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Edith Sizoo

" Cultures and Development ", n° 8/9, March 1992.

"Cultures and Development", n° 1, January 1990.


During the last couple of years, leading newspapers in more than one European country have launched frontal attacks against development aid and agencies, accusing them of misleading pretentions, a majority of failed projects, money going down the drain, quite simply, bad use of public as well as private funds. Allegations like "amateurism", and "political action in the name of charity" have been among the least severe blows in the face of many who thought they were working hard for an honourable purpose : solidarity with the poor and the powerless.
Although many of the accusations were not entirely untrue as such, the truth happens to be part of a much more complex reality. Instead of calling for better financial control by the Auditor's Office of Western governments and political control by their Ministries of Foreign Affairs as a solution, it seems highly necessary to stop dancing around the fire and openly to put the question whether perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with the mechanism that directs the financing system of development aid.

What, in one of the more respected newspapers in the Netherlands, recently was called "uncontrolled hobbyism of development aid" is much more serious than just lack of control on the spending of development funds. It ensues from the Rostowian vision - still present under the white skin - that "developing" countries only develop when they follow the evolution of the "developed" world. Although the most beautiful phrases of governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental policy documents alike excel in making us believe the opposite, the practice of development co-operation provides more than enough evidence that donors from the North set the agenda of development agencies in the South, be they governments, churches, NGOs, farmers' movements or women's organisations. Material means for development are only given when development initiatives fit into the criteria which the donor has put for himself and for others. Donors - after all is said and done - take the final decision on which development initiative is financed and which is not. This choice is determined by the cultural frame of reference of the specific donor concerned. What he understands by poverty, progress democracy, emancipation, participation, justice, human rights, in short "development" determines what is accepted as valuable and therefore as credit worthy. The problem is not that this happens out of ill will, but that one is mostly unaware in what respect one's own vision is culturally biased.

The power of money

Development aid is tied to the power of money and the power of money is identified with the right of intervention. This intervention is geared at changes to be made in the situation of countries and local population groups in a way and a direction which makes sense to the donor. The ethical question on which grounds this right is based, is as yet unanswered.

One of the main reasons why the majority of development projects are not sustainable is that they are projections of ideas and interests of those who intervene. In doing so, intervenors try to keep their space for manoeuvering as large as possible by reducing the selection of alternatives of those who are the object of the intervention. This is one of the characteristics of the culture of Power (which, by the way, is exercised just as much by external donors as by internal rulers). An additional problem is that ideas and interests of intervenors are often contradictory and so people at the "grassroots" level become a human football.

The power of culture

The interesting thing however is that, in the long run, these interventions very often fail. For not only people in the North consider themselves capable of judging situations in other societies than their own. People in developing countries, in particular the powerless, prove to be capable of applying their value judgement on Northern proposals for development. Thankful receivers of material aid appear to be silent refusers of culturally alien ideas from the "developed world". The development thinking and practice of the last three decades has neglected the most obvious reality in other continents : the cultural diversity of solutions which humanity, throughout centuries, has found for the challenges of its natural and social environment and which provide sense (meaning and direction) to her thinking, acting and existence. People in the non-Western world have been and still are defined in terms of which Western "goods" they do not have : no civilisation, no Christianity, no industrialisation, no technology, no democracy, no economic growth, no free market, etc. They have not been and still are not approached in terms of who they are and would like to be. People resist this threat of loss of identity by using their own armoury of means of protest. Politeness or self-interest make for rare outright refusals of project proposals which imply receiving funds. After this is settled however, people "participate" not so much in order to implement the objectives of the intervening agent, but to deviate these towards their own priorities : by using project means for forms of "social security" which are embedded in the social networks they belong to; by deviating techniques for "rationalisation" of agriculture to what in their own cosmology is acceptable in the relation between man and nature; by adapting project objectives to the risks one can or cannot take in the pattern of power relations in one's own society. By these and other devices, the culture of power and the "development hobbyism" of development agents from the North is controlled by the power of culture of people in the South.

An analysis of the terms of references for most evaluations of development projects instigated by donors show that these are based on questions which donors ask themselves and receivers of aid : Are the original objectives that made sense to me, achieved with my money ? In most cases, the answer to this question is not very satisfactory, which, in turn, leads to superficial conclusions that clearly too many projects fail. If feasibility studies and evaluations of development projects were based on questions which receivers of aid asked themselves and others, projects would probably take another form, another pace, another direction and the final judgement of those concerned might make for a different evaluation of the results.

NGO partnership : a hollow concept ?

