated in introducing the conference, has become a subject not only for bureaucrats, economists and environmentalists, but also for displaced peoples, historians, labor and health activists, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists. Over the two and a half days of the conference, conference participants agreed that no one analyzing or taking other actions with respect to cost-benefit analysis could afford to ignore its larger contexts, including economic development and local, national and international politics. Ralitza Panayotova spoke for many participants when she said that CBA was only one part of a bigger set of structures in which "corporate power and special economic interests are paramount", which is, "at the end of the day, what we are fighting". Throughout the conference, participants discussed CBA not in theoretical isolation, but rather in relation to a varied set of concrete issues ranging from monoculture to hydroelectric dams and from the Social Science Citation Index to globalization.

CBA's exact role and importance in these contexts, however, was a matter for much discussion.

Market Norms and Commons

John O'Neill saw CBA as one part of the extension of commercial norms into new spheres described by Karl Polanyi.1 In O'Neill's view, it is this expansion -- the attempt to "bring environmental goods into the market" by constructing prices for them, but also, more importantly, the expansion of private property rights -- which is the origin of environmental problems. Vijay Paranjpye and Stephen Gudeman lent this idea concreteness by noting that CBA, because it assumes individual private property rights, was biased against the idea of commons, which have no identified private ownership and which are not "reachable through the notion of efficiency". "With common property, CBA cannot be used," said Paranjpye. "I have no knowledge of projects in India in which CBA led to the protection of natural resources or rights of the commons of displaced people." Talking about commons, noted Gudeman, was a "very good door to a critique of CBA". Joji Carino, citing a phrase of Ivan Illich's, connected the conference topic to the "war against subsistence".2

An Escape from Politics?

Theodore Porter put CBA in the context of its historical development in the US in the earlier 20th century, seeing it largely as a way of dealing with interagency conflicts over water projects. "Cost-benefit analysis is the paradoxical outcome of a political drive to escape politics," Porter said. Peter Dorman extended Porter's analysis into the future, speculating that CBA was likely to find a "small but useful" role in the schemes of political and economic elites bent on finding a way to "govern without politics" in a globalized neoliberal regime. This regime, he explained, is characterized by growing market competition among countries and within corporations and other organizations. Through this competition, "one part of the world is permanently in debt and running trade surpluses while the Northern countries are trying to gouge each other so that through North-North trade they can offset these trade deficits with the South". William Fisher pointed out that the attempt to turn politics into technique was an adaptation long adopted by development agencies, as had been explored by James Ferguson.3 Alex Wilks noted that the World Bank's promotion of "governance without politics" through CBA was strikingly evident in the World Development Report of 1997. The Report contained a proposal for a typology of expected costs and benefits for various interest groups of reforms such as pension privatization. The point was to come up with a "tactical sequencing of reform" which bypassed the need for public discussion.

Paradoxical Results

Theodore Porter suggested that in the earlier 20th century in the US, CBA was developed as a "body of expertise whose object it was to cancel out expertise in the name of transparent, rational rules". While this move was a natural result of conflict in a society in which bureaucratic fiat could be democratically challenged, the effort was fraught with contradictions from the start. As Wendy Espeland explained, "quantification is often imposed on those who must be accountable to broader publics" and "resisted by elites whose decisions have up to now been protected from public scrutiny". Yet, at the same time, quantification "hides as well as constrains discretion":

"It is a strategy of inclusion that privileges some forms of expertise at the expense of others. Those who perform the commensurating, those who fix the terms of what is being disaggregated and integrated, and those who evaluate the technical adequacy of it, do so at the expense of local, practical knowledge... Commensuration alters relations of authority in profound ways [both by creating new things and] by excluding other things."

James Scott underlined one of the contradictions when he remarked that a technique such as CBA which is "opaque to 99.9 per cent of the population" has limited claims to transparency. This point was supported by Alex Wilks, who related the tribulations of non-government organizations (NGOs) in Chad who recently had to come to terms with 19 volumes of impact assessment in English, with no effort at translation or discussion. Mishka Zaman noted the extreme difficulty of helping ordinary people in Pakistan who don't speak English to understand such assessments and the institutions which produce them, to lobby for their rights, and to get access to information. Other participants warned that the claim that CBA is "transparent" could be used to lure activists down the risky path of asking that their concerns be "included" in CBA processes.

Scott went on to stress how reliance on a supposedly objective, impartial, "politics-free" way of making decisions can also lead to corrupt forms of politics. One example was the use, in academic tenure decisions in the US, of the numbers of citations a faculty member's articles had received in other Anglo-American journal articles as a measure of academic excellence. All citations count equally, including self-citations, as long as they appear in journals within one's own academic discipline, no matter how sparsely read. One result is cabals of academics conspiring to cite each other as often as possible. Interest in writing something that might be cited outside the field, or in books, is meanwhile stifled. John Adams and others pointed out other examples of the paradoxical results of "auditable systems" winning out over "unauditable" ones. For example, the use of British surgeons' "success" rates as indicators of probable future outcomes means that the best surgeons are likely to be given the most difficult cases, thereby reducing their success rate. Conversely, incentives emerge for senior surgeons to fob difficult cases off onto juniors less able to object.

The Effect on Economics

Martin O'Connor contended that the "political drive to escape politics" mentioned by Porter and Dorman had pushed the academic discipline of economics itself, including the practice of CBA, toward incoherence. He noted that valuation of (say) a forest depends on who is allocated property rights:

"Imagine an island where there are two groups at war with each other. There are two resources, one called 'forests' and one called 'minerals'. The forests can be kept and used to sling hammocks under, which some groups like, or chopped down and turned into BMW cars by processes of genetic engineering. The cars can then be driven around in the spaces where the forests used to be, which is what other groups like to do. What is the highest value use of the forests? It's obvious to anybody without any economics training that the answer depends on who has the property rights. If you give the property rights to the hammock-lovers, then it is provable by second-year economics techniques that the 'highest-value' use of the forest is to preserve them to put hammocks under. If you give the property rights to BMW lovers, then the 'highest-value' use of the forests is to chop them down and transform them into BMWs."

Similarly, as John Adams observed, the result of a contingent valuation survey will depend on who is regarded as the interested survey population. Similarly, the attitude toward a request to pay for a non-smoking space on a train will depend on who is understood to have rights to use the air.

Yet if different factions disagree about property rights, O'Connor continued, ways of solving the distributional problem have to be found. Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow4 had found that, given certain basic criteria for general principles of social choice, not all reasonable principles for deciding how much is owned by whom could be simultaneously satisfied. In response, however, economists had generally failed to draw the moral that economics should try to help resolve conflicts without trying to come up with a definite algorithm for rule-based arbitrage between these principles (or an axiomatization of the social choice problem). That is, they had failed to acknowledge the necessity of discussion, deliberation, reciprocal translation and dialectic in the presence of a legitimate and (generally) irreducible coexistence of a plurality of evaluation or justification principles. Instead, they had retreated into saying that because distribution is "political" (or "not best addressed through project investments", to use the words of British economist and CBA expert David Pearce), they would "confine themselves" to issues of efficiency.

This was, O'Connor stated, an "incoherent position" since it "drew the conclusion from the fact of nonexistence of a rule for solving a distribution problem that economics could be done on the assumption that the problem doesn't exist." In taking this tack, economists were arguably avoiding their responsibilities as intellectuals and good citizens.

Peter Soderbaum agreed that CBA was "not compatible with dominant ideas of democracy" in that it denied, falsely, its own value-laden nature. In particular, CBA denied that its view of humans as consumers, social organizations as producers, and ecosystems as commodifiable, fungible and tradable, was only one ideology among many. This can be seen in, for example, the way that the cost-benefit analyst's engagement with interested parties in a complex conflict is limited to questionnaires without "open" questions. Unlike "good science", Soderbaum said, CBA was thus "ideologically closed".

Several academic economists present at the conference, however, strove to set up an opposition between CBA, properly conducted, and "political behavior". Robert Mendelsohn insisted that "the problem is not CBA, but that there's not enough of it":

"The political process has created what you see today -- not CBA. CBA was created as a technique to show that the emperor has no clothes. But the problem is that the method has been captured by the emperor's friends."

"I don't conclude that the fundamental principles of benefit-cost analysis are screwing things up," agreed Robert Evenson. "I do conclude that it could be extended, elaborated tremendously. If you don't do it, then you go back to good old political bargaining without it, and it isn't clear that that's better." CBA was not necessarily the "ultimate" or the only workable method for handling very difficult problems such as those involving ancestral land rights, Evenson conceded, but in these cases law could be relied to step in to resolve conflicts. Mishka Zaman retorted that it was no good pretending that the legal system would resolve difficult issues for CBA "in a country in which the legal system does not protect minorities". Edward Chu concurred with Evenson, contending that CBA was a tool separate from the "political and legal process". The US Environmental Protection Agency, Chu said, was required by law to consider the costs and benefits of all major regulations. Decision-makers, "who are political appointees", then go on to make choices based not only on CBA but on the public interest, political, legal and environmental justice considerations, enforceability, and technical and institutional feasibility.

