Friday, October 19, 2012

Criticism in Development … how academics can alter policy and the consequences of its deconstruction

I have attacked many on this blog who hold the reigns of African Development: Western Powers (like the USA, China, European Union, and France), International Lending Institutions (namely the World Bank and IMF), Non-Governmental Organizations, African Governments, and even local communities (although my allegiance often lies in this camp). But in this post I am going after a group that I belong to, namely academics. They have less power than most groups in African Development but still, from time to time, shape the policies and direction through their investigation and criticism of past and current trends.

IRIN recently printed an article entitled, Aid Policy: Resisting the mantra of resilience (Available at: ). In this report an academic by the name of Christophe Béné from the Institute of Development Studies is named, but there are others like him who began critiquing the use of ‘resilience’ in African Development. Like other terms in the past (sustainability, vulnerability and poverty alleviation to name a few), resilience is expanding in definition and perhaps overused in both development and academic circles. Béné and others, however, find the expansion abusive and leading to a barrier of improving the quality of lives for many. While I agree with Béné and the others that this is occurring, I hold concern that their critiques can be used by those in development circles to scrap efforts at improving resilience in local African communities that need it.

As an example, I cite the following passage from the IRIN news story, “… The wartime collapse of public services in West Africa in the 1990s initially had less impact on the poor – who never had electricity, were already dependent on well water, and had no need for automobile fuel. Those in the countryside were better able to survive a lack of rice because they knew how to make use of wild food sources. Yet this kind of resilience does not improve the quality of life [emphasis added].” This passage is subjective and very much based on Western models of development, i.e. the quality of life of West Africans would improve if all of them were sedentarised, wage laborers who owned automobiles and used their salaries to purchase imported rice and to pay their electricity and water bills. It is very suggestive of the development models international lending institutions and some governments tried to push on African communities starting in the 1960s and continuing in some places even today.

It is not my intention to place local African communities in a display case. African societies are dynamic and change but in an age where the citizens of industrial nations are waking up to the health and environmental consequences of a mismanaged, wasteful and technologically-driven global food production system by promoting diverse, locally-produced, organic, fair-trade, heirloom foods shouldn’t development policy makers in Africa do the same? Resilience has its place in African Development. Béné and others are right in saying that African Development should not be simplified to one ‘buzz word’ when attempting to improve the living standard of Africans, however, Béné is wrong when he says, “Resilience is a very technical, neutral, apolitical term.” Resilience is in fact a means in which Africans resist not only natural hazards when they occur but also development programmes that are not compatible or welcome in their society. It is very much a political strategy.

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