The most arrogant aspect of the interventionist nature of development co-operation is that, in this relationship, the economic, social and political situation in the receiving countries as well as the behaviour of aid-receiving agencies is constantly put into question. However, not so those of the donor. This is the essence of the hollow nature of the much cherished concept of "partnership". In North-South relationships (and - history repeats itself - the same pattern is taking shape in the relationship between Western and Eastern Europe) people from the North present themselves most often as people without needs who have next to nothing to receive or learn from people from the South, forgetting to say that the development model they propagate creates gigantic social and ecological problems. These problems are to a large extent caused by the absence of an imperative principle of self-limitation. This attitude and this fact do not induce a feeling of respect nor admiration on the side of "beneficiaries" of development aid, but rather an attitude of grabbing whatever there is to grab.

Development co-operation as mutual enrichment

Development co-operation is no co-operation as long as this relation does not consist of real interaction (which is more than dialogue) between the co-operating parties. This interaction must be geared towards changes in situations of injustice in both societies. To bring this interaction about, taking time is indispensable, time for analysing together culturally determined visions and solutions to world problems.
As all societies in the world are part of the same humanity that has demonstrated its capacity for an immense creativity in finding an immense variety of solutions to problems, it is a matter of well understood mutual interest to conceive of development co-operation as a mutual enrichment and a common responsibility.
It will depend mainly on the mentality of the actors in this co-operation whether the masks which, until today, have characterised development aid relations will be replaced by co-operation concerning problems of the South, the East and the North-West which urgently need solutions.

Edith Sizoo
(First published in
NRC-Netherlands ;
sub-titles are ours)

" Cultures and Development ", n° 8/9, March 1992.


The booklet "Dynamique urbaine d'une Société en grappe : un cas, Dakar" (Ndione, Emmanuel Seyni, Enda, Dakar, 1989) is a fascinating piece of work based on a series of case studies. It offers a honest and illuminating conclusions drawn by the author. Emmanuel Ndione, a friend of the South-North Network, is a Senegalese practitioner in community development. His rich experience in suburban and rural Senegal, combined with a thorough academic training (PhD in social sciences) allows him to write one of the most challenging studies on education-consciousness-raising work in Black Africa. The study shatters any illusions about the universal validity of community development theories based on ideals of equality, democratic decision-making, people participation and equality, and its methodology based on setting up new associations for collective upliftment by and for the poorest.

The Grand Yoff area of Greater Dakar is the place where the author's NGO called Chodak, an off-shoot of Enda (Environnement et Développement du Tiers Monde, an outstanding INGO) launched various projects, whose failures are analysed with unusual frankness and lucidity. It appears that these failures are not primarily due to the oft-mentioned causes such as ill-will of the powerful, exploitation by rich merchants, corruption and inefficiency by government departments. These factors are present in some cases but the root-causes of Chodak's repeated failures is its ideology and methodology. And yet Chodak faithfully followed the best theory on community development: enquiring about "felt needs" as expressed by the local population; stimulating an attitude of collective promotion in a spirit of equality and solidarity; setting up groups which would gradually take over the initiatives in a spirit of self-reliance and ever-increasing social justice. To this purpose Chodak brought together the poorest sections of the population : all those who are most marginalised and exploited (e.g. women, youth) so as to remove them from their surrounding social context considered oppressive. Then Chodak organised them into autonomous groups so that they would become counter-active powers, and thus promoters of social change. Projects were launched according to this spirit in the areas of woodwork/carpentry, mother and child health-care, sewage, vaccination and family planning. All of them failed, more or less...

African social workers critically evaluate their own community development projects

The lesson drawn from many years of repeated downfalls of theoretically excellent projects is that suburban societies live according to very strong traditional or neo-traditional patterns, and are closely knit according to rules of mutual aid, reciprocity, patronage, quid pro quo and hierarchy. They are "sociétés en grappe" where neo-lineages control all aspects of life. These neo-lineages and their institutionalised off-shoots, such as "tontines" (mutual service associations) are the locus of dynamism and allegiance. Chodak attempted to set up associations of a new type, without reference (and indeed sometimes in open opposition) to existing social interaction, deemed unfair or inadequate for development purposes. These attempts met with formidable resistance in the form of inertia, half-hearted participation, deviation of project funds for other purposes (responding to interests negotiated within the neo-lineage), and a remarkable smoke-screen strategy whereby Chodak's activists were left ignorant of the participant's real intentions and expectations. Chodak's own democratic groupings could not alter social reality because they were artificial, a mere creation of Chodak workers. Chodak's aims, such as encouraging saving among women, or equipping each house with its own sewer came up against unexpected rationales. In the case mentioned here, women preferred to accumulate on one occasion a large sum of collectively controlled money (the "loans" from Chodak, interpreted as a gift, and immediately redistributed according to age, kinship and social status) rather than to save. As for the case of the sewers, these were only installed by people who owned their house and who had their own kin in the Chodak-promoted "Sewage Committee". Mere tenants (who refused to invest money and energy in a house which they did not own) or people without family members in the said Committee were not interested.

