The headline in my Guardian Weekly leaped out: “Can we together help one African village out of the middle ages?” The story trumpeted a new scheme by the Guardian together with NGOs Amref and Farm Africa as well as Barclays Bank to work together to help Katine in northeast Uganda over a period of three years. The aim is to “harness the power of 21st century communications, expertise, resources and good will to help change lives still trapped in the fourteenth century.” The Guardian hoped that a campaign focused on one village could “dramatise the issue” of worldwide poverty and change lives, giving its readers “evidence of progress.” .
My question as I read the story was not how I could mobilize “my goodwill, resources and expertise” to rescue Katine, but wondering what would be the impact of such a scheme in a village near where I live in Bolivia. What if Katine, in fact, was exchanged as the “problem” for Pachuni, a village four hours walk up from where I live which I last visited in June?
Of course, Pachuni is not the same as Katine. It has a different reality: AIDS has fortunately yet to become a pandemic in Bolivia, there haven’t been any guerilla forces laying waste to towns, the health and education system is stronger than in Uganda and Bolivia is going through a process of revalorization of indigenous roots that is not so obviously present in Uganda.
Yet in Pachuni, a beautiful lush green village fed by countless streams of water, you will find a simplicity that could fit the Guardian´s patronising analogy of the 14th Century. People have been living as they have for centuries, mainly farming. The village has a school, but no health clinics, electricity or sewage systems or even a road to it, and like those in Katine many have “almost nothing bar the clothes they stand up in and the patchy grass roofs over their heads.”
However it is absurd to suggest that Pachuni is in the “middle ages.” Because no doubt like Katine, many in the village frequently travel to the city that lays flickering down in the valley, others have family members who have migrated outside the country, all have to deal with selling to a market and a public intrinsically bound up with a 21st Century global economy. All have to deal with the pressures to consume, which is pumped out in propaganda that even reaches the community via radio.
Which highlights the thinking behind the analogy; that progress and development is what London has and what Katine lacks. In other words that development means creating an industrial society based on consumption and limitless growth, even though climate change has highlighted more than ever the flaws of this model. In fact it has brutally exposed the model’s ultimate failure. Yet strangely the way of life in Pachuni and Katine, which shouldn’t be romanticized but at the same time involves subsistence, a great deal of recycling and simplicity (all of which are ways of life much more conducive to the survival of much of the biodiversity of the planet), is captured in its totality as “under-developed.”
In this linear view of development that the Guardian projects, schools are equivalent to knowledge (to cite just one example I bet the villagers of both Katine and Pachuni are more knowledge about plants and ecology than the university-educated journalists visiting), functioning clinics are more important than indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants or active outdoor lives, individual income-generation is more important than strength of community bonds.
Worse it creates a sense of dependence and unequal relations of power, whatever the rhetoric about community “partnership” and “ownership.” Because the assumption is that one group needs our help or worse “rescuing” with the provision of lots of practical things, whether solar panels or malaria kits or even teacher training. Meanwhile we have nothing to learn from them because we are already “developed.”
Much of this works at the subconscious and is never expressed openly (except sadly in the case of the Guardian). In Pachuni, such a project would I feel undermine the few village elders who are with difficulty trying to get young people in the village to honour old indigenous traditions marking for example the changes of seasons which I was privileged to witness earlier this year. It would give power to those in the village who could most easily mix and communicate with the generally middle-class NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) professionals. It could even probably increase the speed of migration from the village, once those who had been enculturated in the “superiority of development” decided to migrate to the city or even the West for the real thing.
The Guardian seems to be blind to the growing challenges to the “development” industry or NGOs. Scattered across the world are projects that one analyst Wolfgang Sachs referred to as the “archeology of development” – projects that broke down, that failed to be sustainable, that did not resolve real issues but that most of all failed to see the cultural and community riches in a village before seeing the economic poverty. If the Guardian is going to put the light on development in one community for three years, surely it would be a good idea to first read and appreciate the growing critiques to the concept of “development”? Or at least to pose the question of why fifty years of similar projects have often failed to deliver what they promised in Africa.
The Guardian seems to think saying that more than 90% of the staff of the NGO Amref are African is a sufficient justification for the project to be a good grounded one. However it doesn’t say whether any of these Africans have roots in the society and culture of Katine. Given the origin of the NGO as the Flying Doctors set up by a western doctor, the likelihood is that they are middle-class, professionals who are as unfamiliar with what it really means to live in Katine or Pachuni as we would be. Given the public visibility of their work, they will be under pressure to show results as well as subject to the usual problems of NGOs of having to meet funders’ expectations, extend the profile of their organisation and keep their jobs. Will they really be prepared to admit if they mess up or if a large-scale project with lots of investment in the public glare flops?
The Guardian would do well to listen to Loyola Sanchez, a woman who has been working on cultural affirmation in a near Cochabamba, who spoke at an event I attended the other night. She explained that the most coherent, proud and functioning communities were those who had the least NGO or external involvement but had retained a strong cultural identity. What implications might that have for a project like the Guardian’s?
Perhaps rather than framing it in how we can “help” the community, the Guardian would be better focused on highlighting how we are instead all caught up in a system that undermines and impoverishes communities like Katine. After all a shiny new school with solar panels, everyone’s house fitted with anti-malarial nets, villagers practicing newly learned agricultural techniques will be fairly meaningless if there is no domestic or external market due to imports of subsidized food enforced by “free trade agreements” or pharmaceutical goods for treating HIV remain out of reach due to prices set by rich transnational companies. It is impossible to make a village an island of “development” in a sea of injustice and policies of impoverishment.
In this context it is darkly ironic that Barclays is uncritically accepted as the chief sponsor for the project. Barclays not only played a key role in the debt crisis that has impoverished Africa, it also supported an Apartheid regime in South Africa which was abusing most of its citizens. It still funds arms companies that fuel the conflicts in regions like Africa that affect communities like Katine. It also continues to invest in highly polluting industries that are creating the climate change that are affecting women in Katine whose wells are being flooded during freak weather. Its lack of ethics is perhaps most starkly shown by the fact that it is currently accused of supporting Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. I wonder how that features in their programme: Banking on brighter futures? Or perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick and they mean brighter futures for their shareholders?
To conclude, I am not saying that Katine may not want or need solidarity from others to tackle the real problems it faces, but how this is carried out is fundamental to its success and to prevent the cure being worse than the disease. The way that the Guardian has pitched this project suggests that the long-term effects of its focus on Katine could be more damaging than beneficial.
Rather than starting with talking about what the community doesn’t have, it would have done better to highlight the strengths within the culture. Rather than talk of one-way help, it could have talked about mutual learning. Rather than putting the power in the hands of journalists and NGO workers, it could have given voice and power to those in the community to highlight what they have and want to keep as well as the things they want to change.
In Bolivia, this process is called de-colonisation, accepting the way our mental constructs and relationships have been formed by a colonial history of ideas that have rejected diversity and imposed a single vision of development and progress. It means accepting that even those things we think are helping are sometimes part of the same history of oppression. In the case of the Guardian, as a first step it would mean accepting that rather than rescuing an African village that the real challenge is learning from the beauties and human-made tragedies of an African village to understand why we all need to change.