New Internationalist

The Search for Success

Issue 080

Is there any such thing as successful development; and, if there is, who has the right to define it? Who are the developers? Who are the people being developed? What is the difference between them? MAGGIE BLACK describes the search for development’s alchemists’ stone, falls into a few of the pot-holes along the way and emerges bruised but optimistic.

Photo: Maggie Black
Shiny shoes in a Nairobi street: flashy, about-town looks. Is that what development is all about? And if it isn't, what is? Photo: Maggie Black

As I was having a drunk in a Nairobi bar one day, a young Kenyan asked me what I did for a living. "I work in the development business," I replied, "Am I a developed person?" he asked me in a flippant tone. I looked at his dark glasses, his stripy tee shirt, and his flashy, about­town looks, and thought that he represented the opposite of what development in the Third World was all about. But I could hardly say so. He had cultivated a style that was the mirror image of material Western values, and according to his view of things, he was a very developed person indeed.

One person’s development is of course another person’s poison. Most of us working in the development business have reached some kind of synthesis of political, moral, social and economic values which we call development. We want it to work and we want it to be "successful", but not in the way the young man meant. It is salutary to remember that our preoccupations may have little in common with many of those in the Third World towards whom our efforts are directed.

We wouldn’t start out by trying to find our model of successful development in a hotel in any capital city. We would head for those ubiquitous rural areas, where most schemes worthy of our concern for the poor of the world are to be found. There are a lot of other people like us out there, also looking for the alchemists’ stone. Much of their vocabulary is familiar. They talk about self­help and self-reliance, community participation and basic services. They ask questions about appropriate technology and income-generating activities, and worry about felt needs and consciousness­raising. None of them ressembles the man in the Nairobi bar.

One of these people is the aid agency representative, who is trying to find something on which the donated funds in his swelling bank account can be spent. Another is the UN expert, keen to make a positive evaluation of his organisations’ contribution to expanding government services. Then there are local party officials, politicians, and district development officers, all with a job to do or an axe to grind. There are also academics charting the critical path to economic take-off and writing it up for their doctoral theses. Bringing up the rear are the philanthropic tourists, journalists, individual donors, student travellers, readers of the New Internationalist, and those who want to feel at first hand what development really means.

The problem with the model of successful development - according to our perspective - is that it is such a rare and elusive happening. Anywhere that has acquired a reputation as a development success story becomes a shrine for development worshippers: ujamaa villages for example, village polytechnics, site and service schemes for shanty dwellers, or primary health care projects based on giving training to members of the community. Development worshippers bring great passion and intellectual force to the process of thrashing out their theories. But when they actually go and look at what is happening on the ground, they find their vision is curiously unconnected with the realities in villages, factories and towns. It is often a shock and a disappointment.

Doubts, scepticism and frustration

It is difficult to find a person intimately concerned with a development scheme who does not, when he is being entirely honest, express doubt, scepticism, or frustration about the problems connected with what he is doing. If you are used to being one of the crowd of philanthropic tourists, you get to the point where you assume that a lot is being witheld from you if there is no revelation of misfortunes and short­comings. The same thing happens whether you are with the village school­teacher or a senior government economist, an aid boffin or a missionary.

Stalwart efforts are being made and money is being pumped in, but the goals of the project - bursting grain stores, plump-cheeked healthy children, fountaining water pumps, vocationally-trained school leavers established in their own minienterprises - are being reached at a pace so painfully slow that progress appears negligible. All the pre-planning and replanning, the flow-chart diagrams and evaluation studies seem to make little impression on whether the well actually gets dug or the road repaired, whether the hens lay or the school teacher is prepared to live in the house the villagers have built him, or whether the farmers are repaying their loans or drinking themselves silly each night instead.

On the larger scale for example, the major industrial installation, the national villagisation programme, or the vast dam that opened up millions of hectares of new irrigated farmland, there can be a similar history of disaster. The plant was not economic, it never worked at capacity, nobody considered the market implications and now that the Russian technicians have left it is threatened with closure. The villages were put in the wrong places, the soil survey was inadequate, families cannot grow enough food, and every rainy season the houses are inundated. The dam is a marvellous monument to technological progress. But the families on the irrigated farms are landed with a burden of indebtedness they cannot repay because producer prices are artificially depressed. The list is endlessly monotonous. But the crisis is not one of development failure, it is a crisis of over-ambitious expectations.

Photo: Edward Milner
Most ordinary people in developing countries do not go around wringing their hands over development failures or successes. For most, social change has touched their lives positively in some way, sometimes quite dramatically. Photo: Edward Milner

Victims of our own propaganda

The fact is that we are victims of our own propaganda. There was a neat Chinese proverb that was frequently quoted during the Sixties as a glib summary of what we were about. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to tsh and you feed him for life." It made the process sound so easy. No-one who has had the development migraine for any length of time now deceives themselves that there is anything easy about transforming a society. Some people do learn, metaphorically, to fish. An amazing number don’t, or can’t, or won’t, for all sorts of perfectly valid reasons.

