issue 183 - May 1988
Richard Swift argues for a new style
of development - one that empowers people to
meet their own basic needs in their own way.
Third World development is a growth industry. There are development banks, development agencies, development consultants, development studies, even development magazines. Today the development business provides jobs for tens of thousands of people - ironically most of them are in the industrial North.
Unfortunately, as we enter the UN's fourth development decade the gap between the promise of development and the reality of most people's lives is as wide now as it was in the 1950s. For some 600 million people (roughly one in eight of us) getting through each day is a major victory. Every day 20,000 children don't make it and 20,000 more take their place tottering on the edge of existence.1
No wonder many people are beginning to think that 'development' is not everything it's cracked up to be. Gustavo Esteva works with a network of 400 grassroots organizations in the slums and villages of Mexico. For him the development dream has become a nightmare.
'Development means starting on a road others know better, running towards a goal others have reached, racing up a one-way street. Development means sacrificing the environment and traditional customs to ever changing expert advice. Development promises enrichment, but for the overwhelming majority it has always meant the progressive modernization of their own poverty: growing dependence on guidance and management.'2
It is tempting to quibble with Esteva and claim he is throwing the baby out with the bath water when he identifies development with a pattern of economic growth that generates inequality. Surely there are other solutions to the development puzzle. Part of the problem lies in the verbal minefield that surrounds the word 'development'. It can mean everything from the awakening of a child's mind to the evolution of a bacterial culture in a jar. Even if we settle on economic and social development the path ahead is still uncertain.
For some, development means fashionable boutiques and elaborate indoor shopping malls. For others it means clean water and a roof that does not leak. The very ambiguity of the word is one source of the problem: if everything is development then nothing is development.
In fact the important questions appear again and again. Is development designed to meet people's basic needs? Or is it just frenzied economic activity where the smart guys end up on top and to hell with the rest? Should development take account of the environment? Does it provide a few well-paid jobs in modern industry while replacing most workers with machines? Does it mean a McDonald's on every corner - or a functioning health clinic in every village? Is development an economic prescription handed down from on high or should people affected have political control over the process?
There is no question the Third World has experienced a certain kind of 'progress' over the last three decades. Many more people now live in Third World cities - mostly in sprawling, unserviced shantytowns. There is a patina of modernization evident in capital cities from Bangkok to Bogota: high-rise buildings and fancy government offices are common. There are new airports, power dams, luxury hotels and even a few factories producing cars and electronic appliances that most Brazilians or Nigerians will never be able to afford. And of course the military is always after the latest weapons system.
To pay for it the Third World has gone into debt on a massive scale - at last count one trillion dollars. The interest charged by the Northern banking system means the Third World now pays back more than it receives in aid and new loans combined 3. Mexico alone pays more than $15 billion a year to service its debt. In order to meet these payments land for food has become land for growing foreign exchange (i.e. export crops). A healthy environment is being auctioned off to international agri-business and the timber trade. A modern facade has been constructed behind which the poor majority are hidden and ignored.
Out of all this noise and bluster one thing at least seems clear. Conventional development based on growth, profits, individual advancement and the centralizing of power and resources is not the answer. Even on its own terms it is starting to falter. Growth rates in the 1950s and 1960s routinely hit five per cent. Since then they have steadily plummeted: the projected growth rate for 1989 is 1.75 per cent.4 The Northern banking system may never recover its over-extended Third World loans. The stockmarket has the jitters. A trade war between the major industrial powers looms. What conventional economics failed to provide when the system was healthy (shelter, adequate diet, preventive health care, the chance of self-expression) is unlikely to be provided when it is sick.
Inequality is built into this pattern of development and the notion that wealth will trickle down to those who need it most has become a bad joke. The present global economy allows the European Economic Community to sit on mountains of surplus butter, eggs and milk while Africans across the Mediterranean starve. The Community's surplus sugar production alone takes up an area equivalent to the whole of Trinidad and Tobago. In some developing countries (India, Brazil and parts of the Middle East) conventional development has allowed a small elite to prosper. The number of Mercedes prowling the streets of Third World capitals is proof that wealth feeds on poverty. Redistribution of wealth and power - rather than a pattern of growth that generates more inequality - must be the key.
