Doing Development Differently

This week, we learned how to do development differently.

On the weekend, this involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol and dancing late into the night. We danced barefoot on the beach and in the bars, we danced on counters and we danced in hotel rooms. This barefoot dancing was so whole-hearted that one night I lost my shoes. Thanks to some efficient, kind-hearted beach boys (for those of you who know Gambia, think bumsters but less aggressive), I recovered my favourite flats the following night.

I know what you’re thinking. She goes to volunteer, to help, to lend a hand, and now it turns out she’s partying on the beach. And you’re right, it happens a lot when people work overseas. But coming off over a month in the bush, and spending time with my fellow Canadians on a beautiful beach blessed with Captain Morgan and Serengeti baridi (ba-ree-dee – cold), I think I am past due for a weekend of all-night dance parties.

Luckily, I am not only here to drink but also to learn, like I mentioned, about development. Our Annual Volunteer Conference was held at a convent in Dar es Salaam (they serve beer, along with Jesus). On the day after the conference our Country Director, Jean Van Wetter, put together a seminar with the same title: Doing Development Differently, attended by higher-ups in Tanzania’s development scene. I will start with this quote from the Country Director of UNICEF. She stood up without coming to the podium, put her prepared remarks aside, and spoke about her daughter applying to study development in university. “Oh my God, please don’t do that,” was her response to the idea. Her view is that International Development as we know it will be a dinosaur in the foreseeable future; not something you’d expect to hear with such frankness from a UNICEF director. She asked the audience to envision a Tanzania free of development assistance. The rest of the program also worked to challenge the status quo, namely the director of Foundations for Civil Society, John Ulanga.

His talk ended with a shockingly bare-bones statement about government spending: “look at the big cars our brothers drive.” The representative from the President’s office, sitting in the front row, chose that moment to get up and walk out of the meeting, to which Mr. Ulanga faced up, calling out to him, “I hope I have not upset you; are you walking out?” The man made some excuse about his phone, and Mr. Ulanga’s thank-you slide came up. What a conclusion.

I am actually writing this on a notepad while listening to the facilitator’s commentary, in the workshop itself. Admittedly, I am hungover. Free wine at the Canadian High Commission last night, paid for by your hard-earned tax dollars, led to some double-fisting by we Canadians who are loath to turn down such an opportunity. My hangover is not preventing me from being really surprised and impressed. I registered for this seminar expecting participatory process. The flouf is growing on me, I admit, so give me post-its, small group brainstorming, and yes, god forbid, flipcharts. But that’s not what we saw when we walked in. We saw a head table, a schedule with “remarks by the Permanent Secretary to the President’s Office”, among many others, and block seating for the audience. Doing Development Differently? As Chloe aptly put it; “if you wear dark suits like that, you can never do anything differently.”

I prepared to pinch my wrists to stay awake, and started writing this post to look engaged. Surprise again. Jean has done a very slick job of walking the line, pushing boundaries, because to lull government reps into a sense of security, to bring in an MP from Calgary and a VSO Trustee, a Baroness, to hold proceedings at the British Counsel, whose goal is to “spread the British way of life” – awfully American of them, no? – to do these things, to spring challenging subject matter on them and on us, comments on the sensitivity of his approach. Make it look official and sneak-attack an alternative message. Nice.

A rep from one of the oil and gas companies doing exploration in Mtwara spoke, even taking the microphone to answer straight-up questions from the audience. VSO volunteer doctors spoke about catalysts for change, an opposition MP about government spending, a Tanzanian about why Tanzania has a mentality of waiting for help instead of acting, “we are what our actions indicate”, and the facilitator about a spot banned by the government which asked “if we are so rich in resources, why is this country poor?”. The private sector was brought to the forefront despite Tanzania’s socialist leanings, and the surprisingly engaging DFID rep (surprisingly, because we’ve noticed a lack of liveliness in British speakers this week) finished with “Good development is not done with the heart. It’s done with the head.”

It wasn’t a day out of a Robert Chambers book*, in terms of methodology. All the better, if change is really what they’re after. It was challenging, it was outside the box, it spoke in plain terms to influential people, and it was definitely Different. Oh, and we had tiramisu and ice cream for dessert after lunch.

*Robert Chambers has written a few milestone books on participatory development practices, particularly (but not exclusively) in the field of agriculture. Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last gives a good overview of participatory methodology. Plus, you don’t need to read the whole book… it’s so repetitive that you get the gist of it from a few chapters!

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  1. Lisa

     /  December 15, 2011

    Margaret, sorry I missed it (the talks and the tiramisu) but thanks for capturing the nuts and bolts for me, an admirable feat given the hungover status. MIssing you, my friend. Keep writing.

  2. Reposting these from Facebook because I think they go along well and Simon I would like people to see the book you suggest!

    Ann Silversides: HI Margaret — interesting post on doing development differently. I have come away from Ghana perplexed by the question “what is development?” wondering why, eg, Cuba managed so much back in the day (literacy, health care etc). Appreciate the UNICEF person’s comments.

    Lisa Gregoire: Yeah, and Ulanga’s comments too. Raise a little hell, and such.

    Simon Lavoie: Thanks for the post Margaret, really interesting topic indeed. For all those interested in ”doing development differently”, I suggest the following French book by Robert Vachon and friends:
    Alternatives au développement: Approches interculturelles à la bonne vie et à la coopération internationale

    I would also like to address a comment I received in person today about this post. Re: the comment about wearing dark suits. To me, that sort of formality defines the old school of development; top-down, exclusive, experts and expats dictating the agenda. It’s true that strategy and policy decisions can’t be all be decentralized and redistributed, it would be a nightmare. And we all have to play ball. But an effort is necessary if the people we want to reach are those who have little power and no dark suits.

    On the expat note, another thing I really appreciated about the seminar was the presence of many people born, raised and/or educated in Tanzania. Granted, many had since left for the West, but their commitment to dialogue about Tanzania’s was encouraging. I’d be the last to say that expats have no role here, being one myself, but I do hope that Tanzania can stop waiting to be helped (maybe in two years I can give you a better commentary on that part, like if I even agree that they are)..

  3. See Lesley’s blog for another perspective and links to articles about Tanzania’s development progress:

  4. Thanks so much for this post. You are absolutely crrceot. Having the privilege of 23 years of serving the Cambodian people (many of those years also spent in the RCMP and investigating child sex abuse in Cambodia by Canadians and others) I am stunned by how many “orphanages” post public notices for anyone to go out and “assist” the kids. Mostly this is an opportunity to extract cash from well-meaning, if emotional, tourists at the expense of the stability of the kids. But such establishments can be much worse. At least one I know of was actually renting the kids to pedophiles. If people want to help they must go through established and trustworthy agencies. Thanks for your wisdom and for caring enough to write such a post.


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