The amazing thing is that any Westerner ever had the the arrogance to imagine that the whole historical process of industrial, agricultural and political revolution could be telescoped into a few short years in the developing, countries. The disappointments suffered at the failure of our grand designs were highly predictable. Now that it is realised that the process is one of trial and error, more fraught with risk than most ventures we would contemplate within the context of our own lives, we have belatedly managed to swallow a bite of humble pie. It has even given some of us a taste for scepticism and defeat. We recite the gloomy statistics about 800 million people still living in absolute poverty, and we regard the tiny distance covered for mankind in the first of two of the UN’s Development Decades as an indication of failure.

But of course its no such thing, as the man in the Nairobi bar would tell you even if he can’t tell you anything else you want to hear.

One thing that is not available is a blueprint for successful development, and we would do ourselves a service if we stopped trying to look for it. Projects that work, in whole or in part and more often the latter, should be judged against the set of limited objectives they set themselves, instead of against some noble vision of development truth. An example - an outstanding community health-care scheme in Western Kenya - works because it is devised in a way which makes it appropriate to particular people in a particular place (see NI No. 71, page 14). Elements may be usable elsewhere, but that does not turn it into a blueprint for health schemes all over Africa, let alone the rest of the world. A textile cooperative in India with a brilliant record of export sales is not a prototype for a country on the other side of the globe where the market is principally local.

Variation is the stuff of successful development. We need to apply infinite flexibility about the kind of pegs we are fitting into all the holes. When we demolish one set of sacred cows we have to be careful not simply to replace them with another. New articles of development faith, are in danger of leading to just as many failed hopes as in the old days. We don’t need another Chinese proverb to fire our enthusiasm. We need to absorb the lessons of the past, and do a certain amount of lateral thinking.

The challenge of world poverty has set in motion a whole new intellectual generation of ideas. It has inspired overtly political movements, not to mention revolutions, concerned with the just distribution of wealth and power. It has nurtured the Theology of Liberation. It contributed to the alternative lifestyle movement with its revulsion of Western materialist values. It prompted concern with small-scale technology and humanising structures. It brought into being a new school of economic thinkers with their "redistribution with growth" and "basic needs" strategies.

What is now needed is for the high voltage of all this energy to be carefully lowered, so that the flow of new ideas does not overtake the capacity of Third World groups to take advantage of them. People need a chance to test ideas and action against the agonisingly slow time-scale of social change before one strategy is dismissed a "failure" and replaced by a more fashionable one emanating from Geneva or New York. Instead of aiming for one repeatable grand design, developed in some First World laboratory and subsequently tested in the field, the components of all sorts of designs should be adapted for use whereever they are appropriate. The flow of information about development, needs to be re-directed so that it is those actually involved in the process who can share notes and pool experience. After all, it is they who should be defining objectives and marshalling means.

Involvement is crucial

Photo: Edward Milner
People need a chance to test ideas and action against the agonisingly slow time-scale of social change before any development strategy is dismissed as a 'failure' and replaced by a more fashionable one emanating from Geneva or New York. Photo: Edward Milner

The one vital factor in successful development is that each community and the individuals in it must be fully involved at all stages of the process. Most of us are motivated by the desire to fulfill our own and our dependents’ needs for food, clothing, shelter and love, to quote a current paper by John Turner which tries to summarise some basic principles of development in the housing context.* If people do not see that their needs are likely to be met by plans drawn up on their behalf, they will fail to respond to them and may become extremely obstructive. They should be the final arbiters over any development plan which concerns them. Outside inputs in the form of cash, technology, or expertise should support their aims, not overwhelm them. Interventions should take the form of "loose parts" not "tight packages" from which communities can select what they need, according to Turner’s exposition.

The Third Development Decade when it starts in 1980, will not be ushered in with the burning zeal that accompanied the First, or the measured optimism of the Second. But there is no need for a failure of nerve. Last year the World Bank published the first of its annual reports on world poverty, and started out encouragingly by listing the achievements of the developing countries over the past quarter century. It detailed record-breaking growth rates, rises in personal income, the spread of education systems, and the establishment of all sorts of institutions from banks and industrial corporations to extension agencies and vocational training centres. It made a welcome change from the funereal tones of the standard document of this type. The developing countries would be served better by the developed world if we made a habit of acknowledging their progress instead of harping on their backwardness.

Most ordinary people in developing countries, those in jobs like teaching, those who run shops or small businesses, or who simply work the family plot, do not go around wringing their hands over development failures or successes. For most, social change has touched their lives postively in some way, sometimes quite dramatically. Many of them see their countries as getting richer and life as getting better. The benefits of progress have by no means reached everyone in equal share, and many of the poorest have been bypassed. But many people, like the man in the Nairobi bar, have seen great changes in their lifetime. When you compare today’s opportunities with those their parents faced, the idea that development has failed becomes absurd.

* "What to do about Housing: its part in Another Development," by John RC. Turner, published by International Foundation of Development Alternatives (IFDA) Dossier, October 1979. 2 Place du Marche, CH 1260 Nyon, Switzerland.

Maggie Black has been "in the development business" for several years - first with Oxfam, then on the staff of the New Internationalist, latterly with UNICEF in East Africa. She will shortly be taking up her new post as Editor of UNICEF publications in New York. The views expressed in this article are entirely her own and do not necessarily coincide with those of UNICEF or of any other United Nations organisation.

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