issue 191 - January 1989
Leaving the peasants in the dark
Obscure new concepts emerge regularly from the 'development
community'. Tarzie Vittachi tries to shed some light.
Language has many paradoxical purposes. It can be used to communicate and to discommunicate, to bring people nearer to one another and to separate them; to liberate human beings and to control them; to iron out differences and to make and establish differences; to clarify and mystify. Politicians, accountants, television producers, newspaper editors and all such mandarins who have set themselves up as authorities with power to say yea or nay to us, to sift right from wrong, good from bad, lawful from criminal, and to decide what the rest of us may know and what we may not ('All the News that's Fit to Print') exploit this wondrous paradoxical nature of language with uncanny skill to attain and retain their hegemony over others. The trick is to concoct words into a special language, a mystery, an abracadabra which they and only they can decode when and if they choose to do so.
Empires were built on this use of language. Imperial governments created a new elite of natives and invested them with the power of their language of administration and justice. This special class acted as their surrogates for over 400 years. But they made a costly mistake in teaching their language to the hoipolloi. Shakespeare foresaw the result. Prospero rants at Caliban:
I pitied thee
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou did not, savage
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known
And Caliban, the quintessential colonial serf, spits back:
You taught me language; and my profit on it
Is, I know how to curse: The red plague rid you,
For learning me your language
Distancing oneself from others of the same species is a classic way of maintaining power. The king in his moated castle, the Chief Executive Officer in his top-floor executive suite, the banker behind the marble half-wall, the bureaucrat skulking behind his secretary, and the high-priest in his cloistered cell, all learned the trick long ago. Distance makes the heart go pit-a-pat with awe and wonder. Crowns, robes, tridents, orbs, college ties and fraternity pins enhanced the power of those 'entitled' to wear them, in the eyes of those outside the circle. But since humans are communicators by nature, a special distance-making language was essential if the mandarins were to maintain their power over the peasants.
The inheritors of the imperial mantle - United Nations bureaucrats and their camp followers in the 'development community', have learned to avoid the mistake of democratizing their language. The very label they have given themselves - 'development community' - sets them apart from those whose life conditions they purport to 'develop'.
The putative beneficiaries of the ministrations, the village and the slum dwellers and the destitute, are not members of the development community. They are Calibans without the gift of language waiting with hands outstretched patiently, hopelessly, haplessly, for the boons of the new colonialism to drop into their laps, inshallah. They are pigmyfied, made remote and alienated by language.
Here's a masterful example from an Indian specialist reporting on the meeting of a coven of developmentalists held at one of those resorts in Holland frequented by that happy breed:
The implementation of key targets as operational components of the new strategy - and hence also of the process of negotiation - may be conceived in the time frame of a decade but only in the form of a dynamic process, with different time frames for different components, and with an in-built and effective mechanism for review and reappraisal, leading to adjustments and correctives whenever the strategy is seen to deflect from the goals and objectives of development for which it was devised. It should be in the form not of a 'plan of action' but rather of a manifesto, which provides the framework of a sustained commitment to, and implementation of development goals and their operational components, and embodies institutional mechanisms for continuous negotiation, monitoring, appraisal, criticism and modification.
What on earth can that superb balderdash mean, especially to a villager in India or Tanzania even if it was translated into Hindi or Swahili? It was not intended for the man or woman at the receiving end but for the author's fellow elitists. The fact that none of them could decipher it matters not at all. The intention was to mystify everybody, including the writer. It was an exercise in total discommunication.
It marks and establishes the arcane authority of the (usually male) development expert much more profoundly and severely than his outer lineaments of specialness such as the belted safari suit he wears 'in the field' and the flap and epaulet-laden trench coat he sports at the conferences he attends with sickening frequency in the West.
He is playing the same game as missionaries who went to Asia to convert the 'heathen Chinee' and to Africa to redeem the 'dark continent' from barbarism. Civilizer was the verb the French colonialists used for their depredations in West Africa.
Each year, without fail, a new set of alienating words and phrases is put into currency. One of the most infectious was 'Third World'. It was first used by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, in an article published in Le Monde in which he referred to two industrialized words, one capitalist, one communist, and a tiers monde which remains largely agricultural. The developmentalists grabbed it and used it to make distance between the materially rich and poor nations so that very soon 'Third World' universally connoted poverty, overpopulation, disease, disorder, illiteracy, violent social upheavals and every imaginable human horror. Tacitly interpolating a second world as a buffer between the first and third, served to emphasize the non-relationship between the rich and the poor.