CBA: Distillation of Rationality, Smokescreen for Politics, or Neither?

Several activists at the meeting shared Evenson's, Mendelsohn's and Chu's view that CBA could be divided off sharply from politics and law and was a less than dominant influence on current political decision-making. They differed with the three economists, however, in seeing CBA not as a potential competitor with undemocratic, irrational or corrupt politics, but as a rhetorical device for concealing it. The moral they drew was not that CBA's role should be increased, but that it was critical to come to grips with the politics that lay "behind" various CBAs.

Thus Dave Hubbel claimed that "it is not CBA, but the overall economic development model, which is being rejected by local communities in the Mekong region in their struggles over development projects" and over compensation for past disasters. Singling out CBA for criticism, Hubbel suggested, is a little like fretting about the destruction wrought by a single virus particle during a flu epidemic. "CBA is not by itself a dragon, or it's a very small dragon if it is," agreed David Barnhizer. "The reality is that most decision-makers and policy-makers do not use it unless it fits into their pre-ordained agenda." The danger in the US, for instance, is not "data-filled, almost-useless CB studies", Barnhizer went on, but that "very conservative Republicans" who "want to prevent change are using the rhetoric of CBA and science (which has, ironically, gained prominence partly because of environmental pressures) to get their aim".

Many participants, however, differed with what Theodore Porter called two "extreme positions": first, that CBA was either "practically synonymous with rationality, a generalizable basis for decisions of all kinds" or, second, that it was "merely a smokescreen, behind which goes on, as before, the unscrupulous politics of power and wealth. As a question of theory and practice," Porter insisted, "it is much more interesting and complex."

The point was not that CBA could not be molded in different ways to advance vested interests; it usually was. Porter himself related, for example, how earlier in this century, "economic analysis was not really what drove planning" in US dam-building agencies. Rather, "engineers sought out promising dam sites, based first on geographical and political considerations, and then worried about the economic justification. So long as the politics was decisively on their side, nobody was likely to scrutinize their cost-benefit numbers". In "several unmistakable cases from the 1940s and 1950s," "very low benefit-cost ratios were somehow raised to 1.02 or 1.10 so as to contain potential floods of political criticism from project supporters". A contemporary parallel, cited by Ralitza Panayotova, was the use of CBA by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in a project to upgrade two nuclear power plants in the Ukraine. When one CBA, performed by an independent team, returned a negative result, the Bank simply commissioned another one from a new team. Hemantha Withanage also described how two analyses of the same project using different methods may come to contradictory recommendations.

Nor was the point that CBA was more important politically than general patterns of development and allocation of property rights. As William Fisher pointed out, the fundamental battle on Martin O'Connor's imaginary island was likely to be over property rights before it was over CBA. Suppose, for example, the government owned all the property rights to the forest and legally declared the forest dwellers to be "encroachers" or squatters on government land. Suppose further that there were more potential BMW drivers (and voters) in the one town on the island than there were hammock loungers in the forest. We would then "not expect the rights of forest dwellers to be long observed. Hammock loungers are, after all, a notorious drag on a measurable economy." Fisher summed up the sentiments of most participants when he observed that "CBA alone is not the problem, nor 'fixing' CBA the solution".

The point, however, was that CBA was not merely a thin camouflage for "real politics". Rather, it was itself (in the words of Wendy Espeland) a "political and moral phenomenon", an apt instance of the political thrust of neoclassical economics generally, and a deep influence in its own right on law, administration, policy, and scientific practice. The idea that CBA could take politics out of decision- making, Anthony Oliver-Smith insisted, was a "scam". CBA, many participants added, was implicated widely in the informal linguistic and other practices through which power was constituted and exercised. Helping to shape "common sense" and normality in Western societies and among professional classes elsewhere, it also provoked its own characteristic forms of resistance.

Thus, in vivid contrast to Hubbel, Wendy Espeland described how CBA had been directly resisted at the grassroots. In a wide-ranging presentation, she pointed out that CBA's attempt to make "sound decisionmaking as straightforward as selecting the biggest number" could lead to popular opposition because it creates "new objects, categories and relationships" and makes others disappear. In one such case, CBA had provoked resistance among the Yavapai ethnic group in the Southwestern US. A new generation of technocrats in a government water development agency conducting a CBA on a proposed dam had attempted to commensurate (or compare quantitatively on the same yardstick) Yavapai land with other land, and with money. This, Espeland explained, ran counter to the Yavapai's sense that their land was sacred and not like other land being offered them, and thus challenged their core identity. They resisted translation of their concerns into the language of neoclassical economics: "Our way of life will be destroyed. Why don't you just say that?" Making Yavapai organizationally relevant through CBA, in other words, proved antithetical to Yavapai self-understanding. The Yavapai example revolved around what Joseph Raz5 calls "constitutive incommensurability": the existence of certain relations and commitments which are constituted and expressed by the refusal to put a price on them.

Yavapai strategy in this instance was not to do a new and improved CBA, since that would not solve the problem, but rather to "put back the history" and the moral implications into the discussion through protest. Here, Espeland noted, the Yavapai took advantage of, among other things, two requirements mandated by the US's National Environmental Protection Act: that all alternatives to a project be considered, and that public participation be a part of decision-making. In order to gain support for their point that CBA-style thinking was itself a problem, Yavapai activists often employed analogies, asking their interlocutors, for example, "how much money would you accept for your children?"

Anthony Oliver-Smith added that while communities' rejection of dams may not necessarily "address CBA as a recognized category", such communities also "fully understand the distortions that it produces in the way development is oriented". John Adams noted other instances in Western societies of opposition to the universally-commensurating aspect of CBA. For example, a jury had expressed its disgust at the Ford Motor Company's decision that the costs of fixing the dangerous gas tank placement on its Pinto model numerically outweighed the benefits in saved human lives.

John O'Neill cited further examples illustrating popular resistance to commensuration. One was from Herodotus's Histories:

"When Darius was king of the Persian Empire he summoned the Greeks and asked them how much money they would take to eat the corpses of their fathers. They responded that they would not do it for any price. When Darius summoned some Indians called Kallatai, who do eat their parents, and asked them for what price they would agree to cremate their dead fathers, they cried out loudly and told him to keep still."

Darius was pursuing a rhetorical strategy of uncovering, not denying the existence of, constitutive incommensurabilities, O'Neill noted. Accordingly, he took seriously the answers he received. On the other hand, for today's cost-benefit analysts conducting a survey of how much people are "willing to accept" for the loss of something precious to them, the responses of the Greeks and the Kallatai would be evidence of irrationality and would have to be discarded. As Patrick McCULLY observed, for many development project economists, a "sensible" answer to a "contingent valuation" survey question is "one which allows a project to go forward". "If people say that they'd be willing to accept for their land 53 fish and five gods, that's not rational because it doesn't fit into the equation. Only perceived monetary land values are 'rational'." Similarly, John Adams pointed out, disgruntled survey subjects' assignment of "infinite value" to an environmental good tend to be discarded by economists rather than allowed to "blow up the analysis" -- just as the original satellite data indicating the existence of the Antarctic ozone hole were discarded by scientists as "errors" because the readings were off the scale of what was expected.

CBA's claim that price is a neutral measuring device, O'Neill concluded, is often resisted. Thus many rural dwellers on the Pevensey Levels in Britain interviewed by Jacquie Burgess6 were angry when cost-benefit analysts told them they had to have an answer for the question: "How much would you pay for a wildlife enhancement scheme?". "It's a totally disgusting idea, putting a price on nature," one said. "You can't put a price on the environment, what you've got to leave for your children's children. It's a heritage, not a form of capital," was the view of another. Similarly, Indian villagers near the Sardar Sarovar project asked rhetorically of state officials planning to move them to make way for a large dam: "Are you going to compensate us for our great river -- for her fish, her water, for vegetables that grow along her banks, for the joy of living beside her? What is the price of this? Our gods, the support of those who are our kin -- what price do you have for these?"7

O'Neill went on to note that CBA's liberal assumption that property rights are necessarily alienable and exchangeable was also contested by the same villagers, who asked pointedly, "How are you compensating us for fields? We didn't buy this land; our forefathers cleared it and settled here." CBA also runs into opposition where property rights are contested. For example, people who feel they have rights to land often dispute the idea that they should pay someone to stop polluting it. In addition, CBA's claim that the value of land reduces to the price people are willing to pay or accept for it discriminates against the poor, stirring further resentment.