'Could you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?', Alice asks the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll's famous tale. The cat grins and replies: 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.' The development industry would do well to consider this bit of feline wisdom. Fairer distribution is essential. But that will only be ensured if people in the villages of the Sahel or the rice fields of south Asia are allowed to shape their own development to meet their own needs.
The solution to the development puzzle advocated in these pages cannot be measured by the usual economic indicators - Gross National Product, Balance of Payments, Balance of Trade or Foreign Exchange Reserves. While it may satisfy economists to gauge success in these terms, dry statistics don't say whether people have enough to eat or will live past the age of 50. They are a poor barometer of the pride and self-confidence so necessary for development to be effective. Development whose rewards are spread more evenly depends on the effective organization of those with a stake in more equal distribution - the poor, the landless and the marginalized.
Any alternative to the accepted development wisdom must start with the problems that people face every day: lack of protein, an infestation of pests, unsafe working conditions or the government's refusal to build a road. Large amounts of money are usually not what is necessary to get things moving. A small amount in combination with political support or appropriate technical advice can do the trick. Many development agencies will not even consider projects below the $50,000 or $100,000 range.5 Such amounts are only useful to a community group in very exceptional circumstances.
Development from the grassroots must begin with Third World farmers and urban workers and build from there. A primer on people-centred development by World Neighbours, an organization with 30 years experience in small-scale rural development, gives an idea of just how difficult this can be.
'By and large, these farmers are illiterate, inaccessible, powerless, unorganized, suspicious of outsiders, unaccustomed to change, unable to take risks and convinced by life-long experience that their situation is not likely to improve.'6
The description rings true for more than just farmers. Despite this pessimistic starting point the World Neighbours manual Two Ears of Corn goes on to spell out just how effective grassroots development can work. Many non-government organizations now believe there are no shortcuts to empowering local communities to meet their own basic needs. The agenda that flows from this consensus involves agencies in small-scale projects that empower women, respect rather than exploit the environment, get resources to those who need them most and build on the rights of people to decide the fate of their own communities. Such an approach means more time listening and a lot less time organizing the lives of others.
Education is an essential component of grassroots development. In Latin America it is called 'conscientization'; in the Philippines it's 'exposure' and in Africa animation'. Whatever the label it translates as empowerment - giving people the tools, not just to solve one immediate crisis but to analyse and respond to new and emerging problems.
A good example comes from Colombia where a group of small farmers struggled for years to get rights to small plots for subsistence farming. They organized with no outside support against hostile local landlords and an uncaring government. Eventually they realized it was a losing battle. But the experience of organizing was not lost. They used the confidence and skills they had gained to form a new organization. The Cristo Rey fishing cooperative is today a prosperous business and a formidable voice in the national organization of Colombian fishermen.7
Non-government organizations know from experience that a new housing venture or an agricultural co-op will only be successful if the people involved feel the project is theirs. This means the farmers themselves must decide what to grow and where best to place the irrigation system. Decisions about where to put scarce resources must be left to those who will still be using the pumps and the land five years down the line.
One persistent myth in the development field is that they need us to show the way. While outside intervention can certainly provide a boost, the seed of development lies within poor communities. Even where the political space to change things for the better is severely restricted - in the dusty townships of black South Africa or the working class barrios of Latin America - organizations spring up to answer to people's immediate needs. These groups provide food and health services, look after the families of those carted away to prison, even administer local justice where the police are regarded as an alien force.
In many parts of the Third World poor people's communities are providing their own alternative structures of government where the national government simply doesn't care. Where government is not a hostile force there is still a danger it may smother grassroots development with good intentions. There is a built-in tendency towards obesity in government as in any kind of bureaucracy. In most Third World nations a relatively well-off civil service and military absorbs the lion's share of scarce resources as salaries and official perks. To officialdom things are done right only if government gets credit for the results. Such unchecked political power can distort the soundest development policies.
Even socialist governments that have tried to break with the standard capitalist approach invest heavily in central government, sometimes at the cost of local initiatives. Cuba, a country that has done better than most in meeting basic needs, provides a case in point. The centralists have been the clear winners in the Cuban development debate. The giant state farms (averaging 50,000 acres) soak up most of the agricultural assistance. Yet on the more democratic, smaller cooperatives, crop yields have been consistently higher. The co-ops spend 62 centavos (100 centavos = 1 peso) for every peso's worth of produce. State farms spend over two pesos ($2.6)8.
