By Amir Hussain
“Borrowed notions of development at times distort the essence of [the] local wisdom of social transformation”. This was elegantly articulated by a development worker in Chitral recently during a roundtable conference organised by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF). This local development worker gave the gist of the dilemma of development in Pakistan.
The uncritical and piecemeal development approaches in a donor-driven development paradigm tend to obfuscate the processes of social change. Organic social movements, cultural expressions and political aspirations of empowerment, social equity and identity are juxtaposed with the modern notion of the aberrations of uncivil society. It goes without thinking that the locale is socially backward, economically anti-development and politically conservative if it does not fit into the schema of the sophisticated world of jargons and technicalities of modern sophistry – the disconnected discourses of social change.
The colonisation of the development praxis – discourse and practice – shapes the professional attitude of development practitioners in our exotically indebted civil society. The facile modern view of change as a linear, supra contextual and universal principle across varying geography, culture, class and tradition tears apart the contextual, organic and locally evolved civic engagement to supplant it with superfluous and snobbish verbiage.
The wide gap of imagination of change and asymmetry of knowledge between the professionals of development and the local recipients of development aid was laid bare through insightful debates in this important roundtable conference. Credit goes to the PPAF for bringing together wide range of stakeholders including local development workers, civil society practitioners, government officials and local religious leaders for a constructive debate to break the silos of disengaged perspectives of social transformation.
The roundtable was an eye-opener for development professionals to revisit the problematique of development posed by the eclectic perspectives of local wisdom. This type of debate is critical for development planning in Pakistan and this initiative of the PPAF must, therefore, be replicated across the country. The conference also provided an opportunity to explore critically the poverty assessment and measurement tools which in general lack contextual relevance when it comes to identifying the complex relationship of poverty and geography.
For instance, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed in 2010 by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and the UNDP uses different factors to determine poverty beyond income-based indicators including status of education and health. Pakistan has adopted the MPI to allocate its development funds to provinces and districts based on their ranking.
According to the MPI, deprivation in education contributes the largest share of 43 percent to the MPI – followed by living standards which contributes nearly 32 percent and health with 26 percent. In accordance with MPI ranking, Chitral is one of the developed districts of Pakistan because of its high literacy rates as education weighs much higher than other indicators of MPI. But in reality this is not true because the MPI does not take into account the factors of poverty and vulnerability like high risk of natural disasters, geographical isolation (remoteness), security risk, extinction of indigenous cultures, conditions of physical infrastructure and food insecurity etc. Like Chitral there are many other districts in Pakistan that lose on their share of allocation of funds for development because of their high ranking on the MPI.
Another important dimension that came under discussion in the conference was the rural bias in social development planning of NGOs where urban planning does not get development priority. In an increasingly urbanising Chitral, for instance, neither the government nor the NGOs have any strategy to address the challenges of over-urbanisation. Rural Support Programmes (RSPs), in particular, are less inclined to invest in the urban areas while governments lack both will and vision to address rapid urbanisation.
The conference also led to an important debate about the meaningful participation of local communities in identifying, articulating, designing, planning and executing local development initiatives through an inclusive and participatory process. The investment of development agencies in the formation of local organisations for the implementation of projects was critically explored and questions were raised about the viability of this approach for meaningful participation. Some of the local development workers shared their views about the propensity of project-driven local organisations to become monopolies to impede the process of wider representation of community in the development. The apprehensions expressed by the local development workers vis-à-vis lack of participatory spirit among these project-driven community organisations hint at a broad-based problem of lack of conceptualisation of the processes that lead to meaningful participation.
Development is more political than technical because in the final analysis it strives to reverse the power relations. Reversal of power relations is a chaotic and messy process as long as it is not institutionalised through locally evolved transformative movements that represent the voices of those who aspire for a better life. The wretched and marginalised are the most ideal candidates for transformation because they have nothing to lose in affecting the change. Organisational models cannot be imposed upon these people for social change because any such attempt will be thwarted by the organic institutions of power relations.
Most of the conventional development approaches are premised upon the misconception that poverty is due to the lack of local organisation, and hence this gap has to be filled by creating community-based institutions. In reality, all human interactions – no matter how primitive they may be – are mediated through some form of organisation. Human interactions cannot take place in a vacuum but the type and size of social organisation vary from one context to another. For example, in a tribal and primitive society like ours transformation in favour of the poor will never take place unless the tribal institution is not supplanted by an equally vigorous institutional mechanism.
Institutions grafted in complex social, cultural, economic and political reality will only serve to generate some participatory numbers and these institutions will wither away in the face of historically evolved organic institutions. Does this mean development is not possible? Well, development is possible only if civil society broadens its conceptual horizons to re-engage what has been relegated to the local oppressor as uncivil society.
The uncivil society deploys its own ways of social legitimacy through local patronage, kinship and religious solidarity and also engulfs the grafted local civil society. Development agencies need to seriously think about their continued failure to create self-sustaining alternate institutions with the capacity and alacrity to challenge the deep-rooted power relations.
The conference led to optimism for constructive dialogue and symbiosis among these divergent perspectives which, if not synthesised, will obstruct development goals. If we do not build on this debate, we as development professionals will be doing a big disservice to the poor.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Source: Daily The News