Nepali Times
"Uplifting" "backward" "beneficiaries"


Every so often a social development project achieves remarkable results. But such examples are astonishingly rare. Perhaps this just goes to show how difficult social development is and we development practitioners can relax (if that is the right word to describe our frantic activity-for we are, on the whole, a hard working and dedicated bunch) assured that we can rarely expect to get it very right. The development endeavour, we tell ourselves, is a continuous struggle but, unlike the labours of Sisyphus, it is not hopeless. It is surely a noble struggle. But even if good examples are remarkably rare this still does not explain why we do not learn from the notable exceptions. Why is it that the evolution of an effective response to a social problem cannot lead to much better responses thereafter? The answer may perhaps be found in certain tendencies within the international development endeavour.

Let me focus on one particular tendency amongst development institutions. We seem to construct the world of our "beneficiaries" as backward and hopeless, while simultaneously living well on the resources intended for these "backward" people. My sketch is an unpleasant one but I make no apology for that, for it is surely criminal that so little social development practice lives up to the promises that a few shining examples seem to offer us.

Many relatively well-educated people find a better living than they might otherwise expect while they struggle to "uplift" or "teach" people who are said to be "backward" and "ignorant". To make this work, a sort of patronage network is constructed. Donors fund intermediaries-often international NGOs which openly claim in their publicity material to be showing people how to live-who then fund local organisations, usually staffed by otherwise unemployed members of the local elite.

The mission to show the people how to live may not be especially attractive to the people themselves, and so those at the ends of the chains of patronage must also receive some tangible benefit from the process. They are paid just enough to ensure their compliance and good will. Thus, visiting managers or monitoring and evaluation staff see and hear exactly what they should. Far from empowering people, the project is another example of how people can be kept securely in their place.

The more tangible the benefit given out at the end of the chain is, however, the more likely it is that the very poor will be excluded from the process and that relatively comfortable, if still picturesque, villagers will be the main beneficiaries of the programme. All seems to go well until the work is stopped because of the withdrawal of funding. Then, no one has any reason any more to continue with the pretence which they have been engaged in, and no one asks why five years of good work seems to have come to nothing in the end. But, as the donor's interest in the project has ended, no one cares very much about this. It looked good while it was running.

There is a test of whether something of this sort is happening in a development project. When a project is merely a form of patronage, expansion of the project will require an equivalent expansion of funding. Thus if it costs 100 money units to work with 100 people it will cost 200 money units to cover 200 people. This is because the first 100 people require the same "support" as the newly added 100 people. Where people are being truly "empowered", however, we should expect that an expansion of the process that empowered them should cost no more than the original process. Indeed an exponential expansion might be aspired to.
This is so because (a) the first 100 people have been empowered and so do not need the resources that they originally did and (b) because the first 100 people will tend to help the next 100 people so that the original budget may now serve many more than 100 new people. Many development workers know this but it remains an ideal that we rarely realise . it is always just around the corner. This is an indicator that patronage rather than empowerment is what the project is achieving.

Let us be clear just who is dependent in this sketch. The people-who recognise that their part in the game might often be to claim dependence-are probably the least dependent. On the contrary, the rest of us are dependent upon them. But elsewhere in the patronage chain, numerous otherwise unemployed men and women are dependent upon the continuance of the activities and desirous of their expansion. It is a vital aspect of this style of development that the poor and marginalised should be presented as fatalistic, ignorant, backward and generally useless. We are asked to believe that they will do nothing for themselves and that it is necessary to recruit middle men (and now women) to, almost physically, "uplift" them. If things go wrong, this is likely to be explained as a product of the people's backwardness.

We give this syndrome the name "aid-dependency"-the name itself seems to put the people down-and often we are told that the people will not "participate" unless we make it worth their while. But when we look at the rare shining examples of inspiring social development, what we find is that the people participate creatively and energetically. They often even make sacrifices to do so. But the activities that they participate in so enthusiastically are not dictated to them by patrons. Rather, they arise out of their own understandings and agreements of their situation and their own aspirations for the future.

What should social development practitioners learn from shining examples? One lesson is clear: if the people need to be pulled or pushed, it should suggest that they are doing it for us rather than for themselves. This will only work when there is enough money to pay everyone (for ever) and to pay most to the overseers who will ensure that the people do what is required of them. To conceive social development in this way is indeed to conceive it as a Sisyphian struggle.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)