The human factor

2013-04-12 00:00

RECENTLY, I took a drive to the rural village of Nokweja. Located a few kilometres south of the town of Ixopo, the main road cutting through the village is satisfactory. You can easily drive the latest German car there with no regrets.

The local clinic and schools appear quite busy from the main road, and there are sanitation facilities in many households. A big community hall appears to be well looked after and the fields show evidence of cropping and production. It is very impressive. But there are some disappointments as well. A chicken broiler is covered in grass. Less than a kilometre away, the piggery shows no sign of operation and along the main road a co-operative has delayed potato harvesting. How should we deal with these development dilemmas?

This experience is not unique to the community of Nokweja. Infrastructure projects such as water supply, roads, electricity and others face frequent challenges associated with community-managed development initiatives. Income-generating projects and those that have their success anchored to social capital and volunteering are prone to multiple invasions of reactionary and non-progressive forces.

For instance, infrastructure projects such as water supply, roads and electricity are provided and maintained by the public sector. Communities simply receive the services. In the case of a water-supply interruption, they know who to call — the Sisonke District Municipality. But only a swift response from the municipality is regarded as service delivery.

The point here is that water supply has not transformed that thinking beyond consumption to income generation.

Similarly, projects such as low-cost housing and household sanitation tend to evaporate from the minds of the beneficiaries once they are delivered to them. Communities have not yet explored the rewarding link between infrastructure delivery projects and income-generation initiatives. Sadly, the few enterprise-development initiatives that are set up tend to collapse as soon as donors move away. So what should we be doing differently?

We know that infrastructure is one of the key development enablers. Many barriers to the development of enterprise are cited year in and year out. Maybe we need to ask ourselves a different question: have we provoked communities enough for them to make appropriate choices in the changing world? Our market-based approach to rural development lacks the capacity to encourage households to make informed choices, choices that empower people to manage a mix of sometimes conflicting expectations, from donors, government, business and social movements, and still continue to make a living.

Civil society is better positioned to facilitate these debates that challenge the conventional wisdom of service delivery and the hand-out mentality, and bring fresh perspectives on strategies that work for communities.

There are a few things the rural-development sector needs to think about. The first one is the capacity of rural households to act on choices presented by local opportunities, such as the chicken broiler and piggery in Nokweja. They should be able to identify spin-off opportunities from their community infrastructure so that they can claim profitable roles in local value chains. They should be able to motivate business owners to engage frequently and constructively with public bodies.

And the rural-development sector, in collaboration with the business community, should be encouraged to promote and reward volunteering and philanthropy beyond individual financial gains. Could employee-owned co-operatives improve some areas of service delivery? Think of rural water provision, community-based maintenance, maintenance of rural school toilet facilities and many other services. Besides taking the Department of Transport’s Zibambele initiative to the next level, this could see millions becoming responsible for providing quality and efficient services in their communities, while earning sustainable incomes. Of course, this expedition should also plan for the unintended and sometimes disastrous consequences of community collectivism, such as the struggles of the Nokweja piggery and chicken broilers. Conflict among members of an enterprise group is the manifestation of unmet bread-and-butter demands, as well as a job-seeking mentality, however economic interests tend to coerce members of the group to collaborate.

Lastly, the development sector should invest in exploring opportunities in the African extended-family practice. This is a primary development and business instrument that is grossly under-utilised. Ceremonies, weddings, funerals and many other communal events demonstrate exceptional knowledge and intelligence, which would benefit enterprise development priorities. History tells us that over time people lose political power and money, but knowledge is the one source of power that never diminishes, no matter how widely one shares it.

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