A final source of resistance to CBA, O'Neill said, centers on its hostility to rational assessment of preferences. CBA treats scientific, aesthetic, moral, or political judgments as on a par with preferences for flavors of ice cream and is intolerant of discussion of how they might be backed up. It attempts to quantify strength of preferences without concerning itself with the strength of the reasons for those preferences. Peter Dorman noted in this connection that CBA's presuppositions fly in the face of the way people reason in ordinary life. Normally, Dorman said, the prospect of gain does not make a "wrong" act any better, and may even make it worse: "a contract murder can be more serious than a murder of passion." Yet in economic calculation gain is always a reason for doing something: if you profit from pollution, for instance, that automatically becomes a reason for not regulating -- a reason that one is then forced to supersede through tabulating "environmental benefits". Converting the "benefits" of a project pointed to by developers into cash, and averaging them together with "costs" specified by environmentalists, added John Adams, "completely obscures the underlying dispute about the nature of 'development' and 'environment'."

Stephen Gudeman shed further light on the problem of incommensurables and on resistance to CBA and other efficiency measures in economics. He related that he had often found it difficult to try to answer Western economists' questions about the "returns" or "profit margins" from Latin American farmers' fields. This was because the systems of devices for measuring land, labor and harvests which the farmers had evolved to organize their material life -- tins, baskets, parts of the human body as yardsticks, and so on -- were plural and not meant to be integrated. For example, the subsidy provided by domestic crops was "counted" using a plurality of homegrown measures, but not "accounted" using a cash measure. Rational decisions were constantly made which did not involve, even implicitly, comparing costs and benefits along a single, universally-applicable scale. To use CBA would not be merely to redescribe but also to assault this social reality.

Anthropologists, Gudeman continued, had learned to distinguish different "spheres of exchange". At any given time, trading might be sanctioned within each such sphere, but not between spheres. Not all things which belong to a single sphere in one society (e.g., women, fishhooks and canoes) would do so in another. Different such spheres existed in every society and were not "waiting around" to be integrated into the single sphere presupposed by CBA.

All measuring rods -- including those used for rates of exchange within any given sphere of exchange -- are the result of social innovation and are built up and applied through negotiation in particular practical contexts. For example, the point of learning to compare leafy trees, fans, air conditioning, houses, and working at night along the single scale of money is that these things all have market uses shared by the community of those who participate in that market. The resulting prices are not metaphysically "given" but are contingent social agreements reached by a particular community in the context of gain. By cutting short or obviating this social production of knowledge and values, CBA often amounts to a social and political effort to impose, without context, a model of a single community with ranked values. It is as if, as Steve Rayner noted, Consumer Reports magazine, instead of ranking CD players against other CD players and different brands of jam against each other, were to publish an issue ranking different kinds of CD player against different kinds of jam.

Peter Dorman refined this picture further by observing that the degree of "social agreement" embodied even in existing market prices is open to question. Modern industrial society is built on centuries of questionable pricing based on the "suppression of environmental costs," he said; labor, meanwhile, is "priced arbitrarily, depending on social customs and bargaining power". "On the evidence of this meeting," he concluded, "there are serious structural problems, and prices are part of, and derive from, these problems. Market prices are no less suspect than the invented or virtual prices that CBA often invokes. Putting even market prices into CBA is a mistake." Dorman was seconded by Peter Soderbaum, who noted that in the view of institutional economists such as John R. Commons and Yngve Ramstad,8 prices are not "objective facts and the result of mechanistic forces" determining resource allocation, as assumed by CBA, "but rather administered, a matter of ethical/ideological judgement", with many "correct" market prices being possible. Prices are thus open to question from, for example, a "fair trade" viewpoint, according to which the priority is not necessarily one of getting the lowest possible price of a good for the European consumer, but a price reasonable for all parties involved, including smallholders, local traders and other intermediaries.

Joan Martinez-Alier denounced as "pure propaganda" another ad hoc effort to force commensuration across categories: namely, the attempt to derive "genuine savings indicators" by subtracting depreciation of manufactured capital and depreciation of "natural capital" (a "totally magic number") from savings. This leads, he said, to the absurd result that Japan is the "most sustainable country" in the world. It also leads, he noted satirically, to the view that one can (for example) "compensate" for dams' destruction of fish migration routes with fish ladders, for the failures of fish ladders with "fish training programs" and investment in "fish social capital", and so on.

Martinez-Alier added that conventional economists are losing the battle to make the environment measurable in money terms. This battle, started by Pigou and Von Mises as early as the 1920s, is today visible in efforts to express the increasing number of ecological distribution conflicts in terms of "compensation", "resource substitution", "internalizing externalities" and the proper economic values for CBAs. (For example, "why was the money valuation of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska so much higher than that of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal?".) The battle is being lost "both because of the technical difficulties of the enterprise, and because poor people have no interest in an allocation of environmental impacts in actual or fictitious markets where their own health and livelihood will be cheaply valued":

"The economy is not 'dematerializing' either in proportion to GNP or absolute terms. On the contrary, there is an increasing conflict between economic growth and ecological sustainability. Hence social conflicts over access to natural resources or over the sharing of the burdens of pollution are increasing. The languages in which these ecological distribution conflicts are fought are often quite outside the economic sphere: the respect for sacredness, the urgency of livelihood, the dignity of human life, the demand for environmental security, the need for food security, the defence of cultural identity and indigenous territorial rights, the aesthetic value of landscapes, the injustice of exceeding one's own environmental space, the struggle against racism."

Chris Herman and Martin O'Connor added to this general line of criticism. Herman cited the case of a hydroelectric dam which had resulted in increased incidence of schistosomiasis among local people. The "most efficient" way of solving the problem, Herman recounted, turned out to be to move the people away from their homes. O'Connor observed that neoclassical economics had difficulty in distinguishing between two approaches to obesity: after-the-fact surgery to remove fat or prevention through a reasonable diet. Aubrey Meyer criticized the belief of Yale economist William Nordhaus that objections to wholesale commensuration could be dispelled if it were realized that it is possible to use yardsticks other than money -- for example, "spotted-owl equivalents" -- in the commensuration of alternatives. Meyer noted that during debates over action on global warming, many economists had claimed that the value of a statistical life of a Chinese citizen was worth only 1/15th of that of a North American. "If a spotted owl equals a spotted owl," Meyer asked, "why doesn't a human equal a human?"

In response to this discussion, several economists at the conference took up positions which implicitly denied both that commensuration was a social practice and that it could result in what Stephen Gudeman had called the conversion or loss of values. Robert Evenson asserted that the "value heterogeneity problem" could be "gotten around" through, for example, estimating the costs of subsistence or domestic crop production, or through costing time or health services. Robert Mendelsohn stated flatly that "observing market behavior" was a solution to the problem of uncommensurated goods. The problem with willingness-to-accept surveys, Mendelsohn added, was that there was a tendency for people "not to give honest answers" to them, unlike willingness-to-pay surveys. CBA, Mendelsohn insisted, "reveals all the assumptions being made about technical points and values". No evidence or argument was offered in support of these claims, stymieing efforts to carry the discussion forward. Peter Dorman and John Adams noted that such standoffs were a noteworthy and long-standing feature of debates over CBA. "Nothing of significance in the intellectual disagreement between the proponents and opponents of CBA has changed" in decades, Adams remarked. "Everything that the proponents and critics of CBA now have to say ... could have been written 30 years ago".

According to Majid Ezzati, another root of the difficulties CBA encounters is that it "can account for neither the social context of technology and household preferences nor the fundamental transformations that new technology introduces in household life". For example, "improved" ceramic stoves designed to reduce wood consumption and household smoke while still providing maximum heat for cooking did beautifully in a CBA, yet were a flop in Kenya compared to a locally-designed stove which sold 800,000 units. The problem was that the "improved" stoves took no account of (for example) the size of the pots people used locally or the fact that "efficiently" retaining heat for cooking became an obstacle when the stove also had to heat the house. Yet modifying the stoves to fit local needs defeated their "design purpose". For example, when large pieces of wood of the kind used with three-stone fires were used with the improved stoves, their emissions rose to levels comparable to that of open fires. A similar dilemma afflicted the Green Revolution, whose goal of maximizing yields failed to account for taste or other locally important crop characteristics.

CBA and Law

Theodore Porter and Wendy Espeland stressed that CBA is not wholly separate from law but, rather, has become "interwoven" with the legal system, which often "propels commensuration" and the invention of fictitous numbers at the same time that it also occasionally creates incommensurable categories like threatened and endangered species. John Wargo amplified this contention by noting that all US laws regulating pesticides, and those around the world that have copied them, "are fundamentally grounded in CBA," and that this, given the level of knowledge of risk required, was a "clear prescription for failure".

Averaging risks across very broad populations, spaces and times, Wargo explained, leads to a perception that they are "containable". The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, using data which are in themselves "lousy" and do not test for effects on cognition or memory, sets an "acceptable daily intake" for certain organophosphate pesticides. Yet many two-year-olds have intakes far above this level, and no law based on risk-benefit balancing would be able to push each such "spike" down to an acceptable level. "If you have a lousy, opaque image of risk at the same time you have a terrific, clear definition of benefits presented skilfully by the chemical industry, you can guarantee that the EPA or World Health Organization will say that the benefits are more 'obvious' and that the technology should therefore be released," Wargo said. "I am pessimistic about the capacity of this kind of law and its implementers even to understand the ways in which pollution and risk are distributed, let alone contain them down to a level we think is acceptable. We don't know what we're doing. Out of the 80,000-100,000 possibly toxic chemicals that have been released to the environment, only a couple of dozen have been prohibited in the last century."

