White Noise

I'm sorry, were you saying something?

Development work lurches from hot issue to hot issue. Each dominates discourse and practice for a while before gradually fading out. While development agencies are in the grip of one of these hot issues, every document, every policy must somehow be made to relate to them, no matter how inappropriate or unnecessary it is. That’s why you get documents about road building in rural areas which pay lip service to the principles of Good Governance in the introduction and conclusion, though the actual body of the report rightly focuses on the actual practice for planning, funding and building new roads.

In the addled minds of those who write these documents, they are making the issue real by talking about them constantly. They think it shows people that they are taking it seriously, ensuring that ‘every decision involves consideration of the [insert issue here] impact’. Of course, nothing of the sort is true. Rather, by constantly invoking Governance as an issue of concern, even in documents or policies that can have no hope of influencing it, we reduce it to white noise. We constantly hear the word, and even if it once referred to something real and important, we tune it out because it’s been reduced to meaninglessness. And eventually a backlash starts: people complain that all these years of obsession with Governance are achieving nothing, and we’ll move on to the next issue. Never mind that the constant invoking of Governance masks the fact that very little is actually being done to improve it. The incessant white noise makes it feel like it is our sole focus and when the little actual work doesn’t match up to the noise we make about it, it is jettisoned.

This week, I saw the first signs that climate change is going down this path. I was asked to assess a draft PRSP and the comments made in response to it by the local donors, and I was amazed by the prominence climate change was given in the comments. This is the PRSP of a very poor and quite small place. The document has a few problems which the donors have pointed out (and a few that have escaped censure), but reading through it, it never occurred to me that a central issue was that it didn’t plan enough for mitigation of climate change or adaptation to climate change.

I know that climate change is a real threat to the prospects of many developing countries. It’s also something that many developing countries can help combat. But let’s be clear: for it to be tackled properly, it must be tackled at the global level. Individual poor countries, which contribute a miniscule amount to climate change compared to large industrialized countries, are not going to lead the fight. Even if they successfully minimize their contribution to climate change, this will be a drop in the ocean compared to what the big industrial powers can achieve. If they do make sacrifices for this end, and see others ignore the problem or continue to institute half-measures not only will they have a limited effect on climate change, they’ll also suffer in terms of material development. They stand to lose on two dimensions. No, if they are to contribute to the reduction of harmful practices to the environment it must be part of a global strategy to do so.

What’s more, climate change mitigation will also not be a central concern of these countries. This might be short-sighted, but the situation is clear. In many places in the world, the basic services that any society needs are not functioning effectively. The productive capacity of the economy is severely limited: agriculture is low-productivity because lands are not irrigated and land holdings are too small to mechanise, and industry is not competitive or developed enough to provide stable employment to the many unemployed. Yes, the spectre of climate change may make agriculture more difficult, but by far the biggest constraint to their ability to grow crops and produce products is the structure of their agricultural sector and the ability of entrepreneurs to accumulate capital and start large-scale production. These are rightly the focus of their work.

Trying to give climate change an artificially large space in the strategic vision of a country like this is going to fail for two reasons: firstly, no-one who lives, works or governs in these countries will believe it should really be their focus, and so they won’t devote their time and resources to whatever they’ve put their signatures down to. Secondly, the more donors or pressure groups push for it, the more the Government and other players will placate them by issuing more statements and drafting more meaningless paragraphs that ‘recognise the central importance’ of these issues, while at the same time quietly making sure the priority funding and effort goes in other directions. And then, in fifteen years’ time, we’ll look back at all these papers and declare the failure of the climate change agenda, the failure of these policies – because for all the rhetoric they never changed anything.

Climate change is a central concern of international organisations for a good reason. It’s one of the biggest threats to the planet, and we simply cannot just sit around and watch it happen. But this means we cannot fall into the trap of using words as a substitute for action. Getting reference to climate change into a document is not a win. Getting a policy implemented that makes a real difference to it is. And this must happen at the global level first; it requires unity of action. We might have the sway to get poor countries to write about it more, but that should be no salve on a collective conscience that knows those who have the biggest influence remain unmoved.

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.

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In which we Tackle the Most Important Issue in Development

We don’t have any really good collective nouns, do we? There’s nothing like a “pride” of lions, or an “annoyance” of mimes. I humbly suggest the following:

  • A sympathy of charities
  • A  contradiction of economists
  • A frustration of bureaucrats
  • A complexity of anthropologists
  • A confusion of NGOs
  • A quagmire of donors
  • An infestation of politicians
  • A detail of immigration officials
  • An excellence of bloggers (I suspect others may wish to change this to ‘A smugness of bloggers’. I’ll let you decide. I vote for excellence, as a totally unbiased observer, of course).

Feel free to add some more or suggest improvements.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Aid

If the Caporegime has ownership of the book, the vig is sustainable.

"If the Caporegime has ownership of the book, the vig is sustainable."

Language matters. It is not simply a way of expressing ideas, of making concrete statements out of abstract thoughts. Language takes on a life of its own. Catch-phrases can become shorthand for complex concepts. Words can take on an importance independent of the ideas they are associated with.

The way we talk about aid and development has concrete effects on the funding of development work, the policies we use and the ways in which we assess them. The language of development has practical impacts through three main mechanisms: rhetoric; the use of catch-phrases and shorthand; and obfuscation. Though I’ll mention the other two, what I’m most concerned with here is the second of these: how development practitioners routinely evoke and apply complex concepts using shorthand, and the real effects these terms have on development policy.

Here’s a list of phrases much beloved in the development profession, so much so they read like a sure-fire winner in the International Development Bingo game:

  • Sustainable
  • Inclusive
  • Partnership
  • Capacity Development
  • Gender-sensitive
  • Ownership

Robert Chambers has written about the effects of these buzzwords (and their satanic progeny, acronyms) when they are first introduced and beyond. I’m more interested in their impact after they have become the dusty furniture of development vernacular. About 90 per cent of the project proposals and agreements I’ve read in the last three years have included at least three of the phrases above. Recently, all six have been cropping up in most.

Chambers argued is that in many cases, the function of such jargon is to obscure as much as to illuminate. This is the obfuscation argument. We say ‘partnership’ a lot in development, but the relationship between donor and recipient is absurdly unequal, and no donor has yet attempted to put themselves under the scrutiny and power of a Government in any meaningful way. He argues that by saying ‘partnership’ often enough and loudly enough, people will start to believe that there really is partnership. This is partly true, but my concern is different; these catch-phrases contribute to our failure to address the issues they relate, they don’t merely mask our unwillingness to do so. This ultimately stems from the fact that these concepts are complex and can be excruciatingly difficult to actually implement, facts that are not in any way reflected in their common usage and easy phrasing.

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