Early stages of new international conservation and development programs, often involving pilot projects designed to test intervention concepts at village level, are characterized by large amounts of resources and attention, along with high expectations of success. However, evidence shows that these early expectations are rarely fulfilled. Despite this repeated pattern and growing engagement with expectations in critical conservation and development literature, little is known about the dynamics of expectations in conservation and development pilot projects. Firstly, this knowledge gap is addressed by exploring concepts from the sociology of expectations. Then these expectations are unpacked in a case study of REDD+ pilot projects in Tanzania, using extensive qualitative data reflecting the perspectives and experiences of a wide range of actors involved.
The study finds that expectations play a performative role, mobilizing actors and resources, despite uncertainty identified among policy-makers and practitioners. It also finds that once raised, expectations are dynamic and continually mediated by actors and social contexts, which conflicts with attempts to ‘manage’ them. Therefore, the authors argue that a trade-off exists between fully piloting new initiatives and raising expectations. They also argue that failure to address this trade-off has implications beyond pilot project objectives and timelines, which are experienced most acutely by village communities. They argue for more critical engagement with expectations and the embedding of accountability for expectations in conservation and development practice. Their findings also challenge the discourse of ‘needing’ to pilot, which prioritizes awareness, impact and innovation without fully considering the potential negative impact of unfulfilled expectations.