When you come from a consumer culture, like (I assume) most of my readers do, it’s difficult to draw the line on when you have enough and what you have enough of. Most of us accumulate possessions constantly. If anything is an indictment of Western society it is the constant, and largely fruitless search for meaning in consumption. A few days after buying that prized possession the glow fades, the satisfaction of showing your friends is hollow, tinged with envy on their part, and ultimately lasts only a few minutes. Consumption as identity and as a way of rewarding yourself is pathetic and underwhelming. Nevertheless, humans have always had tools and some of these give pleasure and enhance life. Steve Jobs was right when he said “Computers are like bicycles for our minds.” Computers are often targeted as symbols of western consumerism (especially Apple products), but my computer is the most creative tool I own. However I don’t deny that vast swathes of society use them in ways which are more like an easy chair for the mind. I’ve always got far more satisfaction out of making things and I can make things with a computer. It’s against this background that I look at how proposals to improve the livelihoods of rural African people should be implemented. More is not necessarily better, but it can be, depending on what that more is.
A sustainable livelihoods approach describes how people make a living and survive. It places people at the centre of a web of complex relationships with their communities, their natural environment and the world around them. The relationships may comprise economic activity, but the resilience with which these communities are endowed is found in more than their economic activity. People have livelihood strategies which are suited to the context in which they live. They are able to deal with seasonality (rainfall, employment, food supply), shocks or unexpected events (disease, drought) and many other things which adversely affect their lives. A sustainable livelihoods approach asks: How are they able to do this?
The idea that rural people have different forms of capital, is central to assessing the source of resilience in their livelihoods. The different forms of capital are:
- Social Capital – strong relationships of trust, good leadership, mutual interests, strong kin and ethnic networks and well organised social organisations
- Financial Capital – access to credit, savings, remittances from urban areas
- Natural Capital – soil fertility, water, forest and grazing resources,
- Physical Capital – household assets, agricultural implements, infrastructure
- Human Capital – knowledge, skills, health, young people for labour
Many development programs assume that increasing the financial capital of a community or individual will lead to a significant improvement to their livelihoods. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are some things that money can’t buy. Many rural communities in Africa have high levels of social and natural capital and it is these resources that give them the resilience they need to survive. One of the problems with proposals for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) is that there is an implicit assumption that increasing financial capital can improve the lives of communities. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case.
Its tricky to start dictating how rural people should make choices. Their lives are not easy and resisting their demand for Western products and a more Western lifestyle is not something that most people would be comfortable doing. Indeed, much of the opposition to development comes from the view that the underdeveloped are the opposite of the developed and that to become developed you need to adopt a Western lifestyle. It is clear from the livelihood analyses that I have done in western Zambia, that increases in financial capital may undermine natural capital as people have the means to expand agricultural fields (and cut down forests to do so) to increase their income and food security. How can you argue against this? Given a bit of capital most people would seek to improve their livelihoods and make life a little more secure. I don’t know the answer. I really don’t. It may be that if resources do start flowing from REDD these resources should be channeled into strengthening the type of capital that give people resilience to the changes, shocks and uncertainties which surround their livelihoods. Cash handouts to individuals are unlikely to achieve this objective. Is this paternalism? I’m not sure. What impacts does this have on participation? If communities demand that funds be doled out to individuals, how do we justify saying no?
I think the answer comes from a long process of working with communities to educate them and make their strengths and weaknesses clear. Once people can see where their strength lies as a community they often make the right decisions about how to spend their income. After all, if a community has strong social capital it is an indication that the requirements for making wise decisions is embedded in the community. One of the biggest failings of development projects is the lack of time spent working with people in their communities. I’d like to see an anthropologist resident for 2 years before anything happens. Mapping out community affiliations, establishing ties of kinship and trust and learning the local language should be essential before any development project is implemented. Some of the best colonial District Commissioners did exactly this and were fluent in the local language within a year. Although they had huge power, the best of them were able to implement this fairly and with a detailed knowledge of the local society. I’d like to see this approach being taken with development workers. Nowadays it’s the missionaries of rural Africa that do this the best. People are quick to disparage missionaries, but they are far more respected by the local community than development workers who come on infrequent visits to organise stakeholder workshops and then leave just as quickly as they arrived. The missionaries are the ones who live humbly among the local people, earn their respect, learn their language and become experts in the local culture. Development agencies could learn something from the methods they use, rather than trying to turn rural African people into Western consumers who search for meaning in their lives by buying a never-ending number of things they don’t really need.