How the development process got stuck in simple models and how to get it unstuck. The key is understanding culture.
It is not really possible for a person to understand what shapes another’s culture unless he or she spends years in an active dialogue with that other culture. If this statement is true, then one would expect development projects -which by definition aim to change the environment or the behaviour of people — to be based on a deep understanding not only of obvious cultural differences, but of the underlying values and perceptions which shape a culture.
Unfortunately, this seems to be less and less the case. More and more development projects are conceived, planned, and even executed, by people whose schedule is so tight that they have to rely on a technique which allows them to turn out projects at a rapid rate: the bottleneck approach.
With only a quick glance, a development worker will identify the obvious shortcomings of a situation. For example, a particular area in Nepal produces less rice per hectare than a comparable area in India. Comparative analysis is used to explain the lower productivity in Nepal: search for the factor in your model which is in short supply in comparison to the situation considered more ideal. In our example, it is obvious that in Nepal less fertiliser is used and improved seed varieties are not available. If you believe in bottleneck analysis, you have now found the reason why the productivity is lower here than there.
This is how cultures, regions, communities are analysed with one simple question in mind: where is the bottleneck, what is missing? The reason for “under-development” then becomes relatively simple: fewer children go to school, workers are not highly trained, irrigation covers a smaller percentage of arable land than in richer countries, and so on.
And the solution to “under-development” becomes equally clear: if farmers use little fertiliser, make fertiliser available. If there is little irrigation, promote canals and tube-wells. If families are excluded from formal credit, promote credit schemes, and on and on.
What is wrong with the bottleneck approach? Firstly, it leaves no room for the insight that every situation is a unique answer to a unique set of forces: that every culture, every environment, is distinct.
Secondly, the analysis gets stuck at the level of superficial diversity and leaves out all the other dimensions which can be just as powerful as pure economics: politics, legal and social norms, religion and aesthetics, but also differences in perception and processing of experience. Those who use this approach analyse the obvious and formulate solutions at the same simplistic level. Facts are made to fit the theory. Those who must execute the project arc left to confront the powerful forces for which there was no room in the planning model.
Thirdly, and as a consequence, the bottleneck approach easily leads planners and decision-makers to believe that problems are similar across a variety of situations and that solutions must be similar too. Nets are cast very wide: if a problem appears to be nationwide, then naturally the solution must be applied on the same scale.
But what if the answer is wrong? The solution would be mistaken, and it would be mistaken on a grand scale.
POWER OF THE ELUSIVE
Those who arc enamoured with their models lose sight of the basic truth that the development process centers around human beings who are all the same at heart but who, through their particular histories, have found many different ways to deal with their experiences.
To rely on the bottleneck approach means to commit the same error that has come to be deplored in modem economics: to commit the sin, in the name of efficiency and elegance, of constructing a model which is too simple. Indeed, people, culture and their environments differ from one another in ways which are far from obvious. Often, these differences hide behind a mask of similarity which may lead the unwary astray. Examples abound.
Many road-builders had to learn their trade all over after experiencing the power of the Himalayan monsoon and dealing with the fragility of these mountains. Nor were they prepared for the enormous silt and bed load carrying capacity of Himalayan rivers. It is surprising that something so obvious should have been so elusive.
Similarly, many agronomists found that primitive cultivation techniques do not necessarily reflect a lack of knowledge. Also, rural people organise their time and labour differently. An experienced extensionist arrived in a village where the people did not seem at all interested in growing vegetables. Great was his surprise, therefore, when he returned some years later to find large fields under intensive vegetable cultivation. The answer to the puzzle was that the price of vegetables had increased and now the people found it worth their while to invest extra effort in cultivating the vegetables. The skills had been there all along, but people simply had not made use of them so long as it was not worth their while.
Many projects have tried over the past years (in the words of one such project’s report) “to increase the agricultural productivity, to provide additional employment and to raise the income and standard of living of small farmers.” Unfortunately, the term “farmer”, in the eyes of the Western expert, invariably conjures up an image of a man tending his fields. But in Nepal, the “farmer” is very often a woman, who has to be approached in a very different fashion than the “farmer” the project designer had in mind.
English is the same every where, we tend to believe, but the truth is different. In the West, “private” means “belonging to one or more individuals”. In Nepal, it often means “not falling under the rules and regulations of His Majesty’s Government”. The same is true for many other terms such as “contractor”, “brother”, and even “government”. We use the same terms but we refer to very different realities.
