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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