Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

EWB Application, Question 2

Another answer from my EWB application:

Choose one thing you feel is important for the process of development in rural Africa. Explain why it is important and please provide an example to illustrate.

Community involvement is enormously important for any development plan in rural Africa.  Even though western researchers and development workers usually have the best intentions, we all have preconceived notions of Africa that can influence our judgements.  For example, environmental research on the forest of islands of Kissidougou in Guinea has had many different narratives.  Various researchers have observed that dense forests surround villages.  The rest of the landscape, however, is savannah.  Western scholars had assumed the “natural” vegetarian must be forest and that rural Africans had degraded the land to cause deforestation and changed the area to savannah.  Two researchers, James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, dispute this conclusion.  Through conversations with villagers they determined that, in fact, the natural landscape is savannah.  Africans nurtured forests around their villages for protection.  Furthermore, some of the forests had grown so robustly they were encroaching into the village areas and “degrading” the savannah.  As a consequence, the forest provided important resources to the villages such as leaves for their dwellings’ roofs.  Every year the villagers would cut down trees and burn them to contain the forests at a reasonable area.  Western scientists had seen villagers doing this and labelled it “mindless destruction.”  These scientists made assumptions based on false ideas instead of asking the local people the reasons behind their decisions.  Without community participation, I believe it is impossible to gain any sort of substantial understanding of a place and the people’s culture.  Without this understanding, development work becomes a top-down approach that could easily ignore the wants and needs of the people it will affect.

In their paper “False Forest History, Complicit Social Analysis: Rethinking Some West African Environmental Narratives” (1995, World Development Vol. 23), Fairhead and Leach argue that many colonial-era stereotypes still exist among westerners.  These are based on four broader assumptions:

  1. African vegetation was once “original”
  2. African society once had traditional functional order in harmony with nature
  3. African rural populations only increase
  4. African society is sedentary and subsistence is anti-commercial

Indeed I recognize these beliefs in my own idealized notion of Africa.  This is why it is so important for me to recognize the limitations of my preconceptions and be open-minded.  Only by listening to African people tell their own stories can I better my understanding of Africa.

My own cultural stereotypes were exposed in 2009 when I went to Honduras and visited the small town of Tocoa Colon.  I was struck by the poverty.  Even though I’d read about slums, seeing it with my own eyes was much different that I imagined.  It was common for three generations of women to live in one mud shack without electricity or running water.  However none of the usual slum descriptions such as “destitute” or “meagre” fit what I saw.  These people had busy lives, which unfortunately were often much more difficult than they needed to be.  Yet I did not feel a giant chasm between them and myself.  Perhaps this is hubris on my part.  Many of the people I met may not have felt as close to me as I to them.  Communication is the best tool for bridging these sorts of gaps.

Community participation is important for fair governance.  Many government structures over the world are based on majority rules-style democracy.  One of this style’s limitations is that it can silence marginalized minorities.  As reflected in recent literature and the Occupy movements, there is a growing awareness regarding participatory democracy.  New strategies are being used to encourage and improve community participation.  Although formal government legislations are generally slow to adopt new procedures, NGOs and community groups offer another communicative avenue for the voice of local people to reach their government.

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