Science - February 5, 2004

Keeping things vague helps development work

Worthy goals, such as participation and empowerment, are deliberately kept vague in proposals for development projects. Not making them explicit means that different stakeholders can interpret them as they wish. This is how Bart Pijnenburg describes the situation in his PhD thesis, which he defends on 6 February.

In the nineties a proposal for a development project was unlikely to receive finance if it did not contain the words ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’. According to both the prevailing theory and discussions on development work, development could only take place if the local population took part in projects, and also took responsibility within them. These ideas were prevalent among donors, politicians and development workers themselves, and other approaches received little attention.

But what ‘participation’ and ‘responsibility’ meant in practice was often not made explicit. Pijnenburg, who did his research in the Communication and Innovation Studies chair group, examined the ways in which these terms were interpreted by five development projects in Mozambique, and found that they meant little in concrete terms. ‘Empowerment of the local population’ was included as a target in all five projects. But in none was it made clear exactly who should have more power and how that should happen. Local power holders controlled some project components, and project workers made sure they were kept satisfied. As time went on, the targets concerning empowerment were reduced. Most interventions that actually took place were imposed on local people by donors, development organisations or foreign workers. Local people had little say in what happened.

Nevertheless project leaders clung on to terms like participation and empowerment. They had to; otherwise the project would not get finance. To close the gap between the praiseworthy ideals and practice, project leaders tended to translate words into deeds. How that was done, and what the ideals came to mean in practice, remained vague. People tended to have different ways of explaining what participation was, depending on the situation or who they were talking to. The concepts remained ambiguous and could therefore easily be used in a populist manner, according to Pijnenburg.

The local population remained by-and-large indifferent to talk of participation and empowerment, continues Pijnenburg, being more interested in material advantages to be gained, such as roads or schools. The idea of empowerment does not come from them, but is imposed by donors. Pijnenburg admits that little can be done about this situation. Even if the projects have not achieved much, it’s still quite a lot within the context of Mozambique. By ‘keeping it vague’, as Pijnenburg puts it, you do manage to get people together round the table. Once you’ve got them together, though, it’s important to make things explicit and make clear agreements.

Joris Tielens

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