Language and the Politics of Institutions

Michael Goldman led off a series of presentations which reinforced the message that where CBA begins and ends is seldom clear-cut. Goldman stressed how CBA operated through the social practices of professional classes involved in international development. As soon as the World Bank entered Laos, Goldman reported, it set up, together with Northern environmental NGOs, a discourse suggesting crises unfolding in the forests, on the rivers, and among the people (poverty). The formula was well-worn:

"This is one of the poorest countries in the world; GDP is x, debt is y, and ecological degradation is z due to slash and burn cultivation, hunting, illegal timber extraction, da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum".

This "crisis", the Bank continued, necessitated rapid deployment of both science and capital. Yet the data on the ground needed to set up the needed "instruments of calculation for deploying investment strategies" did not exist. Nor, was there time to collect it, given that (for example) for a biologist to understand fish migration in the region, 10 years of baseline data would be required. Thus crash programs were undertaken to assemble information which could be plugged into existing slots on "poverty", "environmental degradation" and so forth as quickly as possible. To borrow the words John Wargo used to describe CBA-based US pesticide regulation, incentives were now in place to "create knowledge that wasn't there". For example, on one project, anthropologists were dropped onto specially-cleared landing pads at remote sites by military helicopter, at a cost of US$1000 per day, to undertake their studies. After three weeks of rapid deployment, economists, biologists, engineers and anthropologists came together in a hotel to put the pieces together. Not surprisingly, their report carefully excluded any information that might delay the project, for example, that "new indigenous groups" had been found.

Cost-benefit thinking, Goldman explained, shapes such professional activities in several ways. For example, dams must be analyzed with an eye to determining "which are the six best out of 30 possible dams". Possible futures for Laos are immediately reduced to either "hydropower or timber", since these are the "only two 'natural capitals' to build on". Despite the paucity of data about the effects of dams on fisheries, or the role of fisheries in local life, experts are empowered to declare that "it comes down to one fish species vs. the development of all these poor people". As this discourse unfolds, property rights laws are rewritten to ensure that, for instance, one land mass will be used for timber export, another for rice, still another for "biodiversity". The people who live on this land are moved around accordingly. Linked to this web of power are not only debt but also the willingness of foreign investors to set up conservation or hydropower agencies.

Srisuwan Kuankachorn underlined the importance of the professional institutional networks Goldman had discussed in the circulation of knowledge and power. He noted that it was the British who established Thailand's Forestry Department in the 19th century. Following a CIA-aided coup, moreover, professional study trips by Thai officials to the US Tennessee Valley Authority and Yellowstone National Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s had been key influences on Thai resource policy. In fact, Srisuwan claimed, Thai development as a whole was decisively influenced by US scientific-economic knowledge, with both CBA and environmental assessment brought to Thailand by the World Bank. Grassroots movements demanding compensation for past development destruction or land or forest rights have yet to succeed in precipitating policy reform, he added. Alex Wilks noted that the networks Srisuwan described were today being elaborated ever more extensively. "The World Bank is now even training journalists and trade negotiating officials, opening websites, etc. The 'Knowledge Bank' and the 'Cash Bank' are coming together, using debt leverage and 'knowledge leverage' both." L. C. Jain complimented Srisuwan for calling attention to CBA's place in the political landscape, joking that "he can be assured that if CBA fails, CIA will not be far behind".

Mishka Zaman and Patrick McCully reiterated what they saw as the importance of never abstracting assessment techniques such as CBA from their real-life institutional contexts. "I've seen our bureaucrats pay lip service" to guidelines, safeguards and reforms promulgated by World Bank staff, Zaman said, "but at the end of the day they need that money":

"Once this process is completed all those reports are put to one side and they are not concerned about guidelines or conditionalities. I've seen that Bank staff and bureaucrats plan it in that way. They don't want their loans stuck. There is a certain feeling of collusion there."

"It doesn't really matter too much how good policies are," McCully agreed. "What is the accountability of the agencies involved?" For example, do any incentives exist for agencies involved in resettlement actually to negotiate with affected people? Or to stop the project if they don't give their consent? And if negotiation takes place, do the concerned agencies have the power to carry out the agreement?

Shalmali Guttal, picking up a theme earlier explored by Wendy Espeland, described how the language used by development experts, including cost-benefit analysts and those influenced by them, puts into shadow rural communities' knowledge and ways of life and functions to disempower them and exclude their thinking and experiences. It is, she said, like questionnaires which give a choice of a, b, c and "other", where "other" encompasses nearly everything important to the respondent.

"Stakeholder analysis", for instance, assumes that there are benefits and costs and that these can be divided up among discrete groups or individuals. The phrase "affected people" constructs people as passive losers, making them easier to victimize and target for "professional assistance". Defining a recipient country's "lack of capacity" in a certain way ensures that there will always be large roles for outside "experts" and "training". "Knowledge" becomes something gathered through helicopter surveys or displayed in exhibitions in seminar rooms, rather than something ordinary people use in their daily life. A country such as Laos becomes a country of "rice-eaters", "newly-discovered [sic] large-ruminant species" and scholar-delineated "spirit boundaries" -- the property of experts rather than of its own people. Through all this, CBA's odd questions and ways of valuing livelihoods and activities remain foreign to local villagers in Laos, ensuring their bewilderment and alienation, which is again read as "ignorance". Alex Wilks, similarly, described how the "powerful metaphor that everything is capital -- natural, social, human, financial -- and to be added together to form social wealth ... can mess up a lot of research."

Hemantha Withanage pointed to further ironies in the use of CBA in the field. For example, certain Japanese waterfalls are to be preserved at all costs at the same time a similar Sri Lankan waterfall is threatened by a Japanese-funded project. A study theoretically "open for comment" may well receive only one comment. Thirty million rupees of foreign "aid" may be routinely spent on a superficial two-week feasibility study while a non-government organization's loyalty is questioned for accepting 1.2 million rupees from abroad. Kumrap Phanthong urged a review of the costs and benefits of Thailand's rubber-replanting program, as well as of other schemes promoting monocultures. This, he suggested, should be part of a larger cluster of actions needed to promote ecological agriculture in Southern Thailand, including a challenge to the country's National Social and Economic Development Plans and the the setting up of direct farmer-consumer links.

CBA and Resettlement

Analyzing further the role of CBA in professional networks was a group of presentations focusing on the issue of displacement. Here, as William Fisher pointed out, "we are not only comparing apples and oranges, as is often the case in CBAs, but also dealing with situations where 'apples' are taken away from one group of people to provide 'oranges' to another group. For example, my land is taken away to provide your electricity." In such situations, Vijay Paranjpye contended, the beneficiaries tend to be an easily-identifiable "small group of 2-5 per cent of the district, state or nation", while the losers are both more numerous and more anonymous. "You are putting the costs on people who will least afford it," added L. C. Jain. "And those who benefit from it don't pay the charges":

"Displacement is not only of people and land, but of a whole system of land use and means of livelihood. But when I look at the entire Narmada report, the Narmada papers, none of that has been taken into account. Everything has been reduced to numbers, misstated or not, hectares of land submerged, an ocean of unemployment ... and the engineers are worried about their employment after the dam is finished."

It is largely because of its inability to ask who pays costs and who derives benefits, Michael Cernea said, that CBA is so strikingly inadequate to deal with issues of involuntary resettlement. This indifference to equity, he said, runs counter to the core of development discourse, which speaks of reducing poverty.

Ten million people a year, Cernea reported, are affected by programs which cause forced displacement, including hydroelectric dams, urban transportation and reorganization, highway construction, and so forth. Yet no government in the world publishes data on displacement, contributing to the common misconception that forced displacement is a "haphazard occurrence" rather than a continuous process and constant companion of development. Resettlement must be recognized as being as "integral to a project as pouring concrete into the holes that you dig", agreed L. C. Jain. "You are digging the graves of people. There cannot be a project which does not at its core provide for these people a better life." "If the people to be resettled don't give their consent, then there should be no project," was the view of Patrick McCully.

Yet until the late 1970s, Cernea said, the World Bank had fobbed off on recipient governments any responsibility for the displacement occasioned by its projects. At that point, he continued, some noneconomist social scientists spearheaded a move to institute rules governing projects involving resettlement which if transgressed, would prevent Bank involvement. This "mandatory" policy, however, has not been followed by the 10,000-strong Bank staff. One key problem, Cernea insisted, has been lack of economic analysis of forced resettlement. This lack has led to underfinancing and to impoverishment of the displaced. Yet CBA is not the answer to this lack of economic analysis. CBA is incapable of correcting problems of compensation for resettlement, no matter how much it is applied, since it focuses on the aggregate, ignoring the distribution of costs and benefits, thereby rendering itself incapable of answering either the economic or the ethical questions of resettlement.

