Vernacular of our times

Recontextualising and Benchmarking the Participatory Discourse of the Service Delivery Stakeholder

Vocabularies of power surround the 'development' myth and reality. Coined and reinvented to support old structures and drive the adoption of new ones, they follow their own life cycles, occasionally find themselves hijacked, but are ignored only at one's peril.

Those who dominate, the late Winin Pereira had once said, have the advantage of being able to impose definitions. Pereira, a former Indian nuclear physicist and an ecologist until he died in 1999, had then referred to the Warli, an adivasi (indigenous) clan whose ancient homelands were in the region north of Mumbai. The Warli, he had said, can "read" a tree the way a good reader reads words, at a glance, in their entirety, not like a botanist, who plods from one letter to another like a neo-literate.

There is little left of the Warli desh. Since they had no use for the concept of ownership, they were swindled of their land by the overlords of the then Bombay Presidency, and swindled again by tribal development commissions. They never understood the language of development, particularly not when they were told plants and fish are 'resources' for human use, that insects are 'pests', that trees can become 'overmature' from a human-use perspective. These were the Warli's "gaia", earth-system. A 'development professional' and a Warli adivasi would find each other mutually unintelligible.

And so it is with economic change, which tends to be represented as an accumulation of processes without human or social agents, rendered with descriptions that are culturally sterile. There is not even an attempt to anthropomorphise them, although I suspect if there would be, the resulting creatures could take their place amongst the ranks of animated animals in Disney's Fantasia. Technologies, we are told, "emerge" in a magical way; new markets "open up", as if they were exotic tropical orchids suddenly discovered, and pleased to have been.

It can be a bewildering landscape for even the accomplished development road warriors who enlarge their ecological footprints with every transcontinental flight they take, as they dash from one more working group committee meeting to yet another seminar. For the more obtuse, dealing with "the establishment of new linkages between policy communities within the new institutional entities of governance includes new articulations and recontextualisations of discourses" is a matter of routine. The thickets of language can be as impenetrable as they are lush–the new rainforests of globalisation.

From such fecundity has emerged one of the most potent linguistic weapons in the armoury of globalisation. It is called "governance", and it leaves in the dust "best practice", "benchmarking" and the "focus group". It brings to discussions an authoritative legitimacy, the better with which to inform recalcitrant NGOs, overzealous journalists and scheming bureaucrats. Its institutionalisation has been swift.

Today, 'discourse'–a word that is as sophisticated as 'discussion' is callow– regularly contains phrases such as "governance without government" or "from government to governance". Civil society worries that governance is all too often the smoking gun that indicates the presence of concerted efforts to bypass sovereign control, to steadily cede control of social, political and economic systems to privateers. It is very much about power.

That is what Peter Marcuse, who teaches urban planning in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, reminds us. "Two distinct aspects to the development of capitalist relations since 1970 are often lumped together under the rubric of globalisation: developments in technology and developments in the concentration of power".

Things are seldom what they seem in the landscape that is theoretical globalisation. Take that paragon of deception, 'governance'. It rarely means anything other than the diminishing of government. Similarly, 'labour' has been ripped away from the safekeeping of unions and turned into 'human capital'; 'free markets' are of course anything but; 'investment' is speculation wearing an altruistic mask; and 'reform' refers not to public sector spring-cleaning but untrammelled privatisation. Letter sorters in general post offices are called 'producer services'. What is left? The Ministry of Love?

"Their words, they don't believe in them at all," said Claude Alvares, of the Goa Foundation, an organisation that commands an intellectual influence and a real influence on the ground completely out of proportion to its size, and of the Other India Press, India's largest publisher of alternative titles. "They have polluted and contaminated those words. Every three or four years, a new vocabulary of development emerges. Right now it is 'domain' and 'contestations' and 'deconstructions' ".

This sort of faux academic approach, more redolent of the globalisation bazaar than serious social inquiry, indicates more starkly every year that development research is still a fractured field. The lion's share of funding for such research is diverted towards concern with how international agencies can and should encourage 'development', and far too little makes its way to empirical studies of social change as it is taking place in a global environment in which the policy framework at the international level reduces the scope for manoeuvre at the national level.

The trouble is that many–like the "educated Indians" (as Ananda Coomaraswamy qualified with his footnote, "That is how victims of Indian education are described")–have tended to take the West for granted. The seeds are sown early, the Western schooling and university system is imitated and aspired to, and institutes design their departments, courses and even modes of evaluation according to such systems. Their codes become our codes–hence the 'discourse', 'contestation', 'site', 'imagined communities', 'constructed categories' and 'deconstruction'.