Beyond the pitfalls mentioned above, which can be avoided with a bit of care, there are also different ways of apprehending and dealing with our experiences. In fact, many of the most powerful forces which shape people and their environment remain hidden; they work below the level of consciousness.
C.J. Jung has taught us that individuals differ fundamentally in the way they relate to their experience. Some prefer to collect information about their environment, while others prefer to dwell on their inner experience. In much the same fashion, cultures tend to favour one style over another: the Russian and French tend to use much more symbolic and abstract reasoning, whereas Americans tend to refer to concrete situations. Nepalis tend to value the relationship with another person much more than upholding an abstract principle.
Even the way people learn differs from culture to culture. Children in the West are taught at a young age to formulate abstract rules about their environment which they later use for connecting one thought to another, whereas Nepali children learn to connect ideas by association, by analogy.
These are some of the ways individuals and cultures may differ, but if we dig deeper, we’ll find that every situation and every individual is distinct. And unique situations must be studied one at a time. As Casper J. Miller writes in his most recent book, “What is required is better and close attention to (these) individual characteristics and individual trends.”
If what we have said is true, then we need to gain a new perspective, and we may have to learn to ask different questions. Instead of “What is missing?” we could ask “What forces have shaped this environment, or this society, exactly the way it is?” Or, to use a more concrete- formulation, “How has poverty been created in this village?”
Thus, rather than start from an abstract model, we will have to learn to start from the concrete, and we will have to get an intimate acquaintance with the facts, as Keynes said.
What would development work look like if activities were designed for concrete situations and for normal humans: people who sometimes want change and sometimes resent it; who get bored when there is not enough to do and stressed when there is too much; who want to be involved in all decisions, but who do not know their children’s age?
In an ideal world, the following factors would come into play in development work:
The development vision would be worked out in a dialogue between those who wish to transform their society and those who have seen other solutions.
Priorities would be set by those who are familiar with the particulars, not by those who only have an abstract notion. Naturally, they would have to convince those who control the resources that their priorities make sense, but the process would start with those who live the problem, and not with outsiders who may unwittingly project their own needs.
Planning would also be different. It would have to be done by people who have taken the time to learn about the uniqueness of the problem with which they are confronted. They would have to check their ideas again and again with the concrete reality of the particular environment and community.
The pace of implementation of a project would no longer be dictated by the needs of a bureaucracy, but by the ability of people to absorb the changes and to remain masters of their own community.
Naturally, then, projects would be smaller and slower, but that should be inevitable when-ever projects involve living beings. In fact, the rule could be: the more the project concerns living systems, the smaller they must be and slower they must move.
The structure of the project would fit the problem which it addresses. For example, if a project were to work with the poor, it would be small and flexible, because the poor do not know how to deal with large and inflexible organisations. Work would be done according to the standards of the weak, not of the strong. Conventionally, such projects would be horribly inefficient, but efficiency is almost by definition a concept which does not apply to the poor.
An analysis of the social and political conditions would precede any project involving a community. Some local communities are more open to democratic development processes than another, which may be in the grip of a group that will not participate in planning and implementation.
There would be much more quality control and people would be held accountable for their actions. There would be independent auditors, or even better, controllers, who would not be content with checking the formal correctness of the accounts but who would make field checks and see if the people got value for their money.
THE POWER TO DECIDE
Does all this sound like a pipe dream? Is it naive and unrealistic? Not if those who are entrusted with the public good take their job seriously and initiate only as much as they can handle. Not if there realise that the worst things to trade for money is the vision of their own future, the mastery of their own destiny. And not if advisors and donor agencies realise that the worst thing to take for their money is the power to decide.
This article is not a plea for an end to foreign aid, nor does it advocate the dismissal of the foreign adviser. Nepali society, as much but not more than any other society, achieves maturity only through a dialogue with the rest of the world. In an encounter with the rest of the world, a society becomes aware of itself, of its strengths and weaknesses. It is only through mature dialogue that societies evolve.
Nor do we want to give support to those who in the name of the special nature of their culture want to deny control of their deeds to outsiders.
We simply call for a development setting where the real expert is the person who sees not only the obvious but who takes the time to find out what the powerful but hidden forces are which shape the particular Nepali environment exactly the way it is and who is prepared to take the time to understand it.
Ben Dolf was Programme Director of the private Swiss development agency, Helvetas, for six years. His term in Kathmandu ended in June.