Yet whatever the intrinsic incapacities of CBA, Cernea continued, the ways in which it is applied are even worse. Costs are ignored, miscalculated, and intentionally minimized. As evidence, he cited the "staggering" discrepancies between projected and actual numbers of displaced people. As in the US pesticides case, clearly-presented "benefits" are thus enabled to trump dishonestly- or unclearly-defined "costs". In Colombia, for example, the government said there were 1,000 people in an inundated area. There turned out in the end to be 5,000. The cost discrepancy was similar. The projected figure for people to be displaced by a project in Madya Pradesh was 63,000; the reality was 150,000. Dave Hubbel cited the example of Pak Mun dam in Thailand, where the parastatal electricity authority's initial estimate that 242 families would be "affected" turned out to conceal a reality in which many thousands of families have had to demand compensation for lost land and livelihoods. Hemantha Withanage reported that one Sri Lankan dam built on a river basin influencing two-thirds of the country was originally advertised as affecting 600 families, whereas in actuality 110,000 farms and 700,000 people faced major deprivations and impoverishment as a result of its construction. James Scott suggested that, like builders who consistently underestimate the costs of houses that they contract to build because it is in their interest to do so, development intellectuals have structural incentives routinely to underestimate numbers of displaced.

Packages, Tools and Contexts

Michael Dove proposed viewing CBA as what Joan Fujimura calls a "standardized package"9 -- a "set of concepts specially packaged for ease of use across boundaries between disciplines, or between theoreticians and practitioners, or between members of disparate social realities". Such "standardized packages", Dove maintained, tend to be fashioned originally within disciplines enjoying "ascendant symbolic capital" (such as, in this case, neoclassical economics). Yet the relations between "dominant package-donors" and "subservient package-receivers", although they are dependent on the "shifting relations of power between disciplines", are far from one-way.

For example, critics and popular movements are often outraged when the CBA "package" is transmitted across across the sacred boundary dividing two of what Stephen Gudeman had referred to as "spheres of exchange". One instance, in addition to those already cited by Wendy Espeland, John O'Neill and others, was Lawrence Summers' infamous and much-satirized use of CBA in proposing in 1991 that the World Bank encourage "more migration of the dirty industries to the less-developed countries". Summers had urged that a "given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost", going on to observe that the "economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable."

Yet the CBA "package", instead of being rejected, is often instead reformulated and used by the recipient in ways never intended by the donor. For example, Dove himself, in what he would now tend to look at as "rather brutish exercises in economic reductionism", had in the early 1980s used CBA thinking to argue that tribal swiddens yielded greater returns per unit of labor than pond-field rice agriculture in Central Java. Dove had also claimed that the benefit-cost ratio of local cultivation of grasslands and forests was superior to that of a government afforestation scheme. His strategy in that earlier context had been to rationalize the benefits of local systems in terms comprehensible to national and international policy and academic audiences who tended simply to assume that the cost-benefit ratios of local systems must be bad and those of introduced extra-local systems must be good. He also hoped to refocus some critical attention on that external system. (Vijay Paranjpye's exercises in CBA constituted a parallel example. These, Paranjpye emphasized, were not undertaken during "normal" negotiations involving rural villagers, but "only with Yale economists and others who want to be satisfied that something is 'sophisticated' and 'well-constructed' and 'rational' and 'efficient'". Another parallel was the efforts of non-economist dam-builders in the US in the earlier years of the century who had, as Theodore Porter pointed out, adopted CBA for strikingly different political reasons.) The underlying premise, Dove said, was that one solution to the "over-privileging" of economics, and what Pierre Bourdieu has called the "ethnocentric naiveties of economism", is, to use Bourdieu's words, "to carry out in full what economism does only partially, and to extend economic calculation to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after".10

In some cases, Dove added, the CBA "package", reworked by non-economists, may even be "re-injected" back into mainstream economics. One example is US environmentalists' attempt to ensure that the environment is included in national economic accounts rather than being isolated in "satellite" accounts. In this case, ironically, it is economists more than environmentalists who are uncomfortable about the transport of the CBA "package" across boundaries, since it is they who have more reservations about the difficulties of incorporating "intractable" environmental knowledge into a neoclassical framework. Such complexities suggest that the politics of CBA is worth studying in itself, and not merely as a stand-in for the politics of neoclassical economics generally.

Joan Martinez-Alier noted a parallel in which certain social groups challenge and try to improve the procedures for calculating GNP, while others try to substitute other indicators or indexes for GNP so as to make visible their own contributions and concerns, e.g., unpaid labor within the family. "Stakeholders sometimes appeal simultaneously to different standards of valuation," he noted. "Moreover, the refusal of economic valuation may allow alliances to be established between the interests of poor people and the 'wilderness' values of 'deep ecologists'."

In a similar vein, William Fisher critically examined the metaphor of CBA as "tool". Noting that Robert Evenson and Robert Mendelsohn had repeatedly declared that "'we' have these CBA tools" or "'we' have a legal system", Fisher asked (echoing Peter Soderbaum): "Who is this 'we'?"

"Certainly they didn't mean anything as narrow as 'we economists', 'we scholars' or 'we Americans'. Nor did they mean anything as broad as 'we humans'. They refer in some generic sense to 'we, a society with a clear way of life, one based on individualism and consumerism with a clear set of values'."

But what happens when CBA is applied in circumstances where there is no shared set of values, world view, or way of life, when, in Mishka Zaman's words, the "assumption that everyone speaks the same language and has the same assumptions" is false?

Not all tools are alike, Fisher went on. Bottle openers and guns, for instance, were developed for rather different purposes and were not equally benign. In addition, both have been used in varying unintended ways. The claim sometimes heard among economists that "CBA doesn't misrepresent, politicians do" reminded him of the slogan of the US's National Rifle Association, according to which "guns don't kill people, people kill people". Even some activists, Fisher said, had asked whether CBA, as "gun", could be turned on its users by affected communities to their own advantage. This strategy comes with its own risks, as Shalmali Guttal had argued, and entails buying into a questionable set of assumptions about values and assessment. It works, Fisher asserted, only when it "brings politics back into the process". Vijay Paranjpye also cautioned fellow activists against the metaphor that says that using CBA is a way of "turning the guns" on their opponents. This kind of talk, he warned, "turns us into gangsters".

Mary O'Brien summed up the roots of resistance to CBA by saying that it abstracts "what matters most to us, into a category called 'resources'"; measures it by a common standard; chooses money as that standard; handles poorly or not at all the question of equity or of who bears what types of costs; denies the existence of incommensurables or multiple objectives; cannot cope with long time frames on the order of 150 - 500 years; and cannot deal with emotional issues such as cultural dread or well-being or stories of intimacy of place. John Adams added that it is incapable of accommodating conflicts among value systems such as that which occurred in the 1970s between himself and Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett. After Adams had pointed out satirically that if CBA were to be used to decide the siting of a third London airport, it would wind up being built in Hyde Park, Bennett enthusiastically supported the idea. Peter Dorman, citing Mark Sagoff,11 added that CBA privileges the role of being a consumer while wiping out the role of deliberative citizen, enforcing an "I"-perspective rather than a "we"-perspective. In addition, he said, the way it "assumes that as a whole, the world is OK, and examines a proposed change in one little piece of it", makes it inappropriate for use with larger issues. The internal coherence of CBA, he observed, depends on restricting the scope of discussion to a micro-scale which leaves out global connections. Steve Rayner meanwhile suggested that if sustainability could be defined as involving the "capacity to switch strategies", then CBA, with its presupposition that things could be valued (in Martin O'Connor's words) "in terms of the opportunity cost of their disappearance", was not an instrument for sustainability.

III. Future Strategies

Practical strategies for tackling the problems and dilemmas connected with CBA were explored throughout the meeting, from the first presentation to the last.

However, not one but several different strategy questions were at issue, asked by overlapping yet distinguishable groups motivated in different ways. The answers given by one group to the strategy questions of most concern to itself often seemed irrelevant, uninteresting or even invisible to other groups preoccupied by different questions. When discussions slipped between the different questions, miscommunication was often the result.

Two Strategy Discussions

For one group, the question (to oversimplify drastically) was not to discover so-called "alternatives" to or "bypasses" of CBA, which already existed in abundance, and whose substance long predated CBA. Instead, it was to explore how better to pursue alliances and strategies which might help these "alternatives" flourish amid a more democratic and environmentally-responsible politics generally. For many in this group, a critique of CBA was in itself a constructive, fruitful step toward social responsibility. "I would not want to subscribe to the view that unless we can do something, we have to stand on CBA", said L. C. Jain:

"We are an underdeveloped country. If there is a dilapidated building, then the community interest is in pulling it down. The onus is not on us to bring new plans for a new building. Demolishing that structure, which is a threat to the community, is a very socially purposive, positive action."

