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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.