Ambitious and well planned development projects fail for various reasons. The afterlife of such "interventions" receives little attention. But local communities try to make sense of the remains in the form of rumours and stories. A plea for listening.

  • Andrea Steinke

    Andrea Steinke is a social anthropologist with a research background in humanitarian aid, peace and security studies. The monograph “Faith in Humanitarianism: Professionalism, Faith, and Disaster Intervention in Haiti” (forthcoming 2020), based on ethnographic fieldwork on humanitarian intervention in post-earthquake Haiti, will be published in the series “NGOgraphies”. Currently, Andrea Steinke works as a researcher for the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA), based in Berlin. photo: Roberto Stephenson
  • Yonatan N. Gez

    Yonatan N. Gez is a social anthropologist studying international development and religion in East Africa. He currently serves as a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and as a research fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, where he is a Deputy PI on a Franco-Swiss research project titled “Self-Accomplishment and Local Moralities in East Africa”. His recent books include the monograph “Traditional Churches, Born Again Christianity, and Pentecostalism: Religious Mobility and Religious Repertoires in Urban Kenya” and the edited volume “International Development in Africa: Between Theory and Practice”.

An old bus-stop stands in the center of a small village in the Zambian Copper­belt. Around it are stalls offe­ring vege­ta­bles and mobile airtime, and children running around. Under the bus stop’s metal roofing, three women are stan­ding, chat­ting among them­selves. A casual observer may not notice anything unusual about this scene. But the bus stop contains no marking, no mentio­ning of a bus line. Moreover, the road around the village square is not tarmaced, which would make it an uneasy crossing from the nearby towns of Ndola, Luanshya, or Kitwe – towns that were once hubs around which grew a lucra­tive mining industry, but whose collapse in the 1970s when the copper price fell drama­ti­cally as a result of the oil crisis proved to be an unex­pected setback for local commu­ni­ties and, more broadly, for the country’s forward-minded vision of development-as-progress.

Reclai­ming the space

The bus will not be coming any time soon. The metal shade was built as part of an ambi­tious rural deve­lo­p­ment plan, conceived within the para­digm of gran­diose 1960s deve­lo­p­ment schemes with which rural Africa is strewn. Planned houses were arranged into sections of unified small­hol­dings groups, where each box house had access to its own small parcel of land for culti­va­tion. All sections met in the village square, where the farmers could sell their produce along a coope­ra­tive model and ship it—along the upco­ming tarma­cked road—to rest of the Copper­belt and beyond. Inci­den­tally, the model, which was imported from Israel, was based on the Lachish model of the 1950s, when the then-young State of Israel sought to absorb waves of new immi­grants from across the Middle East. At the center of the Israeli Lachish model was the town of Kiryat Gat, today home to several major high-tech facto­ries. The Zambian village has had a diffe­rent lot, and today, some fifty years since the foreign blue­prints were brought to the site, the promises of progress remain unfulfilled.

Project after­life in Tanz­ania (Lake Victoria, 2015); Source: Yonatan N. Gez

The women chat­ting under and around the bus stop’s metal cons­truct are all too fami­liar with these unful­filled promises. For them, the site has long become some­thing else: A central meeting point, a shade to escape the heat at noon, a roofed stall for selling one’s ware. In some sense, the cons­truct has long lost the use origi­nally intended by its desi­gners, and in another sense, it is still remem­bered for what it was: a promise of a better future, of connec­tion to a fuzzy notion of moder­nity, and of socio-economic and geogra­phic mobi­lity. Stories are told about the various aspects of the half-finished site, about the foreign deve­lo­p­ment workers and their true moti­va­tions, about their misun­derstan­ding of local power dyna­mics and about their insti­tu­tion of a new divi­sion of wealth. After the foreig­ners have left, the project soon collapsed—a combi­na­tion of poor poli­tical and economic timing and an inap­pro­priate overst­ret­ching of moder­nist motifs: the remai­ning coope­ra­tives were not in a posi­tion to manage the sophisti­cated imported machi­nery that the project left behind, and in the absence of spare parts and economic reserves, the trac­tors and pumps gradu­ally fell into disuse. A down­ward spiral ensued as the soli­da­rity that made the coope­ra­tive spirit dissi­pated, and misma­nage­ment of funds and self-serving appro­pria­tion of coll­ec­tive property have alle­gedly abounded. Remai­ning property was taken over by the banks once it was clear that the moun­ting loans could not be repaid.

And yet, along­side such destruc­tion and entropy, the past retained its hold. The mango trees planted next to each house­have grown tall in the fifty years since they were planted, provi­ding shadeand fruit to resi­dents both old and new.Tales of the original inter­ven­tions and their aims continue to circu­late today, at times inspi­ring new, home­grown, initiatives.