CBA's "alternatives", Peter Soderbaum added, generally attempt to meet a different set of objectives from CBA itself. Other participants pointed out that given the way CBA permeates much of society, merely attempting to lever into place a few fast new techniques was unlikely to resolve what were deeper-lying political problems.

The question for this group, in other words, was less "what are the 'alternatives'?" but (for example) "why and how have the 'alternatives' been suppressed and how can this suppression be countered?" or "How did CBA itself come to be seen as an 'alternative' to conversation and negotiation?". For many in this group, or for the groups they worked with at the grassroots, CBA was not a norm or starting point but rather an outlandish intrusion presupposing alien values and a bizarre theory of politics and rationality, something the prominence of which itself required explanation. The history, sociology, and anthropology of commensuration, quantification, CBA and their associated power networks thus became a useful part of strategy discussions.

For another group represented at the meeting, however, many of the "alternatives" discussed by the first group did not fit the profile they were looking for in "alternatives" -- sharply-bounded, discrete techniques that could be slotted into existing agency practice. To this group, the discussion of the history and politics of CBA seemed largely beside the point. Consisting partly of frequent users of CBA in official agencies and economics departments, but also including lobbying groups, this group was receptive to criticisms of CBA, but tended to see these criticisms in a context in which CBA and its institutions were regarded as a baseline, norm, or necessity, its underlying theory of politics and rationality as uncontroversial or unavoidable in many circumstances, and the central question to be, as Edward Chu expressed it, "how do we make this tool better?". Chu, for instance, had hoped the conference would help point a way toward an "objective" method or instrument to deal with diststributional or equity issues. how to incorporate distributional issues into CBA. Some economists, John Adams observed, took the reluctance to discuss alternatives outside CBA to extremes. To take one example, David Pearce has always resisted requests to substantiate his assertion that CBA is the "best game in town" by detailed comparisons with other "games" or to acknowledge the existence of "ongoing experiments in consensus-building" which "acknowledge the existence and importance of multiple objectives and plural rationalities". Resistance to CBA was often seen by such figures as insignificant, as based on misunderstandings or "bad examples of CBA", or as a necessary "price to pay" for good administration.

What the first group saw as advantages of so-called "alternatives" involving local conversations, political negotiation, and multiple goals, the second saw as opening the way for delay, messiness and bigotry. "If CBA were tossed out, what would you have our public officials use?" asked Edward Chu, going on to observe that it was "local values" which, "in the US South in the 1940s and 1950s, resulted in injustices to African-Americans." Peter Stein worried that enshrining prior informed consent and veto powers in decision-making procedures would block development. "Do you really allow one individual to decide, to impose a requirement of unanimity?" he asked. In reply, Vijay Paranjpye conceded that "old-boy politics" was a danger where "resistance is weak and the local community is dominated too much or brutalized". But, he added:

"we are talking about empowered resistance, new strategies, mass communication, support from international fields, local empowerment, and all this can lead to situations which need not fall, and in many cases in India has not fallen, back into old-boy politics."

Worries about the crippling effect of vetos on social action, Paranjpye said, are based on the assumption that societies all consist of discrete, isolated individuals. However,

"when you have mass negotiation and everybody is watching you, you can't veto something which everybody recognizes as something good. The open process enables things not to become too irrational or unreasonable. But it's not foolproof, of course."

It is not a "dark past of political intrigue" or a "stubborn neo-Luddite anti-development position" which are the only alternatives to CBA, William Fisher added. Another alternative is simply a "more transparent tussle over tough political choices" and a "process where costs and benefits are more equitably distributed and where choices are negotiated among groups and individuals who all have something to gain and something to lose."

The difficulties in unifying the concerns of the two groups were exemplified in an early discussion involving Shalmali Guttal and Edward Chu. Guttal stressed forcefully how unreal or foreign the practice of CBA would seem to the "common sense" of the villagers she had worked with in rural Laos, and felt accountable to, and how much of their values and needs it would necessarily exclude. Her sentiments were not unfamiliar to Peter Soderbaum. Speaking from a Swedish perspective, Soderbaum noted that "those who have some experience of complex decision situations in the real world such as proposals for dam construction will find the whole CBA idea strange, if not mystical" in its pretence that impacts can be "pressed together" in a single number meaningful for all members of society. Chu, by contrast, speaking from the point of view of a professional Northern government-agency economist accountable to policymakers, expressed a "common sense" opposed to Guttal's, according to which use of CBA was simply a given. The social reality familiar to Guttal was not particularly relevant to the professional life of an economist working for the US EPA, and by the same token what seemed to the latter to be "realistic approach" was "unrealistic" to Guttal. So different were the social contexts in which such participants worked that it was no wonder that their ideas about strategy seemed of dubious relevance to each other.

The difficulties of linking such disparately-rooted concerns -- but also the dangers of drawing too sharp distinctions between the groups that held them -- were reflected in the life histories of some of the conference participants. Mary O'Brien, for example, recounted how she had "at first worked to make risk assessment better, then worked to critique risk assessment, and happily soon left that to work with strategies to bypass and replace risk assessment".

What Count as Advantages and Disadvantages?

Part of the difficulty in imagining that the two groups could have a joint strategy discussion lay in a fact highlighted by Peter Dorman. What critics see as disadvantages of CBA, Dorman observed, are often seen by others as advantages or reasons for expanding its use. In contexts in which the powerful seek to mask the political nature of their actions, for example, CBA's elevation of economic discourse over other discourses becomes not a drawback or piece of self-deception, it is seen as by many activists, but a virtue. CBA's use of a single value-scale is not a difficulty if the goal is to avoid the appearance of political discussion and political process. Similarly, the fact that the "numbers which have been bandied about for the value of human life are virtual fictions without substance" is immaterial to bureaucracies in which the demand for numbers is strong enough. Bureaucracies also have little incentive to worry about the implausibility of the discount rates they use.

This theme was developed at length by Dave Hubbel, Michael Goldman, Shalmali Guttal, and Hemantha Withanage. These participants cited a wealth of evidence from the Mekong basin, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere from the last two decades showing that cost-benefit analysts on development projects have good reason to be, and generally are, insouciant about the inaccuracy, inadequacy or inconsistency of the scientific data on which their studies are based as long as short-term construction and investment deadlines can be met. Cost-benefit analysis, said Anthony Oliver-Smith in summing up Withanage's findings, is often a "form of deceit in which multiple forms of calculation are carried out to achieve the pre-ordained goal of disempowering local people and enacting the project." Similarly, the goal of "poor research done under impossible time frames", such as that Hubbel had documented, is not to derive reasonable decisions, a purpose it could not serve, but to provide justification for decisions already made on other grounds. Finally, as Guttal had suggested, CBA's privileging of "objective" forms of constructing problems and solutions, and its disempowerment of "local, historical and relational forms of knowledge", is a political advantage for those seeking to exclude popular voices from the dialogue. By the same token, analyses that take seriously unique local conditions are unlikely to be of interest to developers concerned with replicating projects as quickly and widely as possible.

John Wargo and John Adams invoked evidence suggesting that the distortions that come with interpreting risk and uncertainty in numerical, probabilistic terms, because they go hand in hand with administrative convenience, are of little concern to many modern bureaucracies. By the same token, cost-benefit analysts often prefer willingness-to-pay values to willingness-to-accept values not because they are accurate or class-neutral -- as Joan Martinez-Alier noted, "the poor sell cheap" -- but because they are less likely to include "infinite" values which would "blow up the analysis" and block projects. Martinez-Alier added that supplementing CBA with environmental impact assessment is generally "cosmetic" and follows rather than precedes decisions.

Goals: Predetermined or Evolving?

One key obstacle to a single strategy discussion was encapsulated in a telling exchange between Michael Cernea and Vijay Paranjpye on the second day of the meeting. Paranjpye had contrasted project-oriented development schemes involving CBA with an inclusive process of democratic negotiation in which he had been involved in India (see below). Cernea questioned how this could be an "alternative" path to social progress. "What are you aiming at to be the result of that negotiation?" he asked. "What kind of intervention or development program is the goal?" Paranjpye's response was immediate:

"Goals are not pre-determined. That's the essence of a process. I don't sit here and decide that my goal is so many hectares of irrigation, x number of cubic metres of flow, and so on. The goals have to evolve. But they become obvious to the people who negotiate. They know what their struggle is."

Many of the exchanges over strategy during the meeting were characterized by this fissure between seeing goals as fixed and agreed in advance of a decision-making process and viewing them as emerging from negotiation. There were also strategy divisions between participants who assumed a single pre-existing metric and those more prepared to handle incommensurability and culture change; and between those engaged in a quest for "optimality" (to borrow the terms of Peter Soderbaum), which assumes that there already exists agreement on what is to be optimized, and those engaged in a quest for "illumination".