But despite its distance-making intent and its stereotyping effects, the phrase Third World has an intrinsic value. It fulfils the essential requirement of an expressive image, which is to illuminate brightly and quickly. As soon as you hear a reference to Third World you know what it means even if some of its shades of meaning are deleterious to your grand hopes of creating One World out of its lunatic divisions and separatisms. It is a bit of probably irreplaceable shorthand.
Because of its unhappy associations, the United Nations glossary eschews 'Third World', preferring circumlocutions such as Developing Countries and Less Developed Countries. But these euphemisms never really fitted the bill. So the Development Set invented 'The South' to denote an area of darkness out of which millions are trying to emerge into the light. That verbal device too has its problems. For one thing, it is not easy for The South, with its rich and ancient cultural histories to concede that the light is in The North. (All the great religious teachers were born East of Suez!) And, for another, The South is only a hemispherical reality.
It has no cultural or historical cohesion. Asians know nothing about Africa and Africans know nothing about Asia. They might well have done a thousand years ago, but the Imperial Age converted that horizontal relationship into a vertical one so that Sri Lankan schools still teach vertical history 'Ceylon Under British Rule' and Senegal continues its cultural obsession with France.
The coherent North
The failure of the North South Dialogue showed The South that The North - by which they meant the West - did have a coherent distinctiveness: power, financial, technological and military, power which it protected with a specialized technological language unintelligible to anyone outside its closed circle except the Brown and Black Sahibs in The South who had been educated and trained in The North. The South as an image lives on, and has been given a new elixir with the appointment of Julius Nyerere as the head of the South Commission.
When the language of development with all its hollow echoes of Appropriate Technology and Basic Needs failed to make a dent in poverty, then the 'paradigm shift' raised its ugly head. This piece of verbal jugglery was invented as a ready response to the increasingly common question as to why after so many billions of dollars and decades of effort by the experts and the international development set, the gap between the rich and poor was widening and the number of destitute people had increased to nearly a billion. What was urgently needed, we were told, is a 'paradigm shift'. According to Webster and other worthy lexicographers, a paradigm is a model or an example of a work in its various inflections. But according to the Development Set, what is needed is not equitable distribution of the material resources between and within nations - no siree, nothing so mundane as that. What is needed is a different linguistic model. To wit, a paradigm shift. Nothing less would do. If they have no rice why don't they eat a new paradigm? asked the developmentalists at their seminars as they loaded their plates at the restaurant buffets in their five-star hotels. But the paradigms wouldn't shift because they were firmly fixed in the determination of the 'decision makers' to continue wielding their power.
The IMF mantra
Then a new verbal mantra was put about by the IMF: Structural Adjustment. That was the rich world's panacea for the litany of ills of the poor. That is the way for the South to grow and pay off its debts to the banks of the North. The poor must tighten their belts and if they had run out of notches, it was just too bad. 'Must we starve our children to pay off our debts?' pleaded Julius Nyerere. But his words fell on unresponsive ears. Money talks, but is deaf.
Adjustment has replaced Development in the glossary of the International set. And the debate goes on, with UNICEF making a cri de coeur for Adjustment with a Human Face. And the money bags of the IMF and the donor countries have cannily accepted this notion clapping with one hand, because their approval gives their own faces a human mask.
But it is all a matter of language. Words which are meant to be symbols of reality take the place of what they stand for. Mirages become water-holes. Images parade as substance. And the special language of the specialist is a substitute for thought. So what are we to do? Try once more to shift a paradigm? Adjust our faces? Wring our hands and bleat that the world is 'interdependent', ignoring the plain truth that interdependence without equity leads only to the deepening dependency of the weaker? Demand a return to the North-South Dialogue, forgetting that a dialogue between a mendicant and a mandarin can result, at best, in condescending charity? Shall we pick up sticks and stones and drive our rulers from their seats as Toussaint L'Ouverture did in Haiti 200 years ago and the Burmese and the Palestinians are now trying to do? Or shall we seek comfort in the language of religion? At least that promises a second innings, another chance for Caliban's redemption.
Tarzie Vittachi is one of Asia's best-known journalists, with wide experience of the UN system. His latest book The Brawn Sahib Revisited has recently been published by Penguin.