The system of development is broken. The concept remains a shell that hides wasted time, effort and sentiment. Those espousing the development system as it currently exists should carefully consider whether their efforts are bringing around the promised goals.
There is never going to be development. Not in Africa, at least not in Zimbabwe where I come from, or in any other place that we continue to define as developing, less developed, underdeveloped. Someone needs to say it. Even in the language of state building, of failed states, of good governance and democracy. All there is really is power, ideology and its language and the constant thrashing and thriving.
I get it. Yes, you will say it is more complicated than that, present me with statistics and evidence of development, comparative case studies, all in the most benign-sounding tones. I will not have any of that anymore. There is no developmental path to talk about. Only individual and consequentially collective myths and delusions. My task is indeed to generalise about development. It is about three in the morning and I have no intention of delving into case studies. Of course cases are specific.
A young woman invited me for a beer the other day. Tall and lanky, I always wonder where all the beer goes. (Here you can bring on all the shebang about gender). Mine seems to be collected somewhere in the middle. She has dedicated time and energy to ‘studying Africa’ because it is ‘fascinating’, and many of her ilk feel obliged to nudge others on the path to development. She seemed to be on a mission to convince me about the merits of economics, and economic development in particular, for Africa. Well, for some countries that she has developed a ‘regional interest in’ and will eventually claim expertise on. In her apparently well-informed estimation, drawn from the huge corpus of economic knowledge that has come up with a multitude of failed prescriptions overall, she will have to work for the very same institutions that have repeatedly failed, so she can ‘change them from within’, so they work for the poor Africans.
The moral (ethical?) and philosophical basis for development is both misplaced and inevitably going to fail. It is an endless path of growth and development. Now, I am not saying that change is impossible. As Bra Hugh Masekela says in one of his songs, everything must change, at some point. The incremental and exponential accumulation of knowledge and capacity by (human?) beings means we will continue to see change at unprecedented levels. The changes I have witnessed in my country of birth, Zimbabwe, are a testament to that. Both in the senses of growth and of regression.
Development, however, in the coattails, has wooed us as we continue to be plagued by it; it is a doomed project. It has been doomed from its very spawning, and this has taken me a while to acknowledge. For someone who has not lived that long on this earth, and who has witnessed just a fraction of its atrocities, it might sound fatalistic to pronounce development as dead. Yet it is. It has been for a while. We are carrying on with a zombie that often runs amok, and engaging in a kind of necropolitics and a dance with death and resuscitation that is eternal.
Development continues to adopt and assumes hierarchies, models, aspirations and trajectories, whose measurement means that there will be no end to this game of looking-up-to and catching up. There will continue to be titles churned out, asking whose development it is, talking about the voices of the poor, the subaltern, bottom-up this and that, and participatory and community-led, and all that jazz. The fads of language will not end. Development will remain, as a dream deferred.
The defence of development is also always interestingly vociferous. Sector by sector pontifications pointing to how things have ‘changed for the better’. The spectre of pandemics, public health and the lives saved by development. Hunger, agriculture and the role of development. Gender and development. Seems hard to play a different song. Maybe that is for music and development! After the millennium development goals, and many debacles, asking for new names is not much, is it?
Whilst development exists, we might as well get the jobs and the funding, keep the cogs of the industrial machine running. Innovative alternatives can be delayed, as we form development organisations that tussle for funding and run project cycles and wait for more development. At least many of our governments can sit back and relax, enjoy patronage, knowing that even if they do not work to improve the lives of the people who sometimes try to elect them, a caring development organisation, a young woman like my friend, will work hard for development. A facility, financial, food and such, will be extended, in the name of benevolence, because all lives matter, right? It is development, after all.
Mistakenly and tragically, development gets constant makeovers. A zombie is a zombie, nothing else. Mistakenly as well, critiques of development are seen as equivalent to calls for closed communities, or rallying against individual or collective acts of kindness. It is like those erstwhile colleagues who, in discussions about slavery, colonialism, empire and racism, remind you about the agency of black people, then go on to mention how it is actually black people who sold other black people, and some such. Logical fallacies in defence of desiring death. Tell me about corruption, weak states, bring out all possible justifications. The point remains that this train of development has no destination, or brakes, and it will be choo-chooing its way round and round and round. Unless someone decides to stop it. Which may come as a derailing of sorts. Those running our countries need to quit Development Inc. as we know it. A stich in time, blah blah, although this is certainly not a good time. They are too greedy for that.
Some will ask, does it matter what it is called? Does it matter what things are called? In the case of development, it does. It is naming a fiction, a Neverland, and selling it as a possibility, investing time and resources in that name.
The well-meaning intentions of engaging development become immaterial to its existence in perpetuity, for what then is the cutting point in this race for development? I guess I am one of those hypocrites and conflicted Africans who have grown to love development so much that I detest it. That fine line between desire and loathing.
Did I hear someone say solutions? You can be guaranteed that there are consultants, experts of every hue, working on that at this very moment, on any aspect of African or other regions’ developmental issues. There is no shortage of solutionists for development. My opinion on this is still developing. Expertise? Underdeveloped. What am I doing, because at least development is doing something? I am doing the less-developed task of just writing about it, I presume.
People and countries will work together. They need each other, even if they may not like one another much. Shared interests and cooperation across a broad spectrum are commendable. Do we have to call them development?
* Lennon Chido Mhishi is Zimbabwean pursuing doctoral studies in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His current research is on migration and diaspora.
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