Is Development Knowledge Exclusionary?

I do not mean to detract from the theme of the specific application of ICT for development, but since our last class I have found that I cannot stop thinking about our discussion of development theory and failure. In chapter 3 of ICT4D, Unwin relates how current discourses realize the flaws of modernization theory and its belief that development beneficiaries were to be the passive recipients of Western information, for it was inherently more valuable than any knowledge that they may have possessed. Development has now embraced a people- centered model that sees traditional knowledge systems and community based approaches as critical to the development process (Unwin 40). However, though development has primarily shifted from “top-down’ to ‘bottom- up”, local information is still lost in translation, and Western actors are regarded as the ‘experts’ who can bring development to where it is needed.

Development must absolutely embrace participatory projects, but it also needs to reassess the degree to which development projects can be created and sustained by members of a developing community themselves. For, in the end, isn’t one of the primary goals of development to empower the poor to be their own agents of social change? However, the nature of development can be prohibitive of such grassroots entrepreneurship. Consider this: proper development practice, as taught to students at universities like Tulane, requires an enormous amount of literacy on subjects like management, budget-making, organizational frameworks, and perhaps most importantly, monitoring and evaluation. I have seen first hand that these topics have become skills that we must possess to be development practitioners and to carry out successful projects. At the root of this, these skills are required so that we can obtain grants and partnerships to stay sustainable and garner attention from donors. I am not naïve enough to think that development does not require people with such abilities. Yet we seem to forget that development knowledge itself is not only a Western concept, but also a privilege that many in the developing world cannot access. For example, how could a woman who has started her own village empowerment group write a monitoring and evaluation report for a grant-maker if she does not have more than a 6th grade education? Does this mean that she does not deserve a grant? Does her inability to send the grant-maker a 3-year strategic framework plan mean that her organization will fail?

My point is that development needs to go beyond cultivating practitioners in the first world. As we recognize that those who have lived their entire lives in impoverished areas know the most about what they need, we need to take the full step and embrace the fact that these individuals are perfectly capable of coming up with and executing a project on their own, although it may be in ways that lie in the margins of standard development practice. By this I mean that organizations such as the school I worked for in Ghana have found ways to sustain themselves for nearly a decade with little to no grant money per year and hardly any assistance from larger educational organizations or agencies (i.e. UNESCO). There is no M&E plan, institutional documentation is poorly organized, and the founder has not had more than a basic education, but hundreds, if not more than a thousand impoverished children have received a free basic education over the last decade and many have been given the opportunity to continue their studies at a higher level. If this is not ‘successful’ development, I do not know what it is. More importantly, it occurs informally, in a very Ghanaian context, in a Ghanaian way of doing things. This is important to realize when reflecting upon Mchoumbu’s point that “traditional channels of communication [should be] respected and not regarded as barriers to development” (Unwin 41). Development practitioners, grant-makers, and other Western actors must understand that practice and communication are culturally contingent and that seemingly improper conventions have merit in their own right. What must not occur in development is that a practitioner requires a local development worker to do A, B, and C, but that they adapt their own practice to local practice. Furthermore, a local entrepreneur cannot be excluded because they do not do things ‘by the book’. There is no room in development to be exclusionary; rather, we must take these locally made ideas and run with them, even if they do not fit status quo development protocol. These are the manners of doing things that reflect a culture and tell of the true needs of a society, and we have much to learn from how they may have been carried out before we try to change their execution.

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