Socio-economic development is a very messy and complex business. It requires reforms in institutions, changes in power hierarchies of a community (gender relations, caste structure and class) and modifications in the behavioural pattern of an individual.
In other words, for real change, parallel and simultaneous interventions are required from the top to the bottom of social and political institutions. Human society is like a human body; all organs are interlinked and interdependent. Changes in one organ, whether negative or positive, inevitably affect the whole body. Similarly, changes in one institution, whether of the family, religion, economy or politics, affect all other institutions.
After World War II, the US and its Western allies assumed global leadership to help the so-called third world countries develop. A discourse of development was created, dividing the world simplistically into categories of the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’. The West was categorised as advanced, developed, civilised and prosperous, while the rest of the world as poor, underdeveloped and primitive. The latter needed the help of the former to catch-up and enjoy the fruits of prosperity, economic growth and culture. In early decades, Western aid primarily focused on state-building and economic growth. It later evolved into human development, rights and social change.
Colombian academic Arturo Escobar has written a lot about how the discourse of development serves the powerful Western countries, enabling them to create their hegemony. This discourse essentialises the complex socio-economic and political realities of the global South and tries to recreate the world as per the image of European-American model of economy and society. The discourse becomes dishonest and dangerous when Western economists and other experts misrepresent the reality of a country in their reports to validate their discourse.
In an ethnographic study: ‘The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticisation and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho’, James Ferguson deconstructs the World Bank’s reports which portray an outrageously wrong picture of the economic and social realities of Lesotho. Experts deliberately depict the country as a very primitive and isolated country with a subsistence economy, ignoring the evidence to the contrary and preparing the grounds for their interventions.
One often hears the mantra of change, reform and innovation in the social development sector in Pakistan. We tend to hear statements such as: ‘a project of this nature is being implemented for the first time in Pakistan’; ‘a research project like this has never been conducted before in Pakistan’’; ‘this conference is the first of its kind in the country’. Donors and their partners are able to make such lofty claims partly because there is no central repository of data on development projects and reforms undertaken in Pakistan. It is highly likely that a similar project has been undertaken before, or is being implemented by some other donor.
If the project is actually being carried out for the first time in Pakistan, the donors must have implemented a similar project somewhere in Africa, Latin America or any other developing country. The lessons learnt from the project’s implementation in other countries are never transferred to Pakistan. One then wonders about the utility of all these foreign experts milling around in Islamabad, claiming to have global expertise.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric of innovation in the social development sector, the reality is that the donors and their local partners hardly think of anything new when it comes to designing a project. Influenced by the discourse of development emanating from the Whitehall in London or Bretton Woods Institutions in Washington DC, the same projects are rolled out across the globe, irrespective of the contexts, needs and political realities of the different countries and societies. In their linear model of development, many Western development professionals believe that societies in developing countries will have to go through the same phases of history that the US and Europe went through – the one-size-fits-all approach.
Someone poignantly said: “Pakistan is a graveyard of reforms”. Indeed, it is. Every year new projects are undertaken with the funding of all the major donors under diverse portfolios – from educational reforms to improving the health sector’s service-delivery, to women empowerment, to accountability of political representatives and training parliamentarians. More often than not, these projects also achieve their goals, but only on the log-frame submitted to the donors. Once a project is completed, a final report is written and a grave is dug where it is buried. Donors move on, so do the consultants and NGOs implementing the projects, until they rehash the same ideas and framework for a new project.
What exactly changes in terms of the improvement of service-delivery and empowerment of citizens is not very clear. Given that the outcomes every project aims to fulfil are complex and difficult to achieve, as mostly there is no baseline data and a variety of variables are involved, it is next to impossible to attribute the causality of an outcome to a particular project.
Yet, we, the development sector professionals, do not shy away from taking the credit for outcomes which might have been the result of someone else’s efforts. Organic actors, such as local activists, who do not necessarily work with donor-funding, socio-economic changes taking place in a particular region and milieu and other factors might have resulted in the outcomes more than our interventions. But the self-acclaimed ‘important’ donors and their sidekicks will take the credit with their ‘humble arrogance’.
Donors and their local partners work in silos, and even within the portfolio of a donor there is hardly any cross-fertilisation. Every now and then a meeting is held to bring the staff of different projects on board, but the initiative fizzles out after a few months and everyone goes back into their comfort zones – unless DFID’s or the World Bank’s or USAID’s new boss is in town, who wants to bring all the stakeholders together again. And thus, the farce repeats itself.
Nonetheless, some good work does get done. I am not denying the agency of some well-meaning activists on the ground, or Pakistani experts who have increasingly enhanced their roles, or, for that matter, some foreign experts who genuinely want to make a difference. However, most of the social development work is a charade and those who work in the sector know it. But everyone needs to pay their bills and nobody wants our White bosses to think that the person they are counting on to change Pakistan is jaded about the whole structure.
The writer is an independent researcher. Email: I.Khan10lse.ac.uk