Waistbands and Déjà vu
Hanif was in perfect control of the languages that mattered: sociological, socialistic, black-radical, anti-racist, demagogic, oratorical, and sermonic: the vocabularies of power.
– The Satanic Verses

The eagerness to adopt has been exploited cunningly. Those with a droll sense of humour will note that, by and large, contemporary research in development has become a 'sub-contracting' activity–an info-tech nerd would call it business process outsourcing–where the financing bodies are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and large transnational corporations, all of which are interested in imposing a particular type of 'modernisation' on less developed societies. That the victims of 'modernisation' are a large part of the population, matters little–shareholder return is paramount.

"We have seen how the World Bank has changed," said Shripad Dharmadhikari of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, which monitors, researches and analyses water and energy issues in the context of privatisation, and is located in Badwani, western Madhya Pradesh. "There is a great deal of talk about 'participation', 'transparency' and 'openness' on the one hand. On the other, 'rationalising tariff' when discussing projects is a most important component".

Invoking the 'poor' in an attempt to make privatisation sound palatable is now being done with an almost evangelical zeal. The glossy 'flagship' publications (and their online, downloadable versions, glutted with images, huge electronic files beyond the reach of those with simple dial-up connections in the countries of the South use 'poor' as an omnibus incantation–'how to make services work for the poor', 'extending services to the urban poor', 'leveraging assistance for the urban poor' and so on. Poor, however, remains a four-letter word.

It is, Dharmadhikari says, all very glib. That is indeed the characteristic of the new breed of privatisation's storm-troopers–it's not about the money we can leverage, you know, it's that we really, really care. "Privatisation for the poor can work if it's built in for the poor", a World Bank operative said at a recent workshop in India. Whatever can this mean?  "It doesn't matter", says Dharmadhikari, "for on the ground, nothing has changed".

Change is a glacial entity in the Bretton Woods institutions, usually as abhorrent as a vacuum is to nature. Even so, in the face of the 'discourse' being wrested away from the World Bank it has been forced to change, as happened in 1991 with the independent review of the Sardar Sarovar project, the first in the Bank's history. Then as part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dharmadhikari was there, "On dams the change happened more slowly. Even their reaction to the Morse Report [as the independent review came to be called, after the review team leader] was within their orthodox framework–a reluctant change".

The problem remains the insistence on allowing the 'market' to provide guidance towards solutions, assuring 'governance' over the market, assuring 'accountability' of the 'service providers' for the 'stakeholders', and creating the 'space' needed by the 'poor' to make heard their 'voice'. The equation appears neat until one realises that it is hardly plausible that the market, which creates the enormous discrepancies in wealth and is thus the cause of poverty, is a likely candidate for poverty eradication. That is a paradigm however that is stubbornly resistant to change.

Successive editions of the World Development Report–one of the 'flagship' World Bank publications–have projected an air of Olympian concern, yet this is also the conceptual bottom-line they seek to reinforce. That is why a reading of the draft report for 2004 elicits both surprise and a feeling of déjà vu. Surprise because we had been informed that the World Bank approach had become more nuanced and sensitive on topics like the provision of public services. Déjà vu because it turns out that the tone and arguments are not new, and have been presented before as a part of the neoliberal agenda that drives Anglo-Saxon globalism.

Is there a primary idea running through the tract? If there is, it is simply that what the public sector does can almost always be done better by other providers; that trade unions and employees are generally regarded as obstacles to this process; that the poor will profit from a more market-oriented approach.

"There are few advantages to governments providing the service itself", advises the draft World Development Report 2004. "The experience with service delivery, viewed through the lens of this Report's framework, suggests a constellation of solutions, each matching various characteristics of the service and the country or region. While no one size fits all, perhaps 12 sizes do. Even 12 may be too few, which is why some of the 'sizes' are adjustable, like waistbands".

Waistbands indeed. Are we all buying elastic undergarments here? There are times when the smooth glibness borders on the juvenile, but even so it can still be infuriating. One participant in the electronic discussion on the draft said she was "shocked" by such an approach. "Shall we remind ourselves", she pointed out, "that 95 percent of water service provision across the whole world is publicly provided still and will probably continue to do so in spite of the 'many privatisations, concessions and the like' in the past decade? Is the [Report's] agenda that of undermining publicly-run services?"

