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Centre of African Studies: People


Kevin Donovan

Kevin Donovan
Dr Kevin Donovan
Lecturer, African Studies & International Development
4.06 Chrystal Macmillan Building 15a George Square Edinburgh UK EH8 9LD
Research Interests
African history, Political and economic anthropology, STS

Personal Website


Ph.D. Anthropology & History, University of Michigan

M.Phil Sociology (Development Studies), University of Cape Town

B.S.F.S. Science, Technology & International Affairs, Georgetown University


I am an anthropologist and historian of East Africa. I work in the fields of economic and political anthropology, African history, and science & technology studies. 

I am currently writing a book entitled, Crimes Against Economy: Smuggling, Money, and Decolonization in East Africa. I argue that East African decolonization was not coterminous with political sovereignty but rather consisted of a longer process of reorganizing how value was legitimately defined, produced, and distributed. This is a study of how postcolonial states tried to remake economic temporalities, space, and standards to determine how value was produced and circulated--and how citizens pursued alternatives that subverted economic sovereignty. This is a story of central banking, national currencies, and coffee smuggling, as well as rites of initiation and econometric modeling. Each of these domains serves as a lens into contemporary contests, whether over the reformulation of borders or the ambiguities of money in the region. An article from the project -- on coffee smuggling, kinship relations, and measurement devices -- is available in Cultural Anthropology.

With Emma Park, I have an ongoing project on the cultural politics of Kenya’s largest corporation, Safaricom. We’re interested in the entanglements of the corporate and the state, the unwieldy and unexpected forms of politics this generates, and the types of para-ethnographic work done to stabilize the situation. We have also examined the making of debt markets through the extraction of mobile data in Kenya. We're writing a book that may be titled Parastatal: Intimacy & Value in Digital Kenya.

Previously, I have examined the technopolitics of biometric identification in South African welfare and humanitarian infrastructure in Kenya. This grew into a larger project on surveillance technologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

I also have an interest in the sociology of knowledge, particularly in the field of economics. While working in the aid industry before graduate school, I witnessed the rise of a more assertive approach to evidence by development economists, particularly through the use of randomized control trials (RCTs). I have published on their claims to expertise and the ongoing debates over uncertainty within the field, and I am currently conducting research on the history of economics in East Africa.

Prior to graduate school, I worked as a researcher at infoDev, a division of the World Bank, writing on the growth of mobile connectivity and financial services.

Selected Publications
Edited Collections

Surveillance in Africa,” a special forum in African Studies Review 59(2) 2016. Edited with Philippe M. Frowd and A.K. Martin.

Peer Reviewed Articles & Chapters

"Magendo: Arbitrage & Ambiguity on an East African Frontier.Cultural Anthropology 36(1): 110-137. (PDF)

The Rise of the Randomistas: On the Experimental Turn in Development Aid.” Economy & Society 47(1): 27-58(pre-publication PDF download)

“‘Financial Inclusion Means Your Money Isn’t With You’ – The Conflict Over Social Grants and Financial Services in South Africa.” In Bill Maurer, Smoki Musaraj, and Ivan Small (eds.) Money at the Margins: Global Perspectives on Technology, Financial Inclusion & DesignBerghahn Books. (2018) (pre-publication version)

Surveillance in Africa: Politics, Histories, Techniques.” African Studies Review 59(2). (September 2016) (with Philippe M. Frowd and A.K. Martin) (open access version)

Infrastructuring Aid: Materializing Humanitarianism in Northern Kenya.” Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 33(4): 732-748. (August 2015) (open access version) (accompanying blog post)

The Biometric Imaginary: Bureaucratic Technopolitics in Post-Apartheid Welfare.” Journal of Southern African Studies 41(4): 815-833. (2015) (open access version)

Mobile Money.” In A.P. Hwa and R. Mansell (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Digital Communication & Society. London: John Wiley Inc. (2015)

New Surveillance Technologies and Their Publics: A Case of Biometrics.” Public Understanding of Science 24(7): 842-857. (October 2015) (with A.K. Martin) (open access version)

“‘Development’ as if We Have Never Been Modern: Fragments of a Latourian Development Studies.” Development & Change 45(5) (September 2014) (open access version)

The Rise of African SIM Registration: The Emerging Dynamics of Regulatory Change.” First Monday 19, 1-2 (February 2014) (with A.K. Martin)

Mobile Money, More Freedom? The Impact of M-PESA’s Network Power on Development as Freedom.” International Journal of Communication 6, 2647-2669. (2012)

Mobile Money & Financial Inclusion: Growth, Impact & Emerging Issues.” In Information & Communication for Development 2012. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. (2012)

Seeing Like a Slum: Towards Open, Deliberative Development.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Winter/Spring 2012. (pp. 97-104). (2012)

Anywhere, Anytime – Mobile Devices and Their Impact on Agriculture and Rural Development.” In ICT in Agriculture Sourcebook (pp. 49-70). Washington, D.C.: World Bank. (2012)

A note on the availability (and importance) of pre-paid mobile data in Africa.” In J. Svensson & G. Wicander (Eds.), 2nd International Conference on Mobile Communication Technology for Development (M4D2010) (pp. 263-267). Karlstad, Sweden: Karlstad University. (2010) (with Jonathan Donner)

Other Writing

"Colonizing the Future: Stuck in the Zero Balance Economy." Boston Review 28 September 2020.

"Kenyans Need a Basic Income Grant." The Star 3 April 2020 (w/ Robert Mwanyumba).

"Perpetual Debt in the Silicon Savannah." Boston Review 14 August 2019. (w/ Emma Park).

"Review of Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development & State Formation by Alden Young." H-Diplo Roundtable Review Volume XX, No. 45. 

Between the Nation and the State.” Limn 7 Public Infrastructures/Infrastructural Publics. (w/ Emma Park).

Review of How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual by Dan Bouk.” Journal of Cultural Economy, available at:

Review of Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa by Deborah James.” Allegra Lab (2015). 

Privacy for the Other 5 Billion.” Slate (2013). (with Carly Nyst).

The Responsibility of Mobile Money Intellectuals? A Review of (a) Due Diligence by Roodman, (b) Money, Real Quick by Omwansa and Sullivan, and (c) The End of Money by Wolman. Information Technology & International Development 9(1). (2013)

SIM Registration and Financial Inclusion in the Silicon Savannah.” Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion. (2013)

Surfing the Internet in Ghana: A Review of Invisible Users by Jenna Burrell.” Los Angeles Review of Books. (2012) (Accompanying blog post.)

Topics interested in supervising

African history; political, legal, and economic anthropology; states & bureaucracies; markets & capitalism; borders & smuggling; infrastructure; science & technology studies.

If you are interested in being supervised by Kevin Donovan, please see the links below for more information:

PhD In African Studies; PhD in Science and Technology Studies; PhD in Social Anthropology; PhD in International Development; MSc (R) African Studies; MSc (R) Science and Technology Studies; MSc (R) Social Anthropology