“Patient Zero”

The story is all too fami­liar and is in no way limited to Sub-Saharan Africa. The Carib­bean country of Haiti, the Marbial Valley to be precise, can be considered as development’s “patient zero”. Back in 1948, when the young United Nations—through the United Nations Orga­niza­tion for Educa­tion, Science and Culture (UNESCO)—started its pilot project in the area, Marbial was described as a region where “tropical disease, soil erosion and over-population have combined to spread igno­rance and misery”. This early enga­ge­ment with post-war deve­lo­p­ment did not go very far and was considered a failure shortly after its imple­men­ta­tion. While the École Natio­nale UNESCO Marbial is still in use today, 70 years after the UN’s first expe­ri­men­ta­tion with inter­na­tional deve­lo­p­ment and moder­niza­tion, varia­tions on the original incep­tion report on the situa­tion in Marbial still reso­nate in deve­lo­p­ment reports on the region. If not impro­ve­ment, then what remains? If UNESCO’s scheme failed to provide a basis for educa­tion to the Marbial Valley, what oppor­tu­ni­ties did the project none­theless create, and for whom?

Project after­life in Tanz­ania (Lake Victoria, 2015); Source: Yonatan N. Gez

Recent decades have seen moun­ting evidence for the under­per­for­mance of the inter­na­tional deve­lo­p­ment agenda as trans­lated into specific project objectives—so much so, that it has by now become some­thing of a trope. Outcomes appear to have been espe­ci­ally dismal for the first wave of large-scale, top-down projects that emerged in the 1960s and its top-down, ambi­tious ‘high moder­nist’ approach. The approach has since fallen out of favour, giving way to refined methods and, more recently, to a language of inclu­sion, grass­roots parti­ci­pa­tion, and community-based deve­lo­p­ment. However, fail­ures by deve­lo­p­ment projects to meet their own set objec­tives and to anti­ci­pate the wider conse­quences of their action remain all too common. The physical, psycho­lo­gical, socio-political, and economic land­scapes continue to reso­nate with instances of past deve­lo­p­ment inter­ven­tions and their successes, fail­ures, and unin­tended conse­quences. Indeed, deve­lo­p­ment schemes – ‘inter­ven­tions’ in the full sense of the term – leave marks and trigger inad­ver­tent outcomes that turn out to be no less conse­quen­tial than their formal objectives.

“Whose reality counts?”

Above all, the ques­tion of the ‘after­lives’ of deve­lo­p­ment inter­ven­tions is vital to the local commu­ni­ties that still occupy those physical spaces. Despite being the primary stake­hol­ders and the stated target of an inter­ven­tion, affected commu­ni­ties are often side­lined by project indi­ca­tors. Critical deve­lo­p­ment studies, deve­lo­p­ment anthro­po­logy, and Science and Tech­no­logy Studies all provide insightful studies on owner­ship and contested narrative-making that echo Robert Cham­bers’ (1997) funda­mental ques­tion, “whose reality counts?” From this perspec­tive, there is irony in the acknow­ledged overuse of the vague concept of ‘empower­ment’ as a moti­va­tion behind so many deve­lo­p­ment inter­ven­tions. It is in the space that follows the collapse of such inter­ven­tions and the relin­quish­ment of their intended objec­tives that this noble buzzword is put into ques­tion, because it is there that we can learn just how removed local bene­fi­ci­a­ries might be from decision-making roles.

More often than not, local commu­ni­ties are not suffi­ci­ently consulted or even properly informed about behind-the-scenes poli­tics and reaso­ning for projects’ commence­ment and termi­na­tion and the wider context of their opera­tion. Thus, despite the preva­lence, incre­asingly since the 1980s, of a language of inclu­sion, deve­lo­p­ment is still very much some­thing that ‘happens to’ the poor.

Project after­life in Tanz­ania (Lake Victoria, 2015); Source: Yonatan N. Gez

This point is illus­trated through the recourse to rumours, which fill in an important gap of unkno­wa­bi­lity while attesting to an imba­lance of power and infor­ma­tion. As the people who will endure the long-term conse­quences of an inter­ven­tion might be the least informed about the poli­tics of decision making, they would seek expl­ana­tion wherever they may find it. 

