The Rhetoric of Change

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Since reading North of South, one aspect of Shiva Naipaul’s violent criticism of the circus of development work in Africa keeps returning to my thoughts. Naipaul argues that Africa has been so drowned in words, slogans and rhetoric that all meaning in its politics and development has been leached out of it. He gives one remarkable example, from Tanzania:

Ndugu [comrade] Kaiza threw a weary glance at me… “I will tell you frankly – ujamaa is not very interesting.”
I gazed at him in some astonishment. “Ujamaa is the foundation of the Tanzanian Revolution, Ndugu Kaiza. How can you say such a thing?”
“It is people planting. That is all. Why do you want to see people planting? If you want to find out about ujamaa, read the works of Mwalimu [Nyerere].”
“I have.”
“Then why bother to give yourself all this trouble?… People planting… that is all.”
“But what about the spirit of Socialism and Self-Reliance?”
Ndugu Kaiza stared fixedly at his pudgy hands. It was as if he had run out of ideas as to what else he could do with them. “The spirit of Socialism and Self-Reliance is there. But you cannot see it. All you will see is people planting…”

What’s so astonishing here is that this was no ruse to prevent Naipaul accessing an ujamaa village – Ndugu Kaiza went on to write him a letter of introduction He simply did not see what more there was to ujamaa than what Nyerere had written. The practice of socialism did not seem relevant to an understanding of it. Naipaul’s shock was tempered by his belief that this was the basic problem with independent Africa: too many words and not enough reality.

I have been making a less extreme version of this criticism for quite some time, and one not limited to Africa, but to all development actors. When we first started this blog, I wrote about language and in particular the emptiness of the key phrases of development discourse: sustainability, accountability, partnership. Reading Naipaul has only sharpened these criticisms and I’m beginning to believe that the problems run far deeper than they appear at first sight – and that the rhetoric of change is replacing change as the primary focus of aid organizations and Governments.

This is a cynical observation, but not a radical one. In bits and pieces this idea has been circulating for some time. For example, my ex-boss in Malawi co-authored a paper about the budget process there, entitled ‘The Budget as Theatre’ , which argued that the process of budgeting was an elaborately constructed stage on which all the right noises were made, but the actual process of rational budget allocation was completely absent.

There are other examples, too. Most countries in Africa are using Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers as their templates for development. I have no problem with this approach insofar as there are a number of interlinked problems which hamper development and some idea of how scarce resources will be allocated to address them is to be welcomed; if there a clear vision as to what should be achieved and how it may be done, it should be welcomed. Unfortunately, my experience has been that most PRSPs have fallen prey to the problem of empty rhetoric as well. The PRSP professes to lay out a plan, and suggests a set of activities that will be performed in its name, but in actuality it is little more than a paper document designed to dazzle.

The function of a PRSP should be to coordinate the actions of disparate actors and to maximize the benefit of the resources available. Instead, they are being used almost as a signaling tool. Governments produce a PRSP to signal to donors that they are serious about being developmental. Donors respond to presence of PRSPs by pledging support to Governments. Governments accept this support and every year or two run an evaluation of their PRSP. This evaluation reports progress, problems and makes suggestions. The Government takes these into consideration in the following years of implementation. It all looks very good indeed, but when we scratch deeper and look at what exists below the images, we find a reality that gives the lie to the words used to represent it:

  • The PRSP produced is often the product of an ad hoc discussion between a small group of people drawn from Government and influential donors. Consultations are often token.
  • The donor response to the PRSP is not actually to fund the specific activities within the PRSP, but to pledge support under its broad themes. This gives the illusion of supporting the Government’s plan, but actually may undermine its achievement.
  • Evaluations are conducted in the absence of good data, and thus rarely adequately assess success in implementing policy or impacts thereof.
  • Finally, the results of evaluation are rarely used to inform future budgeting decisions and thus have little impact on the performance against the strategy’s plan.

In what sense, then, can we say that the PRSP is the basis for any kind of real development programme? The most we can say is that in a very bounded sense, there is a loose vision that actors more or less agree on and will support in a very loose manner. Yet when we look at the publicity that surrounds these documents, and the way in which they become cornerstones of domestic development doublespeak, it becomes clear that this very limited achievement in reality is built up by words to be a defining, binding roadmap for the betterment of a country. In Malawi, it was virtually impossible to find any donor or Government document that did not pay lip-service to the PRSP as it’s guiding document, before going on to propose whatever it wished with little reference to the actual content of the PRSP. The rhetoric of the PRSP movement has replaced its practical impact as its most important aspect. All the players now know how to speak the language of the PRSP; but we speak it without understanding or consideration of its meaning.

We must be clear here: it is not only developing country Governments engaging in this practice. Most donors do, too. Take for example, the proliferation of ‘themed development days’, such as International Women’s Day, the most recent one I was aware of. These are essentially excuses for more empty rhetoric about the importance of X, how the donors are committed to it, and how the Government will pursue its attainment with all its might. Once over, one struggles to recognize what has actually changed or been achieved through it. Awareness-raising is the most common answer, yet this is nebulous in the extreme. In many cases, this is simply another example of teaching people a new language to speak without affecting the behaviour change that is required to make that language meaningful.

One widely mocked awareness-building project in Malawi was a heavily funded advertising campaign exhorting all who passed to ‘Stop Child Abuse!’ We got flyers in the mail, massive billboards were erected at key junctions, all with this same exhortation printed boldly in black lettering, next to an adorable but sad-looking Malawian child. Driving past it for the first time with a friend, it occurred to him to ask: ‘what person who is prone to abusing children is going to see that sign and change his ways? Do they really think that simply telling someone to stop will stop them? What on earth is it trying to achieve?’

It’s rhetoric. It doesn’t need to achieve anything, as long as it sustains the illusion of change.

One thought on “The Rhetoric of Change

  1. Tom

    April 1, 2010 at 3:53pm

    Excellent post; I’ve been looking at the PRSP implementation process in Mozambique for a paper in one of my classes and this problem is especially pronounced there. You look at the provisions of the PRSPs, then at the country strategy papers of the various donors, all of which call for changes in the power dynamics influencing the development process, and then nothing is actually done to actually change anything. I don’t know what to think about the recent spat there over the government’s manipulation of the last elections and failure to stop corruption;could the donors really be surprised that their lack of attention to deeper issues influencing how public expenditures actually occur has brought about this result or is it just more public posturing? I don’t who’s gaming who.

Comments are closed.