Metaphors and Language

There are many forms and expressions of development, but the dominant idea behind the word simply refers to the efforts to address poverty. Post-development scholars have revealed most of the myths associated with development thinking, Rist, Illich, Esteva, Sachs, Shiva and Escobar being the best known. For me, as an aspiring academic who grew up privileged in Africa, there is no option to dismiss development as a tool of control that maintains current power relations. I am forced, by the faces of my friends to redefine and improve developmental efforts. In general the man on the street can encounter three areas of development discourse: government support, corporate giving and grassroots expressions.

Government support, although it can include south-south cooperation (like BRICS) is generally characterised by IMF and World Bank support to governments of poor countries. Typically to build roads or dams, finance health systems or do all sorts of ‘capacity building’. I would categorise multi million dollar projects of huge NGO’s and development agencies like USAID or SIDA in this same group. Most of the scholarly articles on development address initiatives in these categories, for the simple reason that this is where the money is and where there is money you will inevitably find an expert with something to say or write. These are the leaders of the development discourse, followed blindly and naively by all the citizens downstream. By following blindly I include the minor critiques of methods and the debates about minutiae, since the debates seldom question the system, the grand assumptions and the theory of change as affected by power. I will note that certain rules are appropriate when building dams and roads, but those should not be extended to for example, individual rural youths or illiterate women.

In a country like South Africa, corporate social -responsibility or –investment is common and standard practice. Every large corporation has to spend money on SED (socio economic development) and so a new breed of quasi developmental experts arose. These are the unqualified agents that are paid to use the poor to do marketing for their ‘brand’. I have met hundreds of CSI managers and besides being a favourite BBBEE position to fill, these are employees moved from HR or Marketing and they do not have academic or contextual knowledge that could assist them with a proper strategy of engaging the poor and maximising return for the corporation. Companies have ill-defined mandates as to how they should ‘help the poor’ and are normally evaluated instead on the ‘bang for their buck’ rather than any type of sustainable impact on change in the lives of the poor. The poor are current or future consumers and if not, they will be used to show the wealthy customers from what a respectable institution they are buying. CSI have fundamental flaws, yet there is such large amounts of money at stake that one cannot simply ignore or give up on it.

This brings us to the actual subjects of development, the efforts of the so-called poor. I say so-called, because anyone who have lived with the materially wealthy and materially not so wealthy knows how ironic it is to call they guy in the Ferrari rich and the family in a hut poor. Yet, for sake of the conversation I will speak of poor and rich, to indicate those without and with material opportunities that can include income, education, electricity, water, safety, mobility that can translate to the ability to make choices. The journey of a poor person to lift themselves up, with or without assistance from the rich is a journey that has fundamental differences from the two areas of development described above. How you build a road and how you link a brand to a poor community is a very different matter compared to the journey a disadvantaged youth has to follow until he can look any typical westerner squarely in the eye and compete equally on any level. The type of ‘help’ that the ‘West’ and companies give, normally undermines actual development of the beneficiaries. The problem is in the ‘how?’ of the help, and the ‘how?’ is influenced by a refusal to be critical and a refusal to fundamentally challenge the system. The reason for that is that sacrifice is not a concept that sits well with the rich. Their help is viewed as investments and investments are not sacrifices, they don’t lead to losses. Investors need returns that put them in a better position than before they made their investments. In a world with limited resources, true development, the lifting of the poor has to have an affect on the rich that sees them move down. Consumption of luxury goods has to come under scrutiny in the face of human suffering. This does not sit well in the offices of development agencies and CSI offices. They prefer to focus on the technical aspects of the projects they invest in: how to apply, how to monitor and how to evaluate. They are technocrats in that the more you focus on the acronyms and frameworks of documentation (including workshops) the less the chance is that the poor can ask real questions of equality and reciprocity. By treating the poor as a building contractors (who even have to tender!), donors prevent the critique that their involvement is more patronising tokenism than a willingness to really share wealth and promote equality.

Many problems that occur in the direct interaction with actual poor people (called beneficiaries) derive from the metaphors and language made normative by the first two spheres of development (World Bank and Corporates). Development is implemented and talked about today using the language and imagery of finance and investment management. Money is invested, invested money requires a return. To ensure a return normative managerial practices are assumed and these are based on accounting, and traditional project management. In finance they speak of the agency problem, mechanisms has to be in place to ensure the managers are controlled so that they make all decisions with the good of the shareholder in view. Most delopment workers feel a sense of cleverness when they talk about return on investment, human resources, beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other financial metaphors. Yet, they seldom bother to be consistent in their appropriation of imagery. Who is the shareholder in a small NGO or GRO? The model says it is the investor, the person giving money. Yet, surely the actual poor should be the shareholders of their own efforts and lives? Where does that leave the donor, s a stakeholder? The imagery quickly becomes inappropriate. Finance and Investment is all about profit, long term wealth creation for the shareholder, measured in financial wealth. And in this, the fundamental flaw is revealed. Donors and sub donors do business in a way that will suit their investors. Power is thus in the hands of the investor, all the rest become employees. Employees that has to conform to the system if they want a slice of the pie. As sincere development workers continue to claim their main concern is with the benefit of the poor, they refuse to admit the donor is the shareholder and everyone must ensure maximum return for the shareholder. Sometimes they drop words and concepts from other metaphors into this investment game: giving, charity, help, solidarity, autonomy, sacrifice, friendship, love, respect are all words you will not find in a handbook on finance and investment management.

