New Internationalist

Inside The Outsider

Issue 96

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EXPERTS [image, unknown] Interview with René Dumont

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Inside the outsider

RENE DUMONT
Rene Dumont. Photo: Christopher Sheppard

RENE DUMONT is unique among experts. Third World leaders consult him on their development plans, while international agencies hire him to knock million-dollar aid programmes into shape. Hehasbeen received, though not always welcomed, in more than 75 countries, arguing time and again for the peasant farmer against the urban elite. A socialist believing in small-scale enterprise but opposed to Soviet-style communism, he has outraged marxists like Fidel Castro as well as Francophone Africa's band of capitalist despots. For 15 years he has been a confidante of Julius Nyerere - whose socialism comes closest to his own.

Dumont's rise into the ranks of world statesmen was as an academic. Only once did he venture into politics: as `porte-drapeau' for the French Ecology Movement, winning two per cent of the votes in the 1974 Presidential election. Otherwise he has remained an outsider: influencing policy where he needn't face the consequences.

Although he retired in 1974, Dumont's health suffered and he had to return to work. Now he spends more time than ever away from his Paris home, travelling widely in the Third World, writing prodigiously, freely criticising politicians and planners - and inviting criticism of himself.

Dumont's views on development are well known. But he rarely discusses his role as the endlessly critical outsider, serving up one-man recipes for successful development. In this exclusive interview Christopher Sheppard asked him about the private side of life as an expert.

At 76 years old,Rene Dumont is still a man in a hurry. As he guided me from the metro station to his apartment overlooking the Bois de Vincennes, I had to quicken my step. `Save energy' he admonished, whisking me past the elevator and up the stairs.

Dumont's apartment is modestly proportioned, but richly furnished, the desk littered with the raw materials of his next book. `Maldevelopment in Latin America' will be his thirty-third. Number 32, L'Afrique Etranglee was dubbed Dumont's `latest cry of anguish' by Le Monde, and 'Maldevelopment' may well be another one.

`The main problem in the Third World', argues Dumont, `is the privileged urban minority in power.' Third World elites have long been the butt of his criticism, but now it is their `suffocating' bureaucracies which have become a personal target. His experience of them is unique.

After fifty years as an `expert' Dumont can bypass official procedures and offer himself direct to Presidents and Prime Ministers. He doesn't wait for aninvitation. In 1978 he wrote to Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda: `I am free. I don't need any salary. I will pay my own air ticket'. Nyerere and Kaunda accepted. Dumont arrived, did his research, and submitted his report. In both cases they were suppressed. The title, L'Afrique Etranglee, is, as much as anything, a comment on that experience.

Professor Dumont, in slippers and woolly jumper, settled himself in an armchair. I explained what I wanted: insight into the life of an expert. But biographical detail and considered opinion were not easily prised apart and his private feelings stayed mostly private.

There are, says Dumont, only two lines in his curriculum vitae: 1929-1932 agricultural research and extension work, French Colonial administration, North Vietnam. 1933-1974; National Institute of Agronomy, Paris. Before going to Indochina Dumont was a student of the same institute, specialising in `Colonial Agriculture'. `I wanted to know the world and improve the situation of the poor farmer.' But after three years in Hanoi he became 'anti-colonialist'. `It is not possible,' he concluded `to help the peasant within the colonial system.' A lifetime of work has been devoted to proving his point.

Dumont soon decided that specialising in agriculture alone is no good. `If I give technical advice, I must know the economic consequences.' And as his work spread through economics, sociology and anthropology so the globe shrank. One, two, three months at a time were spent as visiting expert in the Third World. First in North Africa, then West Africa, South America, Asia. Until he could finally boast 75 different stamps in his passport. `In each case,' he remembers, `my method of work was the same. First, select the documentation; reject 75 per cent of it and study the rest. Then go immediately to the village and speak to the peasants. After that I take my conclusions to the government.'

Dumont's brisk self-confidence and strict agenda make easy enemies. But a solid academic reputation and his prolific report writing have cushioned him from critics as well as from irate officials. And he takes obvious pride in his trade-union-style negotiating. When deadlock threatens he walks out. In Cuba Fidel Castro wouldn't listen to Dumont so he caught the next plane. In India he objected to guided tours of showpiece villages without a trace of poverty. `I'm going back to France,' he said `We have so many problems there, so many mistakes. Here everything is perfect.' No-one called his bluff, and he got what he wanted: a map of the district and villages chosen with a pin.

