Collective power

2013-06-28 00:00

THE subject of development and social change continues to challenge many aspects of human endeavours. All historical narratives share at least one common experience — that the human race is by and large responsible for its own joy and sorrow.

This makes development and social change a complicated affair. But it should teach us one or two things. Generally, development is compromised by the very vehicles created to bring about social change. Let us explore a few of these unpopular imaginary truths and realities of the development discourse. But first, what do we mean by reality? Reality comes mainly in two forms. It is a state of things that physically exist, in other words, the existence of a visible world. And it is also an imaginary affair, that is, a form of “truth” that is created by emotions and reinforced by expectations and hopes. Combined, these two realities inform what people believe as truth.

First, development and social change are implemented according to pre-established scriptures that are under the exclusive proprietorship of the technocrats and economic oligarchies. These knowledge-privileged empires decide on the development policies, the implementation and the entire development discourse. Huge investments have been made to perfect these pre-established development scriptures. They teach successful models. They warn of risks that may lead to failures; however, they hardly prepare the technocrats to deal with realities that fall between the planned success and the programme failure. When things fall apart, some are quick to blame Western models, but they fail to engage African development applications as alternatives.

Here is an example to clarify this. Many projects are delivered through project-steering committees as a way of ensuring stakeholder participation. The reality has revealed that the social enterprises that are established to deliver services are compromised. The social enterprises present many unpopular panoramas of development. For instance, a water project is planned for a rural village. Project-steering committee members are told that they cannot be employed by the project. Is this saying that they do not aspire to better incomes? Poor co-operative members are expected to be efficient corporate governors as well as employees of the enterprise. However, many receive no remuneration if the co-operative is unprofitable, but are still expected to pay salaries to employees who are hired from the community. In other words, these members are expected to referee and play at the same time. Consequentially, a state of paralysis is created by the system that should improve lives.

Second, the African development discourse has been permeated by Western development hegemony. African views on development are informed by collectivism, social learning and, in many cases, voluntarism. The call for moral regeneration has created public platforms for Christian-based motivators who chant individualistic methods of improving lifestyles, instead of encouraging collective development. The broadcast media continue to flood the public with images of an irresistible lifestyle and many development practitioners have been seduced by Western lifestyles. But these same development practitioners are preaching the gospel of collectivism and common good. But how do they live this contradiction? The attraction of Western lifestyles has made it difficult for development practitioners to convince community members to embrace collectivism and the common good while they themselves are not living it. This hypocrisy cannot be ignored.

Lastly, associated with better-off lifestyles is the question of intersocial class comparisons that manifest themselves through public disobedience and public-service strikes. Political opportunists exploit the forces of collectivism to achieve their own political ends. They have transformed into champions who promise solutions to unpopular political regimes that they were part of in the first place. The reality is that vulnerable communities are used to fight battles of economic inclusion and social justice based on unrealistic quick wins. Unfortunately, it is proving to be complicated to use this discourse to resolve the many development challenges the world was not prepared for. Many vulnerable communities are tired of macro-economic development strategies that have failed to transform their lifestyles. The development agenda will need to deal with many impatient constituencies that have nothing to lose if they destroy public infrastructure and promote social disorder.

But there should be some alternatives to resolve these development contradictions and unpopular imaginary truths and realities. The instinct for collective action exists in many aspects of life and this energy could be used to find solutions.

The family, the church, traditional community institutions, cultures and traditions are some of many sources of knowledge that instil values of co-existence and respect. These can be exploited to provide answers to development challenges, especially the improvement of household incomes, social order and ideals of co-existence.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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