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June 24, 2018

Professional tyranny


June 24, 2018

“They are abominable to the core. We hate them when we see them chewing a lump of nihari at a desi eatery and when they drink, their mouths produce unpleasant sounds of sipping. They belch off their smelly food from the depth of the bowels.

“Smeared with recycled mustard oil and rotten butter, their food looks like a debris of wasted fats and they eat too much at night. After every meal, the sounds of burping echo their uncivility, coarseness and lack of sensibility. They act like savages and their smelly breath make it hard to stay in front of them for a while. They…are driven by instinct rather than reason and altruism. “They would never mind being cannibals when they feel starved/famished as they are not bound by morality, ethics, altruism, sobriety and creativity. They are unruly and ungovernable and they must, therefore, be ruled by others –‘the exalted one’ – to teach them ways of leading a sensible life.

“They are a crowd with strong instinct to devour human society; they beat people to death and they show no mercy whatsoever...For them, life is all about satisfying the animalist instincts and they are so sensually numb, and of low IQ that it would not matter to them if the world makes jokes out of them.” This is not an extract taken from the sermons of a ‘philosopher king’ against those heretics who speak for the people’s democracy. This is not even a political speech against Jews in Nazi Germany or a hate speech spewed by Donald Trump against Muslims and North Koreans. Unfortunately, what has been mentioned in the above paragraphs is the summary of a sophisticated, super-urbane and well-mannered professional who was assigned the task of designing a development strategy for a poverty-stricken region of Pakistan some years back.

The erratic but consistently anti-development perspective of this rising star of the development sector unfolded during a daylong session. Whatever he spewed out was hostile and suggested that the poor deserved poverty for their crude intellect and savagery. Ironically, with his visible loathing for the poor of his country, the gentleman was later elevated to a senior management position in a social development organisation. This is not an isolated case as we have many examples of how the poor are being looked down upon by our maestros of development. The more we talk about poverty and underdevelopment from the rostrum of a luxurious conference room, the less we show the conviction and passion to assuage the sufferings of those on whose name we receive hefty funds. Most of our foreign qualified, well-dressed and well-fed development professionals have become good poverty managers. But there are few who have displayed the passion to contribute towards human freedom. Those who have strived to attain this larger goal of transformative change have become pariahs in the bizarre world of development today.

Poverty and underdevelopment are politically linked to an economically stratified society. What if the development sector itself becomes stratified between change-makers and money-makers? Ironically, change-makers are the ones being mostly chastised by donors and their local surrogates because they want easygoing, deliverable-based short-term projects. The term ‘value for money’ is being used nowadays for short-term, project-based and highly technical approaches and the objective is disbursing and spending monies. The likelihood of poverty alleviation and underdevelopment factors in as a by-product only in that the efficacy of a project is defined by its outputs, not by its impact of transforming the quality of life of the poor.

The straightjackets of paperwork of donor compliance and the submissive agency of development practitioners have resulted in the inefficacy of social investments. This has also discredited the claims of civil society organisations to make a real difference in the lives of the poor. First and foremost, our subservient civil society has to liberate itself from the unilateral agenda of international donors. They should instead work closely with governments to help improve governance and ensure the transparency of fund allocation for social development. There is no likelihood of donor-driven projects to create sustainable change for the poor in this country until we seriously reconsider our development policy, practice and theory.

You will come across trendy phrases in the development sector these days whenever you have a chance to skim through contemporary development literature. These phrases are directed, at times, to sublimate the conscience or the spirit of the transformative agency of the people. This happens both within the institution executing the development programmes as well as among the recipients of such programmes. One such oxymoronic term is the notion of public-private partnership, which reduces the civil society to a private enterprise. The development discourse that is being promoted by international donors is immersed in a neoliberal economic model to replace the social spaces of the civil society with a consumerist framework.

The civil society is not equal to the private sector. It is a space of expression for citizens and, hence, it is an independent social function to make the private and public sector accountable to social needs. There are two levels of contestation for change-makers to liberate the civil society from its subservience to donor agendas. First, change-makers must contest money-making propositions and output-based, disbursement-oriented and donor-driven approaches. Second, change-makers must create a critical mass to engage the local and regional government to affect durable socioeconomic change.

These change-makers must work to create a sound civil society movement through citizen engagement to make governments accountable to the people. If we can make governments accountable to spend on human development, we will hardly need any donors. A sound civil society of change-makers will also turn donors into partners to invest in locally defined development priorities. The political economy of poverty is much more complex than our linear development theorists tend to explain in their comfort zones of academia. Poverty is not about the choices that we make in our life. It is rooted in the political and economic systems in transition that shape socioeconomic and political relationships in society.

Human beings invest their physical and mental labour, which is the most critical productive force to construct social and political reality. In this process of social and political reconstruction, human beings are not free to make independent choices that are external to the structure of society. As a result, poverty is not a matter of choice. It is a phenomenon that germinates in the womb of our political and economic system. Development professionals must have a strong understanding of the political economy and the systemic causes of poverty and underdevelopment, which is more important than the technical knowhow of the methodological issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

The challenges for change-makers are multifaceted in a politically nonfunctional civil society like ours. But the question is: should we leave it to those who have failed us time and again during a crisis of the civil society. Today, our civil society has been submerged in a world of money-minting projects. When the civil society faces strictures – like the ones we are witnessing today – there is no one to fight for us because we have failed to serve those who could stand by us in this time of crisis.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]

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