Not only did organisations set up by Chodak according to alien principles fail to succeed, Chodak's social workers soon found themselves caught in a web of relationships of reciprocity whereas they liked to look on themselves as mere outsiders providing services for the peoples' benefit. It later dawned upon them that this altruistic stance was never the way in which the local people regarded Chodak. Its money and competence could not possibly be totally free from secret purposes such as power, social status and various "do ut des" tactics (litt. I give you so that you may give me back), etc. Thus, participating in Chodak's projects was a favour granted to Chodak, for which reciprocity was expected in the form of individual favours, patronage and private advantages.

"Start from what exists to build something new"

One of the key conclusions of the study is that people have not only "needs" but above all "interests". The latter is of a more subjective and secretive nature than the former, and revolves a lot around security (the first thing a new city-dweller is looking for), and at a later stage social status and power to be acquired through one's capacity to promote the well-being and the social status of the entire group (neo-lineage). Communal and egalitarian ideas of Western origin, as well as long-term programming of the use and accumulation of funds (i.e. saving) just did not conform to existing cultural realities.

Once Chodak people had realised this after a number of years they were faced with the agonising question : are we to stick to our community development theories and try at all cost to disseminate our views until they become accepted, or are we to adapt to the socio-cultural context, accept compromises and forsake the "purity" of our ideals ? As one social worker says : "The people re-create village solidarity mechanisms so as to safeguard themselves against the aggressive hostility and the great insecurity of urban environment and we are... "ideological trouble-makers" (des emmerdeurs idéologiques). So Chodak then decided to try to solve the dilemma by "starting from what exists in order to build something new". They decided to approach already existing groups, whose social cohesiveness would be greater than new groups set up under the auspices of Chodak.

As expected, the social cohesion sought after was found in the existing groups. Yet it proved to be so strong that Chodak could bring about very little change in its rationality. In fact Chodak was challenged to become part and parcel of the neo-lineage reciprocity (quid pro quo) system, that is to become kinsmen of the group, or to remain alien and inefficient actors. Chodak workers felt tired and disappointed by attitudes which they considered to be selfish and materialistic. Some workers, however, started to wonder whether they were not labouring under "a messianistic urge for mass participation". Reality showed that neither the "masses" nor "the poorest" were participating but existing neo-lineages. Within these the interests of the most powerful were dutifully looked after first, and the profits going to those "notables" and/or elders were dutifully redistributed to each one in turn so as to maintain social cohesion, allegiance to the "notable" and overall security of the group.

The project's logic is "perverted" by the endogenous logic

It is impossible to summarise here all the complexity of the cases highlighted in E. Ndione's work. Nor does his book indicate what Chodak's final stand is on all these vexing questions. Yet we find a number of thought-provoking ideas in his study which are worth pondering by anyone concerned about development, eg. Chodak's aims and objectives are being re-interpreted and finally made use of in a different way by the local people. This process, whereby the rationale of the project is being highjacked and twisted around might turn out to be the local people's own path to development !... The price to be paid is also unexpectedly high for the NGO : it loses control over the people and their evolution, and it must give up its very satisfying image of pure, progressive, democratic social workers committed to justice and equality... the image needed to obtain funds from Northern NGOs !

Chodak's conclusion was to try and have a better understanding of local socio-cultural situations and to start from existing situations, whatever the ambiguities and risks of having their project "perverted" by the logic of the existing group. Chodak recognised that it was an error to start by considering traditional institutions (the lineage chief, the elders, the rules of reciprocity, relative inequality) as inherently evil and contrary to development. One may see negative points in an existing culture but that should not prevent social workers from recognising it as the starting point and guiding dynamic.

A social worker is often called "un animateur" in French i.e. one who instils "animus", spirit, life. This widely-spread expression illustrates the error of much development work : the societies are not "without life" ! On the contrary, their own life, their culture will resist attempts to impose alien values, methods and institutions. Solidarity, selfishness, money and personal interest have different meanings according to each culture. When community development parachutes a single ideology, be it generous and idealistic, it fails miserably.

Emmanuel Ndione's study is of vital importance. This booklet also offers a very dense introduction by Prof. Dominique Desjeux. We may come back to it in one of the later issues of this Bulletin.

"Cultures and Development", n° 1, January 1990.

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