A Wealth of Examples

From the first group of participants at the conference came a wealth of concrete examples of approaches to rational and democratic decision-making which avoided or circumvented CBA. Many involved what Stephen Gudeman and Martin O'Connor had called "conversation" in multiple languages and what Soderbaum had called "illumination". They also involved an awareness that commensuration was a contingent social practice negotiated by a community and deep receptivity to issues of equity, long time frames, and intimacy of place.

Vijay Martin, for example, described a "wonderful substitute for CBA" based on several years of concrete experience in India, giving it, tongue in cheek, the mock-sophisticated name of "Mass Negotiated Reiterative Conflict Resolution and Development Process" (MNRCRDP). This process was developed out of efforts to find the best alternative development plan to a dam after it was stopped by the courts following protests. Representatives of a local people's movement and of the government, after negotiating for a year and a half, announced that the people in one river valley (comprising 200,000 hectares, 160,000 people, 116 villages and one large town) would be free to decide what to do with a sum of money which would have been spent had the dam been commissioned. Realizing that there was now "nothing else for its engineers to do", the Government of Madya Pradesh made senior engineers available as research assistants to translate technical information on meterology, lands, percolation, demography, and geomorphology into Hindi. People's knowledge about traditional investment channels and the old temple tanks and sacred groves built up over the last four and a half thousand years would meanwhile be treated as initial basic investment.

Discussions and identification of conflicts among the people in the 116 villages then got under way. The idea was to move from microcatchment area to river basin. Night after night, for hundreds of nights, people are discussing the issue, moving toward conflict resolution. Further information is now being gathered and certain principles and activities formulated and reformulated. No quantification is necessary, nor real or simulated buying or selling. Instead, people negotiate, exchange information, accept or reject proposals, and so on, until a range of development activities is arrived at which are within the commons paradigm. These activities will not be projects but links -- water channels, land and water conservation, and so on. These activities will be further reformulated for perhaps two or three years, by which time everybody will know how to assess the "costs" and "benefits" for the valley:

"With such a long process, everybody gets a chance to say their little bit, participate, accept, and reject, ensuring fairness, openness and transparency. If there are problems, they get resolved along the line. As a result of the negotiations, everybody in all 116 villages will have lost something and everybody will have gained something; there will not be one group of beneficiaries and one group of losers."

It is not to be expected, naturally, that this process will lead to perfect harmony. But nor, of course, as Martin O'Connor had stated, can CBA, which "only appears tidy and objective and efficient" and which in fact equally involves political processes, albeit ones which "eliminate most languages (social, spiritual, ecological, and so on) that are central to people's lives". In many societies in rural India and elsewhere, Paranjpye continued, the sort of process he described has been tried and has worked. Helping make it do so are NGOs, computers, mass information exchange technology, and values which are cultural and even religious (and economists should be religious to be moral in accordance with the new religion of sustainable development). Roughly US$10 million is all that is required for this 116-village area with 160,000 population. This process may take up the next two years. But then, Paranjpye pointed out, "most dams require more than 15 years to take off anyway."

Paranjpye rejected the ploy by the World Bank and other agencies who claim that the burden of proof is on popular movements to "find alternatives to CBA":

"This is NOT an 'alternative' -- this is the base project. And I'm inviting the World Bank people and the economists of Yale and Oxford to central India and giving them ten volumes written in Hindi -- actually, some of that will be in the Marathi dialect -- and I would like them to look at all those reports, and try to make holes in them, and if they can't do it in six months, then I will presume that this is a sustainable and efficient model. The onus is on them to disprove its value -- not on me to prove it."

He noted laconically that the area he described is "large enough to be replicated for Bank economists and others who might be interested".

Peter Soderbaum sketched an alternative "positional analysis" aimed not at "solving" a decision problem in a way which pretends to be correct for all actors, but rather at "illuminating a decision situation" in a way which is as many-sided as possible. This method aims at seeking and sharing relevant information about the impacts of each choice in cooperation with interested parties; at facilitating public dialogue, mutual learning, and participation in the decision process; and at liberating creative thinking. It does not assume any consensus about the principles of valuation, about what counts as efficiency, nor about the way a problem should be formulated. Aggregation of different values is not a priority; the relative importance of various monetary and non-monetary impacts depends on the "knowledge position and ideological orientation of the observer". Separate non-monetary analyses deal with inertia and irreversibility. This form of analysis identifies rationality not only with efficient resource allocation in monetary terms, but sees it in terms of the compatibility of an individual's ideological orientation with the expected impacts of specific alternatives. It relies on institutional or political economy rather than neoclassical picture of markets and economics. Above all, positional analysis does not hide conflicting interests behind one-dimensional present values, but takes seriously the need in a democracy to illuminate such conflicts, specify the effects of different options on different groups, and ensure dialogue among the concerned groups.

Joan Martinez-Alier mentioned several workable alternatives, including oppositional analysis, multi-criteria analysis, or public assessment, as well as grassroots approaches, while warning that some "participatory" methods run the risk of becoming as technocratic as CBA. "Ecological economics must be able to cope with value pluralism, combining the subjective utilitarian valuation of environmental services or losses with the physical assessment of ecological sustainability, and with the cultural valuation of the environment." It must "take Nature into account" not so much in terms of money-values as in terms of physical indicators, brought together in a multi-criteria evaluation framework without trade-offs. Ecological distribution conflicts must be allowed to be expressed as clashes of incommensurable standards of value. Even more important, Martinez-Alier emphasized, is the question of what is assessed. New eucalyptus plantations, a new dam on the Indus, new rubber plantations in South Thailand, a new airport in London: why are such projects and investments proposed? What is their scale and their relation to the larger economy and the goals of society? It is necessary to discuss "sustainable livelihoods in terms of access to common property resources and caring about people, which as we know is not measured by Gross National Product".

Mary O'Brien stressed that alternatives to CBA like the ones Paranjpye, Soderbaum and Espeland had outlined would consider all relevant options and intimately involve all interested publics. They would provide "site-specific knowledge and information, review information provided by others, and compare the favorable and unfavorable aspects of alternatives". Nevertheless, "the exact way these two processes are achieved must necessarily vary in different places and settings." When alternatives have to be compared and prioritized, and one or more chosen, O'Brien proposed, it should be on the basis of a comparison not only of monetary valuations, but also of health and ecological risks; of the likely consequences on local community economics, community spirit, or the seventh generation hence; of the probable effects on centralization of political power, democracy, powers of community oversight, or feelings of fairness; of the impacts on people's connection to the land or on restoration of damaged habitat; and so on.

Majid Ezzati espoused alternatives which would recognize that "technology is not a neutral phenomenon" but rather "a way of life" whose "attributes and impacts are intimately tied to the societies where it originated or is applied". The question, he said, is "not how to evaluate but how to choose between different evaluations". In a framework for technology assessment used by certain farmers and scientists in the Philippines, for instance, the "underlying social objectives and technical attributes of technological development are negotiated and constructed in the context of the society in which the adoption takes place".12 In a somewhat similar vein, Steve Rayner counterposed to CBA what Clifford Geertz calls "thick description".13

Michael Cernea pleaded for "complementary instruments which should become obligatory for the analysis of development interventions financed publically". One such instrument could "demonstrate what the consequences of a project are on the displaced", including "landlessless, joblessness, homelessnessness, marginalization, mortality, loss of access to resources, and social disarticulation". Such risks could then be prevented or mitigated, using funds justified by an expanded economic analysis of forced resettlement. Distributional analysis, Cernea said, must also be performed.

For John Wargo, a key future strategy revolved around "knowledge production, knowledge dissemination and strategic management of risk". CBA-based law need not be thrown away entirely, Wargo said, but there should be strategies for identifying high risks and for using law to protect against high pockets of pesticide exposure in water supplies, schools, and so on. One lesson of the evolution of restrictive policies on genetically-modified organisms in Europe and Japan, he was quick to point out, was that "you don't need to know the risks to act. Even with an ambiguous understanding of risk, there is a distrust of technology and the regulatory community which is creating a grassroots, bottom-up approach. And the internet has helped people understand the state of knowledge about risk."

The Central Role of Activism

"Analytical methods need to be corrected by nonanalytical means, that is, social action," said Michael Cernea. "Only through the organization and activism of the displaced will any improvements in methodology take hold." Anthony Oliver-Smith highlighted networks of resistance which had grown up along river systems, focusing on the importance of NGOs and international allies. "The importance of networking and communication for effective resistance is fundamental," he said, since "small groups stand little chance of questioning decisions or resisting projects in isolation".

Srisuwan Kuankachorn, Michael Goldman, L. C. Jain and Alex Wilks all stressed the need for activists and scholars collectively to challenge, unmask and delegitimize some of the economic techniques which have taken root in the professional classes and are being pushed through the knowledge production networks of the World Bank and similar agencies. Certain tasks, they pointed out, were the special responsibility of Northern activists and scholars. "We need to create a battlefield in the US," Srisuwan said:

"I think it is the responsibility of progressive academics here to humiliate, to attack the knowledge which originated here and has played such a role in shaping the perspectives and concepts which have prevailed in our countries."