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In rural sites in Mwanza, north-western Tanz­ania, where ambi­tious rural deve­lo­p­ment initia­tives from the 1960s have been aban­doned within a few years, stories continue to circu­late and haunt the contem­po­rary sites. In the shadow of a grim recoll­ec­tion of a watershed 1960s foreign inter­ven­tion, and despite the decades that have since passed, rumours remain salient. In one village, located in the heart of a small-scale mining area, we encoun­tered a wealth of stories that presented foreign inter­ven­tions’ ‘real’ moti­va­tions as related to the lucra­tive extra­c­tive busi­ness. The frus­tra­tion that locals felt with regard to the failing of the initia­tives further trans­lated into conspi­racy narra­tives: some believe that the foreig­ners were so upset for having to leave their lucra­tive site that they have purpo­sefully poisoned the land, a teleo­lo­gical story that explains why gold cannot be found in one’s own village but only in neigh­bou­ring ones. Such stories reveal the inherent ambi­gui­ties of deve­lo­p­ment initia­tives, which, even when well-meaning, rely on stark power imba­lances and asym­me­tries in know­ledge and in expo­sure to risk.

Reclai­ming the story

Importantly, such tales regar­ding foreign inter­ven­tions’ ‘real’ motives attest not only to local commu­ni­ties’ vulnerabi­lity, but also to their resi­li­ence and crea­ti­vity in resha­ping imposed narra­tives. In this sense, bene­fi­ci­a­ries are far from passive reci­pi­ents or victims. They may, for example, seize upon, appro­priate and redi­rect the promise of development-led reforms to advance their own agendas, resist and sabo­tage external impo­si­tions that they view as unde­si­rable, or other­wise turn the resources gained through external inter­ven­tions in unfo­re­seen ways, against the desi­gners’ original objec­tives and even latent ideo­lo­gies. Such actions raise the intri­guing idea whereby, far from answe­ring to formal, prescribed goals, deve­lo­p­ment is actually asserted by myriad modes of resis­tance and counter-narratives that reject foreign struc­tures and desi­gna­tions. From such a perspec­tive, more atten­tion should be drawn to the crea­tive uses and reuses of the ‘raw mate­rial’ of deve­lo­p­ment, as well as the mate­rial remains and mental repre­sen­ta­tions related to the (re)making of meaning, myths, origin stories, prac­tices, perfor­mances, and rumours.

History as an opportunity

In this respect, we must remember that aban­doned inter­ven­tions are not only a magnet for coll­ec­tive woes but can inspire new acti­vi­ties of self-reliance. One example to that effect takes us back to the Zambian Copper­belt village where we began, and in parti­cular to the most successful coope­ra­tive opera­ting in the village today. This coope­ra­tive, which focuses on dairy farming, was founded by local women in the mid-90s with the help of a grant from Heifer Inter­na­tional. Despite the two decades that have passed between the collapse of the Israel-led inter­ven­tion and the estab­lish­ment of the dairy coope­ra­tive, and the two addi­tional decades between the cooperative’s estab­lish­ment and our visit to the site, local leaders suggested to us that the coope­ra­tive is funda­men­tally inspired by the short-lived success of the 1970s inter­ven­tion. Drawing on the 1970s’ promise of provi­ding locals with an egg a day, the dairy coope­ra­tive adjusted the slogan and today seeks to deliver its members and their fami­lies with a glass of milk a day. The example thus demons­trates how commu­ni­ties remake and reclaim projects’ remains in ways that are rele­vant to them—in this case, by retai­ning the coope­ra­tive spirit. At the same time, however, from a critical perspec­tive, such cases also point at the diffi­culty of clear-cut retra­cing of past influences and inspirations.

Project after­life in Tanz­ania (Lake Victoria, 2015); Source: Yonatan N. Gez

To make matters even more compli­cated, we should take into conside­ra­tion the laye­ring, over time, of multiple external and local modes of inter­ven­tion. In an industry preoc­cu­pied with notions of progress, inno­va­tion, and advance­ment along a vector that is too-often prede­fined and linear, there is a tendency to over­em­pha­size the inno­va­tive aspects of a new project and under­play the rele­vance of the past. History, it has been said, always begins with the new project, though this might begin to shift with incre­asing reco­gni­tion of local know­ledge and ‘assets’. Local commu­ni­ties, in this respect, are the carriers and the repo­si­tory of local histo­ries, and have the keys to what has func­tioned before, what failed to bear fruits, and how to turn irrele­vant ideas and mate­ria­lity into some­thing of reco­gnized value. Aid prac­ti­tio­ners, policy experts, and scho­lars will profit from adop­ting a de-centralized design approach to their work: rather than fixa­ting on satis­fying pre-set objec­tives, they should hone their atten­ti­ve­ness to the crea­tive prac­tices of appro­pria­tion by the end user as they trans­form over time.

The authors would like to thank Prof. Lynn Schler of the Tamar Golan Africa Center, Ben Gurion Univer­sity, Israel.