Wednesday 6 June 2012

Development: Problems of a History Un-Shared?

Daniel Watson

Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory. The surrealism movement was based on juxtaposition and claimed affinity with revolution and communism. Marxism holds capitalism as a stage on the return to communism.
International development plays a large role in foreign policy through the provision of aid. Both aid and development presuppose a certain mode of time, one concerned with progress. In fact, not only their raison d’ĂȘtre, but the very manner in which policy is constructed, is predicated on this premise. Progress, however, is not a universal understanding of time.

You might think I’m being unreasonable, comparing how people understand history and the future with how they might understand economic and social development. Really, you might suggest, economic and social development stands apart from reckoning of historical events. This development is measurable, and therefore objective.

I would have to disagree. Whilst there can be no argument against the positive outcomes of medical aid interventions such as lives saved and diseases challenged, it still stands that these interventions, in the name of ‘development’, are conceived by their recipients in their own way, through their own understanding of time that is certainly not necessarily similar to the providers.

Take a simple example outside of international development and you can already sow the seeds of doubt in the positivist’s field. Greece recently had a technocratic government, paving the way towards fiscal stability said the outside of observers. Some of those inside took a different view. Some decried the great debt of the country as similar to the Axis occupation, heralding a loss of sovereignty. It is not fair to suggest this is a fantastical linkage, this was indicative of the feeling of some of the Greek people, whether we regard it as overstated or not. Those drawing up the policy saw progress; those receiving it saw the past embodied in the present, positing themselves, then, in a cycle of repression.

Turning to international development we can similar relationships between foreign policy and those that it affects. Recently, narratives of progress in Pakistan were replaced with narratives of suspicion thanks to the methods used by the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden.

As was revealed in July 2011, the CIA used a fake vaccination drive in order to obtain DNA from the family of Osama Bin Laden in the village where they suspected him of hiding. Following this, Save the Children was forced to withdraw its workers for fear of reprisals as its name was falsely linked to the fake programme.

Similarly, secrecy has damaged the proper fulfilment of the aims of foreign policy in Egypt. The USAID programme there has been a classic example, failing to articulate its role in society and thus finding itself outside of some Egyptians' consideration of acceptable foreign involvement. As such, USAID has failed to build itself into Egyptians' conceptions of progress and is instead conceptualised as a static interfering entity from the past. With the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, we are likely to witness further complications in the country's temporal reckoning of progress. 

These examples both illustrate the manner in which foreign intervention can be viewed as an unwelcome interference from the past. In these cases established participants have seen their roles redefined as the populations within which they work reconsider their relationship to the past and future.

To be clear, these redefinitions needn't be reformulations of 'western plot' theories derived from dissatisfaction with enduring inequality. Popularly, these have been manifest in rumours of sterilisation surrounding vaccination programmes. For instance, in 2003, measles vaccine suspicions in Nigeria led to decreased vaccination rates and consequent increased infections. This reckoning of the present with respect to an unkind past is precisely that which international development programmes ought to be most wary of, and indeed the endurance of colonial police acts in many countries makes the authority of those in power very difficult for an outsider to practically challenge. If those in power wish to make allusions to the past treatment of their citizens it is up to international development leaders to be sensitive to this and to accept that not all nations might embrace a foreign offer of 'progress'.

In Mali, external actors now have the opportunity to directly affect how their aid will be perceived in the future. By choosing to act in negotiation with the installed rebel groups they will colour how the population of Mali views their actions in the future. In doing so they can comfortably be subsumed into the cultural history of the population, becoming a byword for progress if Mali moves forward.

Medecins Du Monde (MDM) has been present in the region for an extended period and, including locals in its activities, it has gained widespread acceptance. MDM is heavily embedded in the community through, amongst other things, relying on locals to rent vehicles. Being resolutely rigid in its independence and impartiality will assist the agency in the long term if conflict flares up again, said Olivier Vandecasteele, head of MDM. I agree, by maintaining their impartiality and their thoroughly embedded role in society they can be carried along, adopted, and will gain a little immunity against the results of the constant revision of history that accompanies change in the present.

Aid programmes are based on progress. Progress is not a universal understanding; local populations interpret aid programmes within their own understandings of history and the future. A greater understanding of how recipients engage with the past and future might point to more sensitive ‘development’ programmes.

History is not fossilised and objective as we like to imagine. History and the future are constantly invoked in the present. Through administering sensitive programmes for development we can stay on the right side of this discourse, becoming an agent for progress if appropriate or a static rock in the cycle of a nation's history, helping to change the elements of the present whilst not interfering with the structure of their conceptions of time.

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