‘Africa needs development alternatives’

Conventional economic wisdom since the start of the 20th century has offered very few alternatives for developing world progress in general, and African development in particular.
Development discourse since the 1950s has focused on very few models for the improvement in the quality of life of non-white peoples while concentrating on sustaining growth in the West.
In Africa, this dearth in alternatives has limited discourse to modernisation models and Marxist offshoots based on Socialism that have largely proved to be untenable in a world that is rapidly becoming a global village dominated by US interests.
The net result has been continued underdevelopment of an already woefully underdeveloped world reeling from the cumulative effect of economic theories that do not take into account the peculiarities consistent with localised communities that have benefited little or absolutely nothing from integration into the so-called global community.
All too often, it is believed that the dispatching of extension workers to Africa's rural areas and marginalised communities to virtually force-feed the people there unhealthy doses of neo-liberalism will “save the Dark Continent”.
Local traditions and cultures have largely been ignored by mainstream development and this has impacted negatively on efforts to alleviate people's standards of living.
As a consequence, when such aspects of society are ignored, the targets of the “development” initiative naturally resist when the traditions they have lived by for centuries are treated like the superstitions consistent with innately illiterate societies.
NGOs, the prime movers of these economic models insist that “development” targets must initiate a new culture of bureaucracy as a mark of advancement, never mind that most bureaucracies appear to be the mortal enemies of ordinary people trying to get on with the essential business of surviving.
The governments of Southern Africa, through SADC, should seriously reconsider the long-held notions of what constitutes development and how it can be achieved.
The role of language, that is the semantics of development, has to be re-analysed in the arena of development strategies.
What is needed is a re-examination of the region's entire education system so that people can access knowledge that is appropriate to their contemporary and historical context.
As one University of Zimbabwe academic noted in 1993 when the negative effects of ESAP started being felt: “Of what use is learning physics when one is going to earn their livelihood from agriculture? I am not saying we should limit ourselves to agriculture, but I think we need mechanisms that contextualise our education curricula.”
It is hardly debatable that education systems in Southern Africa – and indeed most of Africa – contain the seeds of inequality sowed by colonialism and perpetuate the dependency syndrome.
Current notions of development are the children of the linearised thinking that has characterised European epistemology from the time Rene Descartes claimed “I think therefore I am”, and constitutes what they see as progress but is actually a subconscious fleeing from nature.
Unchecked technological advancement for the sake of technological advancement, rapid urbanisation as well as unregulated industrialisation are taken as the be-all and end-all of development.
This neo-liberal approach results in our governments spending billions on building high-rise structures in cities surrounded by squatters.
The psycho-cultural side effects of development as we have often tried to achieve it are disastrous as can be seen in the US and the South Africa that the ANC inherited from apartheid.
“Ultimately, development is not supposed to be a measure of technological advancement or the number of factories or even the size of urban areas.
“Development is more about the general quality of life of the population,” is the assessment of one Economic History lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
He noted: “It's all fair and fine for a CEO to earn his millions. Even if you look as far back as Aristotle you will find that is the nature of division of labour.
“All that we want is for people to have safe drinking water; adequate shelter, food and enough time left over for leisure and rest once in a while.
That is the true meaning of development as opposed to mere economic growth.”
An alternative that has been very minimally explored by institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the thousands of developmental NGOs, was proposed as far back as the late 1970s by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef.
In the critically acclaimed work “From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics” he proposed a revitalisation of small to medium scale economies.
His development approach was geared towards the attainment of self-reliance and self-sufficiency in an environmentally sustainable manner.
In such a set-up, localised communities would have the advantage of defining what development means to them and how best they feel and think it can be realistically achieved.
“After all, these people are not stupid, in many cases they have been living in their respective environments for centuries. Hence, they would know best what models and strategies would be sustainable and ensure the preservation of their local cultures, traditions as well the environment.
“Bio-diversity would not be subjugated to the whims of agencies that value technology over nature,” elaborated the UZ lecturer while explaining Max-Neef's ideas.
The facet of self-reliance is not new to the development models that developing world nations have experimented with over the years.
Before many of our governments had trooped to the offices of the IMF, dependency theorists like Walter Rodney had advocated for such an approach.
South-South co-operation is something many people are aware of by now.
However, what the Max-Neefs of this world desire is to first foster co-operation within localised communities before attempting co-operation on a larger scale.  Sustainable and people-centred development strategies are easier to implement where people within individual nations are initially empowered to be self-reliant.
At present, South-South co-operation as espoused by most economists and development theorists today is the horizontal co-operation between government institutions without incorporating ordinary people.


July 2013
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