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THE IMPLICIT MEANING OF LOCAL PRACTICES

When trying to understand a local community, it is necessary to look carefully into its daily behaviour. Ordinary practices may reveal the kind of meaning which people give to life, economic matters, social organisation and politics. By local practices we understand : economic life, social and political organisation, architecture, health, law, religion, agriculture, etc., etc. By "implicit meaning" we understand the values, spirituality, cosmology and symbolism which undergird visible practices. The political economy developed in the West since Adam Smith can claim no universal validity. There are other economic systems. Economics are embedded (K. Polanyi) in a variety of different social and cultural realities. In addition to that, there is a dialectical relationship between local economics and local cultures.

The presently dominant economic system, capitalism based on growth, industrialisation, profit, etc. has been severed from values. It has often become senseless and although it is remarkably efficient, it is also often destructive in terms of social justice, environment and cultural identity. It may, therefore be more vulnerable a system than present-day triumphalism leads us to think. The crisis of capitalism may be close to us, in the form of a crisis of meaning, of values, of civilisation.

Towards culturally-rooted alternatives to the dominant economic model

Development is closely linked to this economic system. Conceived as a ready-made formula to be parachuted onto the countries of the South, it often fails. Local people resist being "developed". This resistance to development is done by inflicting failures on strategies and projects. The dynamics of such resistance originate in peoples' culture, in their sense of values and identity.

The glib talk about "our world" and "interdependence" is often used to occult mechanisms of domination of the North on the South and is interpreted in terms of a uniform culture to be imposed all over the planet and based on materialism, rationalism and individualism. People resist this uniformisation through all kinds of alternative attitudes (mentality) and practices (behaviour). Thus the failure of development may be interpreted as evidence of the vitality of peoples' identity and their sense of values.

Alternative economic practices (in the "informal sector", "folk economics", strategies of survival, etc) are helping millions of people to survive. They are rarely really "subversive" of the dominant economic order. They should rather be seen as plants growing in the cracks of the concrete wall of official economics. They are often ambiguous, dependent, marginal and apt to be co-opted. Yet they contain interesting experiences, perhaps even suggestions for other approaches to labour, employment, saving, production, competition, money, etc... They suggest that the axiom of the homo economicus which undergirds modern political economy is not universal. They show that approaches other than those of unlimited growth and profit are possible. They may even usher in a new paradigm for economies (Amitai Etzoni of Harvard would call them socio-economics) and for "development". Other factors and movements contribute to the search for a new paradigm, both in the South and in the North : the green movement, certain strands of women' lib, peace movements and those people who, like ourselves in the South-North Network, look at peoples' culture and spirituality as a matrix for social alternatives. This search is also linked to attempts at macro-economics level to bring some order and justice into the international scene, either through challenging the debt-trap of the countries of the South, or through an attempt to achieve gradual and selective strategies of economic de-linking and collective self-reliance.

"Development without hurting" ?

Our observation on existing economic alternatives to the "formal" economic system leads us to:
- challenge the validity of development projects which are based on narrow economic parameters;
- try and devise "development without hurting" (Albert Ledea Ouedraogo);
- criticise the epistemological and theoretical basis of modern Western economic sciences, including their so-called "economic order" ;
- further empirical research in suburbs, slums and rural areas so as to discover local dynamics and their own specific meaning and modes of operating;
- support indigenous initiatives to reflect on one's own practices, express ones' own concept of economics, resist, and invent alternatives for a more humane life;
- look for partners with whom to build links so as to strengthen each other South-South and South-North;
- devise analytical concepts to help ourselves, development agencies and local NGOs in these tasks.

It is necessary to stress the need for intellectual modesty, patience and respectful listening to the others. One must also insist on the fact that no one may claim to aid the other if he or she does not accept the need to be helped in return. International co-operation must become two-way traffic at last. The donor must recognise his or her own short-comings and "poverty" so as to be able to receive from and to be helped by the 'poor'. Without this recognition of the West's own poverty, paternalism is inevitable. This will lead to a new code for international co-operation, ushering the post-development paradigm. What is being written here also pertains to relations of Western Europe and North America to eastern European countries which may be carriers of fruitful alternatives and deep values.

"Cultures and Development", n° 5/6, May 1991.

   
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