Politics and development may make uncomfortable bedfellows but they are inevitable ones. Like it or not political choices do shape development results - a truth that many in the 'professional development' world of multilateral banks and non-government aid agencies like to ignore.
The experience of Elvia Alvarado, a 48-year-old community organizer and mother of six, illustrates the tension. Elvia ran into trouble with the Honduran Catholic Church who were funding her village 'mother's club.'
'They wanted us to give food to malnourished mothers and children, but they didn't want us to question why we were malnourished to begin with. They wanted us to grow vegetables on our tiny plots around our houses, but they didn't want us to question why we didn't have enough to feed ourselves. . . We started talking about the need for some changes. And then the very same church that organized us the same church that opened our eyes, suddenly began to criticize us, calling us communists and Marxists.'9
Support for grassroots development carries with it a commitment to the right of poor people to organize in pursuit of their own interests. Donor agencies must be willing to throw themselves behind the social movements, unions, community groups and local enterprises that are challenging the priorities of those who have hijacked development to benefit a privileged minority. This is the hidden, often controversial and sometimes dangerous side of development.
There are no fool-proof recipes. But if we are interested in supporting real development we should ask tough questions of the agencies that spend our money.
· Do those groups receiving support try to answer immediate material needs like higher wages or better crop yields?
· Do projects challenge the unequal distribution of power and demand fair treatment and a more equal distribution of resources?
· Is there an alternative vision of social relations at the heart of the development effort - self-management cooperatives or community-owned housing?
The road ahead is rocky but the final goal of 'development' is coming into focus. To reach it we must begin to understand that development is more an art than a science. We need to start with poor people themselves - with their goals, their aspirations and their dreams. Only then can we escape those technocratic fantasies drawn up in London or New York which attempt to remake Third World realities to fit a Western image of progress.
If development was treated as an art the environment would not be seen as abstract 'input' into the growth equation. Instead its conservation would be critical for community well-being. Economics would be based on carefully-solicited views of what local people themselves feel would improve their lives. Such an approach would also support the poor as they organize to take basic development decisions for themselves. Above all this approach would avoid the quick-fix shortcuts that are controlled by, and usually for, outsiders.
1 Manifesto of World Food Assembly', Development; Journal of the Society for International Development, Rome, #3 1985.
2 Gustavo Esteva, 'Development: Metaphor, Myth, Threat op cit.
3 Carol Barton, 'Debt Swaps Christianity and Crisis, March 7, 1988.
4 Steven Greenhouse, 'When the World's Growth Slows New Vork Times, Sunday December 27, 1988.
5 Denial Stiles, 'Classical versus Grassroots Development', Cultural Survival Quarterty, V11 #1 1987.
6 Roland Bunch, Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement; World Neighbours, 1982, Oklahoma City.
7 Albert Hirschmann, Getting Ahead Collectivety, 1984.
8 Medea Benjamin at SI., No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today, Food First, 1984.
9 Elvis Alvarado, Don't Be Afraid, Gringo, Food First, 1987
Worth reading on. DEVELOPMENT
There has been so much written on the subject that it is difficult to know where to start. Most of the material by Food First - including the upcoming Turning the Tables on Development - is worth a solid look. World Hunger - Twelve Myths (Food First 1986) is as good a starting point as any and No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today by Medea Benjamin et al. (Institute for Food and Development Policy) is a good exploration of the difficulties in building development alternatives. In the same vein Gerard Chaliand's Revolution in the Third World (Penguin 1977) is a realistic treatment of a subject that is all too often misunderstood.
The work of Susan George is excellent for its high level of analytic insight and ability to cut through professional development cant. Her most recent book is A Fate Worse Than Debt (Pelican 1988). A book that makes clear the strands that tie underdevelopment to environmental collapse is Lloyd Timberlake's Africa in Crisis: the Causes and Cures of environmental bankruptcy (Earthscan 1986). There are several good books by Paul Harrison. His most recent The Greening of Africa (Penguin 1987) is an interesting account of then nitty gritty of successful grassroots development although one might have wished for a bit more on the role of the political context. Also good on the nuts and bolts of successful rural development is Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centred Development (World Neighbours 1982) by Roland Bunch.
This special report appeared in the from the grassroots - solving the development puzzle issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.