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The ‚After­lives‘ of Deve­lo­p­ment Inter­ven­tions: ‚Failure‘ as an Opportunity

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.