The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics


The Will to Improve is a remarkable account of development in action. Focusing on attempts to improve landscapes and livelihoods in Indonesia, Tania Murray Li carefully exposes the practices that enable experts to diagnose problems and devise interventions, and the agency of people whose conduct is targeted for reform. Deftly integrating theory, ethnography, and history, she illuminates the work of colonial officials and missionaries; specialists in agriculture, hygiene, and credit; and political activists with their own schemes for guiding villagers toward better ways of life. She examines donor-funded initiatives that seek to integrate conservation with development through the participation of communities, and a one-billion-dollar program designed by the World Bank to optimize the social capital of villagers, inculcate new habits of competition and choice, and remake society from the bottom up.

Demonstrating that the “will to improve” has a long and troubled history, Li identifies enduring continuities from the colonial period to the present. She explores the tools experts have used to set the conditions for reform—tools that combine the reshaping of desires with applications of force. Attending in detail to the highlands of Sulawesi, she shows how a series of interventions entangled with one another and tracks their results, ranging from wealth to famine, from compliance to political mobilization, and from new solidarities to oppositional identities and violent attack. The Will to Improve is an engaging read—conceptually innovative, empirically rich, and alive with the actions and reflections of the targets of improvement, people with their own critical analyses of the problems that beset them.


The Will to Improve will be taught and read alongside the works of James Scott, James Ferguson, Aiwha Ong, and Timothy Mitchell, and others who weave ethnography, theory, and history together, for it is similarly crafted in many respects, clearly and well written.” — Barbara Cruikshank, American Ethnologist

The Will to Improve is a perceptive ethnography of ‘improvement,’ a receding horizon, continually strived for and redefined by colonial and postcolonial experts. . . . Li is nimble in her theoretical poaching and blending, but she is also blessed with a rich set of materials with which to make her case.” — Danilyn Rutherford, Pacific Affairs

“A work of exceptional scholarship, this book should be required reading for scholars and practitioners of development alike.” — Manish K. Thakur, Development and Change

“Insightful and engaging, this is a fascinating book. Drawing on an impressive array of historical and ethnographic sources, including her own fieldwork, Tania Murray Li offers a brilliant account of ‘expert’ interventions that, since the end of the nineteenth century, have endeavoured to improve the welfare of a number of communities in Sulawesi (Indonesia).” — Dimitri Tsintjilonis, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“There is no question that Li has raised the bar as regards providing a serious anthropological critique of development. . . . her desire to demonstrate that practices of government ‘limit the possibilities for engaging with targets of improving schemes as political actors’ (p. 281) and to show the ‘critical potential of an ethnography of government’ (p. 282) are both achieved with extraordinary clarity, brilliance, and élan. A very fine book, indeed.” — Michael Watts, American Anthropologist

Review by Michael Watts in American Ethnologist.

Review by Rachel Silvey in  Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

Review by Dimitri Tsintjilonis in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Review by Richard F. Doner in Perspectives on Politics.

Review by Katleen Gillogly in Environment and Society.

Review by Shubhra Gururani in Anthropologica.

Review by Barbara Cruikshank in American Ethnologist.

Review by Danilyn Rutherford in Pacific Affairs.

Review by Sarah de Leeuw in Journal of Historical Geography

Li, T. M. (2008). Social reproduction, situated politics, and The Will to Improve. Focaal2008(52), 111-118.

Bouleau, G. (2006). The Will To Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics Tania Murray Li. Natures Sciences Sociétés, EDP Sciences, 16 (4), p. 391 – p. 393.


The Will to Improve is an exceptionally valuable and well-conceived book. It speaks to some of the most significant theoretical discussions of recent years, effectively linking studies of ‘governmentality,’ debates about neoliberalism, and the increasingly rich literature on the social history of colonialism.” — James Ferguson, author of Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

“Magisterially linking the contradictions of peripheral capitalism with the limits of governmentality, Tania Murray Li offers a view of developmental rule that draws productively on Gramsci and Foucault. She provides perhaps the most brilliant account to date of neoliberal development in action. A tour de force.” — Michael Watts, Director, Center for African Studies, and Class of 1963 Professor of Geography, University of California, Berkeley

“Tania Murray Li brilliantly combines the analytic rubrics of Foucault, Marx, and Gramsci to explain ‘the will to improve’ as an essential though poorly understood component of rule in Indonesia. This is not your grandmother’s ethnography: the well-written chapters are packed with the conflicts, contestations, and uncertainties that characterize power relations. Deeply engaged with the processes and practices that shape peoples’ lives, Li’s book should be required reading for scholars interested in how power works and for development practitioners everywhere.” — Nancy Lee Peluso, author of Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java

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