Saturday, March 5, 2016

Developmental "Double Standards" and Africa's Cultural Image Problem

As the NGO industry expands, the broad all-inclusive term "development" has become more and more vague over time.  Anything that remotely suggest provision of additional resources for betterment of people's lives have now fallen under the category of "development."  The methodologies f implementation and assessments have only become more and more varied as a wider and wider spectrum of ideas and personnel have involved themselves in the industry.  Thankfully, the central goal of an NGO is still clear: the job is to ultimately make people's living standards higher.

Of course, to define "higher living standards" is also problematic to an extent.  The basic rules are obvious.  A well-fed, well-dressed person is certainly better off than someone going to bed hungry and cold at night.  But beyond the basic human necessities, judgments become fuzzier.  Is a person automatically deemed better off if certain material "wants" are fulfilled (e.g. good smartphones, large houses, chances to travel)?  And to take a step further, how does one compare not individuals, but entire societies, where members in each display different living standards and sources of "wants."

There is no standard criteria for comparison.  Probably the closest quantitative data on hand, as flawed as it definitely is, would be GDP per capita.  Only hard numbers like this can remotely have a chance for apple-to-apple side-by-side measurements.  But cold, hard numbers bring its own issues, by detaching different levels of demands for "high living standards" from economic realities, mostly by assuming that everyone everywhere work toward the same material goal, all of which can be fulfilled by more income.  Thus, more income easily equates with higher living standards.

For instance, here is an interesting fact: in 1988, the year the author was born, the GDP per capita of Tanzania and China was roughly the same ($220 vs $280).  Now the figure for China has topped $8000 while Tanzania's remain below $1000.  From the numbers, China does offer something for Tanzania (and rest of low-income countries in the world) something to learn in terms of giving citizens higher living standards in a short period of time.  But plenty, especially in the development industry, deny that the Chinese example is even worthy of emulation or admiration by Africans.

The logic behind the dismissal is often speculatively qualitative.  The notion of "individual happiness" as a proxy for high standard of living is often raised.  Sure, some aspects of "rich unhappy societies" can be validated in the form of detrimental side effects of development (ranging from the everyday like pollution to long working hours to structural like loss of cultural heritage and sacrifices of political freedoms).  But the emphasis on how different cultures need different levels of materialism to be equally happy somehow becomes just as valid and important.

The "happiness by culture" argument, then, greatly reduce the need to focus on economic development that's shown in quantitative figures.  After all, if Culture A allows the same amount of "happiness" to be attained for $1 while it takes $3 to achieve the same level of "happiness" in Culture B, then Culture A only needs to hit $1000 GDP per capita to be equally well-off as Culture B at $3000.  And unfortunately, the author has too often seen this line of argument being used in an African context, justifying how Africa's lack of economic progress is, in fact, not a big deal.

Yet, perhaps what is even more disturbing than arguing for Africa's lack of need to grow faster economically is the assumption that African cultures are "intrinsically happier."  To put in different words, this basically says Africans have greater tolerance for material poverty, and they can essentially make do with many things that people in other parts of (more developed) world see as necessities.  Noble thoughts maybe in the context of anti-materialistic crusades of the Western "haves" but straight-up racist when thrown upon the "have-nots" lacking same opportunities.

Indeed, the choice of many foreign development personnel to see Africa as a land where people do not have much because they do not seem to need as much is the main reason not more efforts are placed to give the locals as much as people in other parts of the world strive for.  In their effort to frame Africans as a happy people not tainted by evil materialistic desires, they seem to completely forget that in this age of globalization, Africans, even in the most remote of geographies, also know about the convenient functionalities of cutting-edge technologies.  To assume that they do not and need not, then, is to project an almost subhuman image upon a people that can learn to have just as much, if not more, "wants" as non-Africans.

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