Wednesday, March 10, 2010
On Development Definitions
One of the enduring constraints in the quest for enhanced development in African states is so fundamental that it is often overlooked by institutions charged with assisting communities to increase their incomes and raise their standard of living. In order to make development truly participatory, as many institutions aim to do, the basic question of how to create a more productive, sustainable income source is actually beyond where the a project's facilitators ought to begin. Instead, I think it's essential if we are to achieve our goals, to first ask what development means to the people themselves. What are they aiming for? Whether their development-laced dreams are realistic or not, those visions inform the manner in which people approach development activities. If they think that some of their aims will ultimately be achieved by a project, they may be more willing to put their own time and resources into seeing that the effort can succeed. Making the connection between a group's desires and their actions can be a key motivational factor. Projects that lack this component or projects whose real life impact is difficult to discern will lack the energy that people must be willing to bring if their goals are to be realized. Connecting the dots between local activities and the path to prosperity could be helpful in convincing people to reject thoughts of illegal migration to places they know little or nothing about in favor of joining hands with family and community to build the capacity and productivity of local enterprises and contributing to a skilled nation worthy of foreign investment.
Socially, the way people in African countries (in this case Gambians) think and act and the way donors or project implementing agencies think they should act may be, and probably are, different. These different perspectives must be reconciled with clear communication for a project to run smoothly. Both a community's and a development agency's definition of progress must be taken into account and since they are all stakeholders, the most accurate definition will lie somewhere in the middle.
Human rights is one area where defining terms all parties can accept is particularly difficult. Islam and traditional culture may want to defend their cherished practices, even if they directly conflict with the definition of human rights that the Western world is trying to promulgate.
The following examples illustrate the discord between the ideas Western human rights groups are trying to promote and traditional and/or religious thought.
(The traditionalist viewpoint mentioned here is an extreme that represents the conservative end of the human rights spectrum. It does not represent any particular group or region. The Muslim viewpoint is based on Islam as practiced by more conservative people in the Gambia.)
-Human rights groups say 1 wife
-Muslims say up to 4
-Traditionalists say as many as you like as long as you have the cash
-Human rights groups say let the woman choose her husband after she turns 18
-Traditionalists say arranged marriages for boys and girls when the parents are ready
-Human rights groups say let those being married be mature, consenting adults who are in love
-Traditionalists say as long as the girl's body has begun to show signs of maturity and she can perform domestic tasks then the union between families can be commenced
-Human rights groups say send all children to school, education is a human right, science and math are essential
-Traditionalists say let them provide domestic and farm labor, especially girls, parents need caretakers
-Muslims say send your children to the madrassa so they can learn about the Koran
-Human rights groups say give more power to the women, female empowerment has social and economic benefits, 50-50
-Muslims and traditionalists say a man must control and provide for his wife
-Human rights groups say family planning for population control and better care for individual children
-Traditionalists say children are a retirement plan and gifts of God, the more hands for the farm the better
Clearly, there is some slight discord between the parties regarding the meaning of human rights. While human rights groups are not always fair in their portrayal of abuses, I really do wonder sometimes what traditional and religious people (of all creeds) consider to be a person's innate rights.
Regardless, many people will agree that human rights are part of development and development partners need to harmonize their perceptions of success as they engage in development activities. Confusion relating to what constitutes development or progress can make or break a project. It is something that needs strong consideration before development agencies spend large sums of money on behalf of a population that may or may not share the same vision.