Sunday, April 24, 2011

One Direction Development

The long term history of development has a common theme: those who hold more power influence, if not control, the direction of development in areas where people have less power. It is the prevalent direction of development. Agents at the top make the decisions, plan the projects, and control the processes until the development is complete, at least from the viewpoint of such agents. It is no wonder, then, that those with less power are alienated, non-compliant, and at times resistant with the development that is imposed on them. This alienation leads to development projects not reaching their objectives, most often with the communities receiving the assistance but also by the standards of the more powerful agents responsible for the development projects.

Since the 1980s, there has been talk among various agents at all levels of development looking to change this ‘direction’ and involve groups that hold less power in shaping, designing and implementing development projects. When crises occur and action is needed, however, this alternative design of development is shelved for a return to the more powerful agents directing relief and assistance, and the less powerful forced to either comply or endure without assistance through the crises. When media reports on a crisis, the more powerful development agents are championed as saviors and heroes. Less powerful agents are either depicted as victims of a tragic circumstance or villains exacerbating the crisis.

A good example of this is the recent food insecurity in Niger. The press poses the question, “Is Niger ready to make the necessary changes to reduce their vulnerability to drought?” Imagery of its vastness, its emptiness, and its ‘non-productive’ land are commonly threaded into such coverage. Some accounts pressure the national government to adapt and accept the plans and programs that are written and promoted among international NGOs and other powerful agents in foreign aid. These programs, coincidentally or intentionally, resemble the agendas of multinational corporations promoting the import of foods, machinery, other products and services from overseas. While such assistance can provide a quick fix to the recent food crisis, it will also continue to undermine local food production and push Niger to fully integrate into the erratic and unstable environment of international food commodities. Nigériens have already experienced a partial immersion into such markets. The drop in uranium prices and the inevitable spiral of debt from World Bank loans set them up for the famines in the 1980s when drought returned. Local food production was already retarded from export-led development policies the Nigérien government pursued from 1960 through the 1980s. Today the Nigérien government complies with international aid agencies’ agendas, but many Nigériens do not. There are cases of individuals who comply and profit from external aid, those who are hostile to development agents and programs, while most Nigériens abstain from assistance programs for various reasons.

Niger is not alone in this one-way dilemma of development. In other crises, both natural and human-induced, the opportunity to drive Sub-Saharan nations further into global market integration is masked by assistance, the goal of sustainability and empowering Africans. Images of heroic efforts by donors and international organizations fill the headlines, as does the portrait of saving a primitive people from a harsh landscape. Somalia and the Sudan are obvious examples. Aid workers on the ground are however many times unaware of the power relations their agencies have, and surprised if not shocked when local people do not welcome their presence.

At a time when we recognize that humans are responsible for the destruction of local ecologies, contributing to a changing global climate, and reducing biodiversity and the diets of so many peoples across the globe, is it not in the best interest to empower African communities through the promotion of local food production? There are products and foods in an international arena that have their purpose and place in Africa, particularly when food crises change into famines. But the infusion of global food commodities into local Africa markets should not be the end goal of development agents, who through good or Machiavellian intentions, are further eroding the mechanisms that are needed to make Niger and other African nations food secure.