Cover of The Spirit of Development by Erica Bornstein
The Spirit of Development
Erica Bornstein


228 pages.

Paperback ISBN: 9780804753364



Religious NGOs are important sources of humanitarian aid in Africa, entering where the welfare programs of weakened states fail to provide basic services. As collaborators and critics of African states, religious NGOs occupy an important structural and ideological position. They also, however, illustrate a key irony—how economic development, a symbol of science, progress, and this-worldly material improvement, borrows heavily from other-worldly faith.

Through a study of two transnational NGOs in Zimbabwe, this book offers a nuanced depiction of development as both liberatory and limiting. Humanitarian effort is not a hopeless task, but behind the liberatory potential of Christian development lurks the sad irony that change can bring its own disappointments.

While rapt attention has been given to the supposed role of NGOs in democratizing Africa, few studies engage with the ground operations. Questioning the assumption that economic development is a move away from religious mysticism toward the scientific promise of progress, the author offers a remarkable account of development that is neither defeatist nor comforting.

About the author

Erica Bornstein is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"The Spirit of Development is a truly ground-breaking work on a topic of extraordinary contemporary significance. It provides a powerful and exceptionally revealing demonstration of how ethnographic methods and anthropological concepts can be brought to bear on the study of those 'non-governmental organizations' that play an increasingly prominent (and ill-understood) role in the contemporary social and political life of much of the world. It should be required reading for all scholars concerned with 'development,' Christianity, and humanitarianism, in Africa and beyond."

—James Ferguson, Stanford University

"Bornstein shows how ideas of material and spiritual development relate to each other in the everyday practices of development executives in California and their counterparts in Zimbabwe. As illustrated here, 'faith-based development' compels fresh engagement with the cosmologies of capitalist development. Rarely have classic concerns in social theory been made so directly relevant to understanding topical issues."

—Harri Englund, University of Cambridge

"This book makes an important and timely contribution to the sociology and anthropology of development....Bornstein writes with an honesty and a curiosity that engages the reader in her project."

Canadian Journal of Sociology Online

"Bornstein has written a book that every believer (or unbeliever) in the theology of (African) economic development should read."


"Erica Bornstein's ethnography is one of the finest [on NGOs], and is likely to find a place as a foundational study in this emerging field."

Journal of Southern African Studies

"The Spirit of Development...provides exemplary insight into the debates and practices amongst NGO staff in Harare and the United States concerning the intersection of faith and development, providing much-needed analysis on the intertwining of religious and economic assumptions and their (mis)translations within transnational organizations such as NGOs and those they endeavor to spiritually and materially transform."

American Anthropologist