Sunday, October 21, 2007

Can we, together, lift one village out of the Middle Ages?

The Guardian is determined to turn around a single village in Africa, taking it from 'the 14th century into the 21st', over the course of 3 years:

Having finished the exam for my OU Course on International Development, 'Challenges for a world in transition' on Tuesday it's reassuring to see how the tools and concepts learnt over the past 9 months can so easily be applied to this project. e.g. there's a section in there on the fact the villagers tend not to boil their drinking water. The people there were 'displaced by war 4 years ago'. The word 'sustainable' is just 3 minutes in to the introductory video, 'so that it doesn't end in 3 years when we move on'.

There's lots of chatter about people-centred development, as the Guardian editor says in the intro video, "We realise that throwing money at the problem isn't going to work. There is another idea of development that is from the ground-up, more sustainable. That's what we're trying to do here". As I learnt though, this seems empty of an idea how, even if they succeed with this village, it might make a broader difference, bar a vague notion that 'it might serve as a model'.

The language used to promote the launch is notably paternal. The writers ask themselves 'why bother?', rather than 'why interfere?'. The village is 'trapped in the 14th century': essentially a value judgment that their lifestyle is wrong.

The project is clearly in the 'development as done by development agencies' realm, with the associated question of legitimacy. You wonder if the project will prioritise what works best for the paper, best for their coverage, by extension best for the values of their lefty audience (in which I include myself) - than best for the people and culture they are operating within.

Being the Guardian, they're at least honest that ideas over development are contested and thus the project is controversial. They make this clear on the front page, no less, of Saturday's paper. They acknowledge that upon asking what one villager wants to make her life better, she doesn't say 'a Sony Vega 42" plasma and a subscription to Sky Sports': she says 'more time to sit with my friends'. They explain that the media needs to invent ways to keep the topic fresh, since otherwise it's such a slow-burning issue.

So I have mixed feelings over this project, but wanted to bring it to the attention of those of you who like me, following my recent course, are interested in the complex issues involved.

No comments: