Wetenschap - 21 december 1995

The slippery notion of

The slippery notion of

Rhetorical use of the phrase rural development by different people in different contexts can quickly lead to confusion during fieldwork, although it seems to be as commonplace as saying hello to the average young Dutch person.


This confusion is the reason why Roch Mongbo considers it necessary to study and question the notions of rural development and intervention. As the quotation above suggests, the use of language and jargon are key issues throughout his PhD thesis: The appropriation and the dismembering of development intervention. Policy discourse and practice in the field of rural development in Benin. Thursday, December 13 Roch Mongbo successfully defended his PhD thesis and was awarded an honours degree for his research at the Department of Sociology of Rural Development.

Mongbo carried out his field research in Benin in a community development programme, executed by a government agency. This programme was part of a national scheme aimed at re-dynamising the country's dying villages. The programme involved five to eight villages in each of the six provinces of Benin. Mongbo studied day to day preoccupations of all actors involved in the programme. Thus he covered the village level, extension workers and other programme facilitators, and finally the broader institutional level of policy making in the government, development and funding agencies. He examined how and over what issues these actors interact, as well as the kinds of coalitions, negotiations, struggles and consensuses they engage in.

In his report Mongbo argues that all the actors in the development programme have their own interpretation of the notion rural development which is strongly related to their own daily realities and reaches beyond official programme outlines. Besides, what is now called rural development is in fact the result of historical processes, since interventions go back as far as the colonial period.

Bits and pieces

Mongbo prefers to speak of a field of rural development, which consists of structures and rules formed by historical processes and which are not determined in advance. Nor does he fully define the actors or their roles. Mongbo explains: Villagers, for instance, take bits and pieces of the programme and fit these into their own daily preoccupations to serve their needs and survival strategies. How they incorporate these in their own situation is not necessarily in line with the programme's objectives. The responsible programme agency, in turn, also uses bits and pieces of the programme for the continuation of its own existence and not only for the implementation of the developments which originally it is supposed to bring about." Mongbo recounts how in this case the programme itself became irrelevant for both the agency as well as for the villagers: Villagers were prone to forget the programme's existence. I stayed in one of the villages for quite some tim
e for other purposes, and it was only by accident that I found out about the programme's existence."

According to Mongbo, the major result of his research has been to give a new meaning to the term rural development, in contrast to the commonly used definitions by social scientists and development practitioners. Mongbo feels that the consequences of this are twofold. On the one hand, he believes that although actors in a development programme might agree upon the formal objectives, it is wrong to monitor and evaluate the process of social change against these same objectives. On the other hand, Mongbo states that social science research in the field of rural development should not be limited to the prescribed activities of the development programmes, but should also take into account the private worlds of the actors involved.

Mother tongue

According to Mongbo it is essential to speak the local language if one seeks to understand the personal realities of people with a different cultural background. The same is therefore also true for foreign development workers and researchers. Mongbo expresses this in one of the propositions of his thesis: A wide domain of human sensibility can be exteriorised only in a mother tongue. It is that inviolable and untranslatable part of every culture. By the same argument Mongbo enthusiastically insists, You should definitely quote me on this! Foreign students do not need to learn Dutch in order to survive and study in the Netherlands. International courses are in English and most Dutch people, even in the remotest village, understand and speak English. But not learning the Dutch language gives foreign students no more than superficial contact with Dutch society and confines them to a social and cultural ghetto."

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