Self-doubt may be the hardest thing for any professional to admit. And Dumont tends to dismiss questions about his effectiveness with a standard formula. `I have been asked to give my opinion. Nothing more.' Again and again he is asked to give his opinion. By the French government, the UN, the FAO, the Ford Foundation, by Universities in Latin America; NGO's in Europe, as well as by a coterie of admiring Third World statesmen.

Why do they invite Rene Dumont, I asked. `Because they have confidence in my advice.' And are you always confident of giving the right answers? `I never say "no problems". I say my policy will be better than yours.' But if that is rejected, how do you feel? `I do my best. I know my limits. I know when I begin such work I will not change the world.'

My tape recorder clicked to a stop at the end of side one. With the speed of someone used to taking such chances. Dumont got to his feet and swept away our coffee cups.

He returned mid-sentence. Before I could get my machine going again he was well into a story about advising Iran's Minister of Agriculture in 1975 that he had only five years to put things straight. `They didn't even have that long' he smiled. I realised that the subject had been changed: it was now oil economies and no longer personal anxiety.

It seems that Dumont deals with doubts about his work as an expert in two ways. One is the `I have done my best. Take it or leave it' approach. A position he strengthens by arguing that as an outsider he can say things which internal critics often can't. `They can't put me in jail', he says, `I am too well known.' The other is to put aside his policy-making efforts and retire to the position of committed academic. `I am not only an expert for the government' he insists `I am also a writer. My business is to alert public opinion.'

When the Third World turns its backon Dumont he can turn to face another audience. False Start in Africa is the best-selling product of just such turnabout. In 1961 Dumont was completing a tour of 12 French colonies in Africa - one month and a 100-page report for each. Before leaving Congo-Brazzaville he telephoned to request an audience with the President. He was told `the President is sick'. But at a cocktail party that evening the chief of cabinet came to Dumont and apologised, giving the real reason: the President was `soul comme un cochon' - drunk as a pig. `I was deeply shocked,' recalls Dumont, `At this second I decided to write False Start. I can give my report to government. But what kind of government?'

It was False Start in Africa that first caught the eye of Nyerere and Kaunda. `They saw the English translation and called me immediately.' It was 1967 and the World Bank was in disrepute. Dumont remembers this as his biggest success in influencing government policy. `Tanzania,' he says, `is the one country for which I have lasting sympathies.'

Now the story has come full circle. In 1978 Dumont's methods were the same but the experience was different. `I visit 14 provinces. Each province one week. Each week at the end a meeting with 50 people. I speak for one hour. I give my conclusions. Then two hours of discussion.' His report goes to government in two parts. The first on technical and economic problems. `This is gold,' says the Prime Minister Then follows the second half. On the political party, the administration and the parastatal bureaucracies - all highly critical. `The iron curtain descends,' explains Dumont, lowering his hands in front of his face. `At my last meeting with the Prime Minister there is a spy from the party: "everything is perfect in Tanzania".' Twelve months later L'Afrique Etranglee is published: `La fete est finie, la catastrophe est la.'

The saga is not entirely unique. During the 60s Dumont fell out with Castro in a big way. His comment on Cuba? `Two visits, two books'. But Nyerere is different; already he has written to Dumont urging the translation of his new book into English. `Nyerere has confidence in me' says Dumont. `The party doesn't.'

Dumont can't help but set himself apart from most of those he deals with. In French West Africa after the publication of False Start in Africa he was persona non grata. `But the world is big,' he grins, `If I have difficulty here, I can go there.' And, in any case, President Leopold Senghor of Senegal now admits to Dumont that he was wrong. In Tanzania, Dumont was received, he says, `in very exceptional circumstances'. `The Prime Minster asked me to give a lecture. I was the speaker. All the Ministers were my pupils.'

Casting around for something to bring the interview back to Dumont rather than his clients, I quote the Who's Who summation of Dumont's interests: Antiques, painting, wife. Is this an order of priority, I ask. `You met my wife,' says Dumont. `It is she who paints, not me.' But you collect antiques. `No, no. I have collected antiques.' So your lifestyle has changed? `Yes,' he said, a little wearily, gesturing to the shelves of gilt-edged books, `I have more difficulty living in such a context.' You feel the contradictions? `La vie est un compromis' he said, more loudly, `Life is a compromise.'

And the future? `The best way to keep healthy is to fight. I cannot retire now. I will work until the last day.'

In from the cold: Rene Dumont, on the left, listens to Fidel Castro, on the right. Photo: Christopher Sheppard
In from the cold: Rene Dumont, on the left, listens to Fidel Castro, on the right. Photo: Christopher Sheppard

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