Academics in the North, Jain pointed out, "can call the World Bank without having to pay a special charge, unlike when we try to call from Delhi, ... and all documents must be placed at a university library where scholars can scrutinize them." Funding should be found in the North to support independent research into development agencies and corporations which could be of use to social movements in the South. Such research often cannot be done by those directly involved in the struggles themselves, Jain said:

"Medha Patkar [a Narmada River activist] and the women in the villages threatened by submergence standing in neck-deep water are not going to do an analysis of CBAs. But you can. This is your responsibility -- moral, professional, and social."

Jain further proposed that CBAs performed for projects or policies undertaken in the last 50 years be revisited in a continuing program to determine which, if any, of their assumptions and calculations had actually turned out to be accurate. Of the CBAs performed for dams, for instance, "which one has actually mapped what happened, upstream and downstream, what were the livelihoods, how did people live with each other in communities, and now that this is destroyed, where are they?" If such a review or recalculation shows that CBA is not serving its intended purposes, Jain said, then "there is no point in traveling that road".

Patrick McCully and others appealed for expert help from other participants in critiquing specific CBAs undertaken to justify water development projects such as the Maheshwar project in India, and for support from institutions which might sponsor such critiques. He noted that Wayne White had helped the International Rivers Network with such evaluations in the past. "It would be good to set up a formal team to do work for different organizations," McCully said.

A Role for CBA?

Should CBA have any role at all in decision-making on issues of public importance? Joan Martinez-Alier declared flatly that CBA can now be "dismissed" in view of the wealth of alternatives available. John Adams agreed. If CBA is inappropriate for use in all cases in which there are incommensurables or fundamental value conflicts, in which long time frames are important, in which equity is an issue, and so on, he asked rhetorically, when exactly is it appropriate? Michael Cernea found "little hope for correcting CBA as a method" given the unconvincingness of efforts to incorporate distributional analysis into it. Martin O'Connor, meanwhile, thought that CBA was useful at most as a backhanded way of generating anomalies, resistance and contradictions which could get a conversation going. The technique, he thought, would quickly be left behind in any serious decision-making process involving efforts toward mutual understanding in a situation involving multiple languages.

Wendy Espeland and Stephen Gudeman suggested that a restricted form of CBA had a place in certain decision contexts. "Sure, if you propose a dam, have an economic analysis of how much it's going to cost to build this thing," Espeland said:

"But in your social analysis, don't force me to give a number to it. Put me in a room with all of the people who are going to be affected, and let them say, and let me say, if I'm supposed to be an expert, what's going to happen to these folks, without having to translate this into a completely artificial and pointless language. ... Who gets to speak and what language they talk in matters a lot for how you arrive at a consensus, if you ever do."

Mary O'Brien and Anthony Oliver-Smith agreed. O'Brien stressed that CBAs could be carried out, but should not be allowed to supplant, as they often do now, democracy analysis, community spirit impact analysis, stories of place, religion analysis, ecological risk analysis, and so on. Oliver-Smith highlighted the "necessity of finding a way to valorize other forms of knowledge and other decision-making models or means":

"Economic analysis has to be undertaken along with other forms of knowledge such as social analysis, cultural analysis, environmental analysis, all expressed in their own idioms. Economic values are not at the top of a hierarchy of values, nor is economic analysis at the top of a hierarchy of knowledges, nor is it first among equals. Different forms of information must make up the knowledge base on which decisions are made, because different kinds of value are at stake."

Colin Price, however, continued to insist that CBA could take account of the full range of alternatives in any context and involve all interested publics. He also pointed out that there were ways of doing it without discounting the future. Peter Soderbaum, by contrast, cited CBA pioneer Ezra Mishan's view that CBA should be used for resource allocation only in the exceptional case where all citizens consider its rules of valuation as appropriate or at least acceptable.14 For Mishan, the moral was that the CBA manual should be "put on a shelf" pending some hypothetical future at which consensus about these rules might appear. In particular, CBA should be ruled out as a means of assessing the environmental aspects of dam and road construction. Michael Dove, Vijay Paranjpye and others, meanwhile, were less interested in the invalidity of CBA in the abstract than in its occasional use as a tactical means of communication across cultural or disciplinary boundaries.15

Follow-Up Projects

As a way of responding to proposals and challenges thrown out during the conference, participants plan to produce several publications as well as undertake other actions to build a more useful network.

Two books are contemplated. The first is a citizen activists' manual or handbook, to be compiled and edited by Mary O'Brien, Joanne Pawlowski and David Barnhizer, and to be reviewed by Martin O'Connor. The handbook would contain case studies from different regions of how CBA has been used in practice, would address "Most Frequently Asked Questions" concerning CBAs, and would offer "Guidelines and Lessons Learned" for groups confronted with imminent CBAs. It would also document alternatives or "by-passes" and point readers toward sources of further information. The handbook can be translated and modified for use in different parts of the world. Tony Tweedale and others volunteered to help with distribution to interested groups.

A second book contemplated is a reader aimed more narrowly at scholars, and would contain theoretical critiques of CBA, including some of the papers prepared for the conference on CBA's structure and institutional contexts of use. This volume, designed in part to meet Srisuwan Kuankachorn's and L. C. Jain's challenges, would also contain ex post facto evaluations of old CBAs. It is to be edited by Vijay Paranjpye, Joanne Pawlowski, Peter Dorman and Caroline Little. James Scott is willing to help sound out Yale University Press as one possible publisher.

It was agreed that the presenters of papers at the meeting should also feel free to publish them in whatever other forums they desired. Martin O'Connor was keen to obtain many of the papers for the specialist journals he edits in Europe, and there is also a possibility of papers appearing in the Economic and Political Weekly of India and other publications.

Papers presented at the meeting are also to be collated and placed together with the present summary in a book of proceedings to be distributed in diskette form to participants as desired.

An attempt will also be made to compile a list of respected "consultants" who might help activists and NGOs examine particular CBAs. It was suggested that such a list have a solid institutional backing to ensure it is recognized as "legitimate". John Adams and Martin O'Connor were willing to advise on this effort, which is backed strongly by Patrick McCully, and an attempt will be made to recruit Joan Martinez-Alier as well.

A proposal for an email conference had to be set aside for the time being for lack of an animateur, although Martin O'Connor is willing to help operate such a conference if one emerges. Hemantha Withanage will meanwhile explore possibilities for arranging a regional follow-up meeting in South Asia.

Participants mentioned or quoted in this summary

John Adams, Geography, University College London,

David Barnhizer, Cleveland State University College of Law,

Joji Carino, Tebtebba Foundation,

Michael Cernea,

Edward Chu, US Environmental Protection Agency,

Peter Dorman, Evergreen State College,

Michael Dove, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University,

Wendy Espeland, Sociology, Northwestern University,

Robert Evenson, Economic Growth Center, Yale University,

Majid Ezzati, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University,

William Fisher, Anthropology, Harvard University,

Michael Goldman, Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

Stephen Gudeman, Anthropology, University of Minnesota,

Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South, Bangkok,

Christopher Herman, US Environmental Protection Agency,

Dave Hubbel, Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, Bangkok,

L. C. Jain, World Commission on Dams, Bangalore,

Srisuwan Kuankachorn, Project for Ecological Recovery, Bangkok,

Larry Lohmann, The Corner House, Dorset, UK,

Patrick McCully, International Rivers Network, San Francisco,

Joan Martinez-Alier, Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autonoma Barcelona,

Robert Mendelsohn, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University,

Aubrey Meyer, Global Commons Institute, London,

Mary O'Brien, Eugene, Oregon,

Martin O'Connor, Economics, University of Versailles,

Anthony Oliver-Smith, Anthropology, University of Florida,

John O'neill, Philosophy, Lancaster University,

Ralitza Panayotova, CEE Bankwatch, Sofia,

Vijay Paranjpye, ECONET, Pune,

Joanne Pawlowski, New York,

Kumrap Phanthong, Saanti-Dharma, Satun, Thailand,

Theodore Porter, History, University of California, Los Angeles,

Colin Price, Agricultural and Forest Sciences, University of Wales,

Steve Rayner, International Affairs, Columbia University,

Dale Rothman, Columbia University,

James Scott, Political Science, Yale University,

Peter Soderbaum, Business Studies, Malardalens Hogskola, Vasteras, Sweden,

Peter Stein, Newman Laboratory, Cornell University,

Tony Tweedale, Missoula, Montana,

John Wargo, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University,

Wayne White, Foresight Associates, Massachusetts,

Alex Wilks, Bretton Woods Project, London,

Hemantha Withanage, Environmental Foundation, Colombo,

Mishka Zaman, Sungi Development Foundation, Pakistan,


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