What model or metaphor is appropriate then in the efforts to ‘walk with the poor’? The paradigm that first shattered my way of thinking is the model of a family. I was born as a baby with less skill and ability than any poor person on earth and today I am fully developed and on top of the food chain. Why? Because my parents developed me. My parents made me develop by giving me love and freedom, by making countless sacrifices, and believe it or not, I never filled in application forms as a kid, I was never monitored and evaluated making sure my actions are aligned to my intended outcomes, objectives and goals. There were no audits on my pocket money, there were no written links between budget and outputs and my parents would not reallocate funding if one of my siblings produced better return on investment. Obviously I feel family is a better model to follow when we work with the so called poor. Families are built on love and respect, on commitment irrespective of performance. My family helped me develop; yet there are many families, which are dysfunctional, and never led to the development of their kids. That is not because there is a problem with the idealised views and principles of families, but simply because the parents did not have skills and money. In development, the donors and donor agencies doe have skills and money, yet they could, in theory fulfil the role of good parents just like my mom and dad did. If you are now clever enough not to want to be paternalistic, feel free to call yourself a brother or sister. If we can be honest about where the ‘rich’ can learn from the ‘poor’ then the former can also unashamedly help and teach in other areas where the latter require help. Most empowerment or capacity development workshops are paternalistic and prescriptive any way, so it’s a bit ironic for those organisers to call a family metaphor patronising. A family assumes long-term commitment, compared to a weekend, a year or even a three year intervention. Who change in a year anyway? Me? You? Yet we expect that of poor rural youths and women…

Because of corruption, the system today is obsessed with transparency and accountability, concepts that assumes and reinforce the notion that I am working with potential criminals. Yet, real criminals are experts at writing and reporting and whilst staying in the safety of reports and audits the money never reach the poor. Again the CEO’s and shareholders that demand audits never audit their own children: they trust them. People are quick to employ business or management language when reflecting on dealings with Africa or the poor, yet these cheap borrowings are more parroting of management cliché’s than reflective insight informed by theory and practice. People often talk about the poor, without having poor friends. Talking in abstractions is much different than speaking on behalf of people you call your friends. Development workers are normally hypocritical. They will give a workshop to the poor, yet not house that poor person in their home. If you don’t like my metaphor of family for whatever reason, perhaps consider the metaphor of friendship to guide our developmental efforts. By simply treating every person as a personal and equal friend, you would immediately eliminate 90% of the most common errors and pitfalls. Yet, the rich do not really want to befriend the poor, because it will cost them, it will lead to uncomfortable sharing and sacrifice.

Besides family or friendship, one could also consider classical charity, where giving was not investment, but simply a gift. Talk of the dangers of impersonal hand-outs and the idea of a bottomless pit has made pure giving without payback or control very unpopular, and people justify their conditions and control in the name of stewardship and responsibility. That makes sense in situations where one would just hand out cash to a face you don’t know. Yet, when you have made the effort to know someone deeply, as family member or friend, then a no strings attached gift is often the most empowering thing you can do, because it is translated as respect and belief in that person. That is real empowerment because you gave away, not just cash, but also control. In these situations even failure becomes valuable because the failure and hurt becomes the real classroom where people learn and grow. The freedom to choose and the freedom to fail are worth more than any curriculum and certificate. Those are short-cut replacement for real growth and learning. How many people treat their marriage as an investment? With planning charts, objectives, outputs, outcomes and regular evaluations? How many people go on holiday and quantify the financial investment of that trip in terms of outputs and outcomes? Yet billions of dollars are spent every year by rich people, who ‘instinctively’ knows that the holidays are good for them and justify the expense. Again, it is difficult to practice what you preach! If you want my friends in rural Africa to structure their lives as a financial investment, do the same with your wife, your kids and your holidays… Think.

For development to work, rich people should start to investigate where they need development, where they need to change and grow. Once that starts, then interaction with the poor will become meaningful and mutually empowering. Yet almost all development efforts assume the dichotomy of developed and underdeveloped, the have’s and the have-not’s, the givers and the receivers. If your system does not include two way application processes, 360 evaluation and reporting transparent budgets on both sides, then I am afraid you are doing a primitive form of ‘development’ that use, no, steal, clever words from other disciplines, and this type of engagement will not develop, it will maintain the gap, or increase the gap.

The buzzwords from finance and project management are the give-away signs that someone is depersonalising another person. So every time you hear the word audit, return, capital, risk, stakeholder, report, investment, evaluation, beneficiary, participant, performance or even sustainability; take note because these are the little alarm bells that indicate that the system has made another proselyte. Let’s use the names of our friends, not making generalisations, let’s move closer to each other. Above all, let us not use words, when we don’t even know the history of who introduced those words, when and where and to what purpose. Let us try to refrain from making noise as clever parrots.

Finance and Investment thinking has impoverished us so that today, we as so called smart people, know very little about giving. Never mind return, don't even expect a thank you.
Finance and Investment thinking has impoverished us so that today, we as so called smart people, know very little about giving. Never mind return, don’t even expect a thank you.