In fact, the semantic gymnastics to be found in the draft, and in other reports like it, are designed for a certain audience, and while that audience in some cases may include policy makers, bureaucrats and municipal officials–many of whom know already the layered meanings and implications–it is rather the NGOs and the media to whom it is addressed. It is designed to help them 'buy into' the process that takes globalisation as its motif, to underline its distinction from 'backward' and moribund national models, to assert the international movement of capital as the only possible alternative.

The Macaulay Minute
And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

– Constantine Cavafy, Waiting for the barbarians

It is not all their fault, and that is the uncomfortable truth. "The new vocabulary is not the Bank's", said Bittu Sahgal, editor of the magazine, Sanctuary, and a member of the Indian Board for Wildlife. "It belongs to the NGOs that the Bank has purchased using consultancy fees, junkets and suchlike. This was of course part and parcel of the Bank's strategy, worked out a decade ago".

The rationale, Sahgal reasons, would have run something like this–the Indian government does not respect, or support NGOs. However, their voice is getting more powerful. The best strategy is to discredit the powerful NGOs, and those which we cannot discredit, we should "induce" to our way of thinking as that will leave us with more energy to fight those we can neither discredit nor buy.

It is a very different world from that of the 1960s, as Alvares reminds us. "Then, activists were politically astute, having gone through the experiences of the Vietnam War and Naxalbari. Today, if you are too radical in your language with the fiscal donors (you don't want to be seen only as a street guy), if you don't use the language of the ruling class, you get nothing. It is with interaction that the problem comes–when the Bank started putting NGOs on panels that is what happened".

But Coomaraswamy's "educated Indians" have been set up for co-option–and have been positioned as passively imprintable — ever since Thomas Macaulay's grotesque 'Minute on Indian Education' in 1835, "We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate… It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest…"

The Macaulay Minute became the definitive user manual for the spread of a British education in India; it was the ultimate pedagogical FAQ of the time, and it was ruthlessly colonialist in content, spirit and ambition. It set into motion the monstrosity that became Indian babudom. It was the precursor of the market-driven system that has now perfected a method of recruiting for its needs the brightest and the best, and after selection, to use such recruits against the interests of the rest. Haji Mohamed Idris, chairperson of Multiworld, a trust based in Malaysia that functions as an autonomous body dedicated to the nurturing and protection of the intellectual creativity of the peoples of the South, describes such a system as pitting thousands of aspirants in a vastly unequal race among themselves to literally fight, by means fair and foul, for the few places displayed as available for those who succeed.

The Warli would shake his head sadly at the pyrrhic quality of such success — understood as a general conformity in all respects with the requirements of modern life, or the rituals of bourgeois civil society, the sacrifice of one's inherent right to question, to revolt, to dissent, to create, to be free. And this is called 'quality education'. Descriptive oxymorons are not unique to the development circus alone.

The circus has, annoyingly, not quite followed the plot. The South has been markedly less than enthusiastic about what is called "free market environmentalism" — a term that has found its place in space and time but which is ontologically about as bizarre as the Pentagon's futures market in West Asian political instability. Its proponents are portraying this golem as the saviour of our world's natural riches. Why then does one recall the terrible, twisted logic that once served as explanation in Vietnam — in order to save the village we had to destroy it?

But if you'll only listen, we are told, you'll learn to understand that sustainable tariffs, pro-poor access points, subsidy slabs, free riders, the elimination of inefficiencies and resource rationalisation will give us clean water, enough food, employment, toilets and healthcare. If only. The assumption was that the greenness of the South would take both its hue and methods from the North — the shadow of the Macaulay Minute is a long one, and for a time it was bolstered by the publishing phenomena that became the post-colonialist, post-Rushdie, post-liberalisation mela of Indian writing in English. Anything else — like those troublesome Southerners, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Davison Budhoo — would have revealed an India, and by extension a South, which the West finds discomfiting: menacingly disobedient, in-your-face, issuing a continuous challenge, wrestling with its own intractable laws.

Decolonisation and development: from the point of view of the donor agencies, the multilateral lending banks, from within the offices of the development experts, the two concepts cannot but be exclusive. New lexicographies invented to define economic and social growth are also designed to drive the wedge deeper between the two. The South, however, already has its own revolutionary vernacular, one whose roots lie in the powerful art of the Warli, those ur-Greens who read trees like books and whose perceptions instil a humility that 'development' has yet to learn.

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