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Pondering Development

May 2009. After a career working in developing countries, I thought I'd ponder a bit about what it all means.

Poverty in the Waterberg is not much different than poverty elsewhere in small town and rural South Africa. Statistics are hard to come by, but the population in and around Vaalwater is estimated at 50,000. If you are White, you’d be surprised by such a large number until you make your way behind the government housing (pictured below) that is visible from the tar road to Melkrivier, back to the countless tin shacks erected on the seemingly endless land near the town dump. This is not a land invasion, nor a squatter settlement. Rather, plots are delineated and have been formally allocated to individuals.

Whether you call it a settlement, which it is, or a township, which it isn’t, or “the location”, a term straight from the late nineteenth century to apartheid days to the present, it is a community with a name, Lesideng, and its residents are Black. Identifying it as Black is no surprise in South Africa; it is one of four groups still regarded by race and it reflects both the legacy of apartheid as well as the unmet expectations of service delivery and life improvement of the current government.

Like any community, Lesideng has its easily visible problems – dirt streets in rough condition with poor or no lighting, unsanitary litter, minimal water and electricity distribution, no public transportation, and few amenities. Less visible are public health issues such as HIV/AIDS and alcoholism, poor education, and unemployment.

It is the kind of impoverished community that is the intended ultimate beneficiary of government policies and programmes as well as development assistance by countless donor agencies and local and international non-government organizations. Indeed, Lesideng has benefited from the local municipality and provincial departments. In the last few years, a main street has been paved, street lights have been installed on many blocks, and a water distribution system is in place. But the growth of new houses being erected from one day to the next far outpaces the government’s capacity to keep up.

And so it remains as a typical impoverished community that must rely on itself and its neighbours for any day to day attention and improvement. The most visible, helpful organization in Lesideng is the Waterberg Welfare Society. From a small complex of renovated and new buildings on the edge of the community, and with difficult but effective fund-raising locally and abroad, it is able to provide the community with HIV/AIDS counselling and care, a hospice, a youth centre, and general advocacy.

Based on my experience, I’d say Lesideng is better off without formal, international donor assistance. Yes, the community could benefit from a single person, say a dedicated Peace Corps Volunteer or similar volunteer program, but generally, assistance from afar doesn’t reach the neediest very easily, if at all. If South Africa’s housing policies and programs, supported by international donors, result in a family getting a free piece of land with a small, but free house on it, it doesn’t bode well for the next generation of families; it only bodes well for a permanent and unsustainable welfare system.

I spent nearly 40 years working in development – the development of poor countries and cities. Armed with a graduate degree in city and regional planning, my work in one way or another was always related to the improvement in the lives of poor people. In my early days, I worked directly with those poor people. As my career moved on, I was more and more removed from them, occasionally meeting them at project sites but increasingly talking and reading about them from insular bureaucratic offices.

Some times I was on my own, evaluating someone else’s project or policy. More often I was on a team or leading a team analyzing problems and recommending new projects or policies. Short-term assignments varied from one week to a year, with at least one if not several trips to a country. Three times I resided in the neighbourhood, city, or country where the work was.

The focus of my attention included low-cost housing, urbanization, housing privatization, urban infrastructure, and local government finance. As I got older and presumably wiser, I found myself leading technical teams on subjects beyond my experience. I was the one who could pull together specialists into a coherent team and manage the production and delivery of thick reports on subjects such as agriculture policy, HIV/AIDS, and railway privatization. And I could do it in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Wherever the work, we wore coats and ties (and dresses) and held many meetings among ourselves and with national and local officials and with whichever office of the assistance agency that was paying for our work. We discussed our findings and conclusions, we drafted and re-drafted chapters, and finally delivered documents.

As a result, though I remain an optimist, I’m unconvinced about the utility of development assistance. Success stories that I was involved in are few, but here are a couple.

Years after being involved in the development of housing policy in Portugal, I was delighted to visit some of the project sites and see not only completed housing construction, but clean clothes drying on built-in clothes lines outside occupied units, a most telling picture of contented habitation.

Years after spending a lot of effort over many months to convince a wary high-level public works official in Brazil that the poor residents of a marginal neighbourhood trying to build a modest sewage line would benefit greatly by the provision of a few pipes and technical guidance, he told me that he “learned” from me, that one should “listen to the poor”.

If I stretch my memory, I might come up with a handful of other positive stories, but for the most part, I saw and participated in poorly conceived and badly executed programs and projects. Whether the culprit was the development agency itself and the foreign policy it was trying to promote, the country’s officials, the consultants who worked on the project, or even the innate intransigence of poverty – exacerbated by constantly increasing populations – results were too often the same. Little changed.

To cynical US foreign policy officials, for instance, the US Housing Guaranty program, noble as its intentions were, often represented easy “fast disbursing” assistance, suitable for the likes of not-so developing countries.

In 1975, when Portugal was preparing for national elections for the first time in post-war years, with its dreaded Communist party looking popular, the US suddenly determined the country was eligible for development assistance. And so, for Portugal’s suddenly increasing number of immigrants from Mozambique, Angola and other former Portuguese colonies that gained independence at the same time, housing was financed.

Similarly, as the Soviet Union was collapsing in the late 1980s, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were allowed to leave to Israel, the US guaranteed millions of dollars of loans for the construction of housing in Israel. The agreement obliged Israel to use the money within its “traditional” green-line borders. No matter. All that meant was that Israel could use its own money for housing in its occupied territories.

To dedicated careerists in USAID, there was continuous pressure to develop projects and disburse funds, particularly those that reflected whatever development theories were current. The notion of privatization swept the development world not long ago – government should relinquish state-owned enterprises to those who could operate it better. Housing built and managed by the government should be sold to private interests. Metropolitan water supply and delivery systems should be sold to private interests. Railways, airlines, on and on. There are too few successes along these long and many failures.

I reviewed a national railroad restructuring project in Mozambique, and found the all-too-familiar reasons why policy changes were not implemented.

• Donor procedural deadlines conflicted with the time required to initiate and pursue the kind of participatory process that can lead to host country ownership of policy change. Despite an attempt to introduce ownership of project design, at least a participatory process, there was no time. AID Mission deadlines and a weak railway did not permit it.

• The client must know it is the client, the client's needs must be clear to the team at the beginning and throughout the project. The railway chose only to understand the project as one that would bail it out of its financial excesses. The success of the project design, and ultimately of project implementation, depended on the participation of the railway itself, obviously the most important stakeholder.

• The policy agenda must be focused and manageable. The policy context was complicated by the railway's history and traditions, the Ministry of Transport's interests, a government distracted by a peace process and a concern for great numbers of its citizens seeking employment – returning refugees, demilitarized soldiers, and now a potentially large number of redundant workers.

• A donor project alone, or even coordinated with other donors, cannot make sustainable policy changes without host country commitment.

• Institutions need incentives to make changes. In an environment with enormous resistance to change generally, and where many personal benefits are at stake, it is difficult to find a policy champion willing to take on the task of reform.

• A donor driven project is destined for failure. An excess of donors focusing on one institution is destined for trouble.

By far the best efforts to improve the lives of poor should be devoted to education and skills training, both of which promote independence of the individual, and expectations of self-improvement rather than expectations of government assistance. Bursaries and scholarships at all school levels are vital; enrol a disadvantaged child in an advantaged education environment. Promote international high school exchange programmes.

For Mabatlane’s Lesideng, put your money in education – trained and sufficient teachers, appropriate books and curricula, safe and sound facilities conducive to learning, counselling.