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A glimpse into the world of development work
For five weeks in February 2010, Miri Davidson worked as an intern for the Information Officer of MS Tanzania, Pernille Bærendtsen. This involved both working in the office in Dar es Salaam and a field trip to Kiteto District. As she explains below, the experience enabled her to gain a small but valuable glimpse into the large, complicated world of NGO-driven development.
Interacting in Orpopong’i. Photo: Pernille Baerendtsen
25. februar 2010
Working with MS Tanzania has allowed me, first of all, to go where no tourist would have been able to. The field trip I went on with Pernille consisted firstly of seven hours on the death-defying but beautiful Tanzanian roads which took us to Kibaya, the district town of Kiteto. It is here that CORDS, one of MS’s partner organisations that works in land rights, is based. From Kibaya, we travelled with representatives of CORDS to Orpopong’i, a small Maasai village about an hour’s drive on a rugged, potholed road of red-earth; and the next day to Napilukunya, where we met up with a small group of Akiye hunter-gatherers beneath a tree.
Reactions from the community
Pernille and a friend had made short films about these two communities as examples of the type of work MS’s partner organisations do, and our main purpose in visiting them was to show these to them – and face the weighty test of their reactions. So, in Orpopong’i, after CORDS representatives had set up a TV on one of our 4x4s (the generator in the long grass of a field behind us) and the villagers had seen the film, we were able to hear some of their reactions and also discuss a few of their more general concerns. Later, we heard more over a huge bucket of goat-and-rice, served with sweet Maasai tea.
In Napilukunya, too, we heard of the Akiye’s many difficulties before being taken to see their one remaining water source: a bright green, stale-looking pool lining the bottom of a large ditch they had dug in the sand.
In many ways, it was hard to relate what I heard and saw in these villages to the development studies I had learned at university in New Zealand. The contrast between this view from the ground; the view from the office (the Dar bubble, as it has come to be known); and the view from far-away New Zealand has allowed me to reflect on a few issues that accompany my changing ideas about development.
From theory to practice
First of all, this internship has brought me closer to understanding how a development organisation like MS operates, and how both development theory and the discourses that frame it are eventually filtered down into real action. Without these experiences, it would have been difficult for me to understand, for example, that ‘empowering women to claim their rights’ translates into anything from awareness-raising through radio broadcasts, to providing furniture for village land registry offices. I would never have imagined the level of meticulous planning, budgeting and monitoring that is involved in MS’s work, as well as the way this information is then converted back (through the website, for example) into language the everyday person can understand – but also language that is fashionable in the development world at the time. On the whole, though, I got to see a little of the chain of events whereby an NGO like MS actually ‘makes things happen’ – a hugely valuable experience for someone hoping to work in development in the future.
Long-term change versus short-term mindsets
I have also learned that development takes time. For example, objectives like ‘awareness-raising’ and ‘capacity building’ look quite simple on paper, but take a lot longer to implement in practice. Even those that can be accurately measured take years – this is inevitable when one considers the scale of these changes. Even if women are aware of their rights to land, to act on these rights means in many cases to override values held in their community for a long time – not something that can be done with any immediacy.
This time frame, however, contrasts with the mindset of many Westerners. If we donate to a development NGO, we like to see tangible results – a goat, a sponsored child, increased school enrolment. But a goat is of little value to a family that has been forced off their land and now lacks access to water. The donor mindset needs to change to accommodate the long-term processes that meaningful development involves.
Women. Orpopong’i. Photo: Pernille Baerendtsen
The need for agency
My experience in Tanzania has also transformed the ideas about development I have received from my studies. Initially, I saw development thinking as containing, very broadly, two contrasting faces. For me, the first was associated with terms like right-wing; large-scale; neoliberal; growth-focused. The second involved words like left-wing; small-scale; participatory; poverty-focused.
I had assumed that the first face of development emphasised agency over structure, the idea that if people used their initiative to take part in the global capitalist system, the benefits would eventually spread to the rest of society. The second camp stressed that it was, on the contrary, this capitalist structure that constrained people and prevented them from exercising agency. Freeing people of their structural constraints – such as the lack of access to basic needs – was a precondition to them being able to act by themselves. So, in this view, what development ought to focus on was active support for the poorest of the poor.
My views had always leaned towards the second camp. However, one of my realisations has been that sustainable development means not simply ‘us’ (whoever that may be) lifting ‘them’ out of poverty, but people lifting themselves. It needs to entail a certain degree of agency from those it is aimed at. This does not mean that people with no money, food, or healthcare should be left to somehow launch a creative and flourishing business in the middle of Maasailand. Poor people in Tanzania need help in securing their needs, whether these are access to land, education, or local decision-making. But the role of aid organisations needs to end somewhere and people need to act.
This observation came from the women of CORDS themselves, when we visited the group of Akiye (with whom CORDS has been working in the area of land rights). CORDS were voicing concern that the group was becoming dependent, and not initiating solutions themselves. Illustrating this concern clearly, one of the Akiye men asked, after telling us of his difficulties, ‘Now what present has Pernille brought for us?’ The programme officer from CORDS, Seela Sainyeye, replied, indignant. ‘The present she has brought? The present is that she has come to hear all that you have done about your problems since she was here last!’ Without doubt, CORDS has a productive role in helping the Akiye to gain secure access to land. But for gains to be sustainable, this role must have its limits.
I do believe that MS is heading in the right direction in that it is working to trigger agency among people and not simply provide them with hand-outs. Its focus on Building Local Democracy means that much of its work is devoted to raising people’s awareness of their rights and how to claim these, and ensuring they have the opportunities to take part in local decision-making. Through this, it aims to build the capacity of local bodies and not compete with them with its own imposed schemes – this participation is key. However, it is also easy for the term ‘participatory development’ to come to mean little more than one village elder telling an organisation what his village needs and then simply waiting for the support to arrive. Participation in this form can just create a situation of dependence. Clearly, there is a delicate balance between providing people with opportunities to act for themselves and providing them with aid on which they might become dependent.
My experience with MS has been invaluable and I would like to thank Pernille as well as the rest of the staff at MS for welcoming me into the office and helping me to get the most out of my stay here. It has been a huge privilege to be able to gain an insider’s view on some of the very complicated workings of the development business.