Wild Policy

Wild Policy: Indigeneity and the Unruly Logic of Intervention, by Tess Lea (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Claire Ross and Alexander Howes, University of British Columbia

Wild Policy: Indigeneity and the Unruly Logic of Intervention follows Tess Lea’s decade-long study of development interventions, and the policy landscape in which they are embedded, in Indigenous Australia. Building upon frameworks for critical development studies well-established by anthropologists like David Mosse and James Ferguson, Lea focuses on the experiences of those who have been affected most by Australian development interventions. Lea’s ethnography gives us a better understanding of the untamable nature of development policies themselves.

Each chapter of the book is preceded by a short narrative that foregrounds Lea’s encounters with John Singer, an Anangu community member and Executive Director of the Ngampa Health Council. Singer shares stories about his life and provides insight into the experiences of his community, as well as reflections on the surrounding policy landscape. These interludes throughout the book work to center Indigenous knowledge and allow for a stronger connection between personal experience and theory.

Lea argues that development policies often unleash uncontrollable and wild creatures that disperse into the environment and sometimes wreak havoc on those they encounter. Wild Policy begins with an exploration of the term “wild,” presenting synonyms such as “primitive,” “natural,” “free,” “savage,” and “barbarous” (p. 11). Within the context of Indigenous development, she argues, such terms can ironically invert our colonial understandings of Indigenous peoples. States and scholars long described Indigenous peoples in exactly these terms, but Lea projects them back to us to describe development policy, too, as “primitive”, “natural”, “free”, “savage”, and “barbarous.”

The examples of programs and projects detailed throughout the book emphasize the heterogeneity of lived experience and the complex problems embedded in what Lea calls “policy ecology.” This concept enables Lea to illustrate connections and pathways emerging from the complex nature of policy environments, and ties in strongly with her notion of “policy hauntology,” or the lasting legacies that public policies create. These legacies may be explicit or implicit and may have rewarding or negative impacts on communities. These two concepts – policy ecology and policy hauntology – are central to understanding how policies of the past lay the foundation for the future.

Throughout Wild Policy, Lea argues against colonial development policies, beginning with her description of “The Intervention”: a top-down policy approach to improving healthcare and housing with an overall goal to promote well-being and lower rates of premature death in Indigenous groups (p. 13). At this time, in 2007, the Australian parliament faced mounting public and political pressure to reform the landscapes and habits of Indigenous peoples in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. However, the inability of state actors to attune themselves to the specific policy ecology led to over-inflated program budgets and poor service delivery.

One of Lea’s most compelling arguments involves the militarized, imperial nature of global development. In her sustained examinations of the Australian context, she illustrates the aggressive and militarized practices of development over time as embodied through resource extraction, nuclear exploration, and colonial bureaucratic practices. Overall this form of development creates an oppressive environment where policies designed to support and empower Indigenous communities are instead used to oppress. This historical context is not only vital to understanding Lea’s ethnographic work, but also highlights how resource extraction has been used by colonial and postcolonial states around the world to marginalize Indigenous peoples, with lasting impacts today.

Wild Policy also speaks powerfully—although for the most part not explicitly—to the current debates around global Indigenous policies, specifically the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP reaffirms the inalienable human rights of Indigenous peoples around the world. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, it is being implemented in jurisdictions around the world, including British Columbia, Canada, from where we write. Australia, like Canada, voted against UNDRIP in the initial vote, but reversed its position to endorse it in 2009.

Currently, political change and lack of consistency at the state level have slowed the implementation of UNDRIP. This delay illustrates Lea’s concept of policy hauntology, discussed throughout the book, specifically in tensions surrounding “The Intervention” in Australia (p. 13). A broader engagement with the politics surrounding UNDRIP expands the relevance of Wild Policy, which serves as an important case study demonstrating why the Australian government must take steps to further support Indigenous peoples.

Lea is appropriately self-conscious about the limits of her work as a non-Indigenous scholar. Still, Wild Policy provides a nuanced take on how policy is formulated and implemented in ways that exclude Indigenous experience, and seeks to rectify this through the interludes that present Indigenous knowledge apart from scholarly theorization. Within the book, Lea demonstrates both the power and the limits of her own anthropological expertise to affect policy outcomes, while centering Indigenous voices and highlighting community resilience in the face of oppression.

Wild Policy provides a key lesson for development studies moving forward: Indigenous approaches to development that reconceptualize its very meaning are necessary to move toward a path of reconciliation. This lesson is articulated through Wild Policy’s critiques of state-led development. Lea emphasizes the importance of listening to and engaging with communities in the process of formulating policy, not just in critiques of its implementation after the fact. Most importantly, beyond listening and engaging, scholars must also advocate for radically reshaping development policy through deep engagement with Indigenous knowledges and practices at each step of the policy process.

This book is highly recommended for those interested in understanding Indigenous-centered development, including public policy practitioners, public health providers, and the many non-state and state actors on the path to reconciliation. Anthropologists will also find a valuable model for activist research conducted within the policy realm, by a scholar who seeks to build bridges between her Indigenous interlocutors and the policy makers whose actions shape their worlds.


Acknowledgment: The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable support of Dr. Sara Shneiderman. This review emerged from work conducted in her course PPGA 522 “Development Discourses and Practices” at the University of British Columbia in Fall 2020.