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Opinion

March 30, 2018

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Beyond social mobilisation

My previous article, titled ‘Making sense of suicides’ published in these pages on March 15, was an attempt to provide a sociological perspective of why people commit suicide in societies that are undergoing rapid transition.

The article identified the key players responsible for this rapid transition and provided an overview of the development processes that have been underway over the last three decades. Beyond presenting a sociological inquiry of suicide that needs to be researched further, my article produced an interesting debate on a sensitive social issue. It was not aimed at levelling an unfounded accusation on a specific social development initiative for increasing suicide rates.

With a broader sociological perspective, it was, however, vital to highlight some critical facets of the development processes that have coincided with the phenomenon of rising suicide rates. As a development professional, I have found few people who firmly believe in critical reflection as one of the means of expanding the development discourse. Development professionals would be content with the immediate outcomes and some form of a causality of attribution to defend their own institutional domain of work. The irony is that we as development practitioners have turned into a bunch of apologists who can easily pin the blame for the failure of the institutions that we are associated with on others.

The growing ambiguities of our role as agents of social transformation stem from our short-term, project-driven approaches of development. These approaches need critical assessment along with substantive intellectual recipes for course correction. Our validity claims of transformative change in transitional societies are contested ideas that must be explored further.

People who are exposed to transformative processes in these fast-changing societies were jolted by the contradiction of a complex social reality and the mechanical solutions devised by copycat change-makers.

“We are reminded [time and again] of our inferiority when we interact with…laptop-laden, well-dressed professionals who get paid to [portray] us as poor,” says a farmer in a far-flung village of Hunza. “They preach [to] us with examples of [the] developed world and they tell us to be good entrepreneurs. But they themselves do not believe in what they say. If whatever they say is all true, why [do] they not act upon these ideas themselves? Why do they [even work if] they seem to be much better placed than a poor farmer by [simply] being enterprising? They sell dreams to the poor and they earn a fortune. This is all [a] money-making business.”

Something has gone terribly wrong with development professionals. We have failed to address the concerns of poor farmers due to our professional snobbery, technical knowledge and technological paraphernalia. We have lost empathy and passion as the development world has become too mechanical to be cognisant of the sensibilities of life beneath the jargonised world of professionalism.

Mechanical solutions are the easiest means to establish value for money by reducing development to a set of technical tools of fund disbursement. Those who have adapted to this new reality have successfully climbed out of poverty but have lost their inner being, which was framed in a primitive context.

This transformative adaptability was not a tactical matter, as many development thinkers would like us to believe. Instead, it was a painful process of disengaging with the meaning and imagination of a primordial experience.

No region other than Hunza Valley can be a good case study of the convulsive transition, with unprecedented investment in human development, that has taken place over the last three decades. Despite all the good intentions of this transformational investment, it turned out to be mechanical as it dismissed the primordial experiences of life as “an undesirable social order”.

Lo and behold, we saw the emergence of grassroots modern village organisations that subsequently withered away as donor money started to shrink. The umbilical cord of the organic world of imagination was so deeply steeped in the primordial experience that the sudden rupture was inexplicable for many who experienced it. The world around young people was suddenly disrupted, exposing them to a world that left them with no choice other than to unthinkingly imitate an exotic worldview.

The brave heroes of epics who tamed demons, witches and evil spirits were no longer the ideals of ambitious young men and women. This forms of traditional bravery and knighthood linked the brain and brawn as a single thread of pride and a motor of altruistic heroism. Organic altruistic heroism was replaced by emaciated, pale, physically weak and urbane car-laden men and women with strong minds.

This new sense of development through the self-propelling urbanised middle classes narrowed the possibilities of outright bravery and altruism. The process of self-aggrandisement and rational self-centeredness as well as the technical knowledge of development processes produced an inorganic individualistic value. The world that was created through this was diametrically opposed to the collective life of tribal societies that existed for centuries.

The indigenous institutions of rural management were replaced by modern, interest-based institutions within an orientalist framework of civilising the ‘other’. This otherness is reflected in the discourse of social mobilisation processes that were introduced with modern instruments of building local institutions. The premise of social mobilisation was drawn from an orientalist perspective, which assumed that these tribal, rural and far-flung societies have no institutional order. It was claimed that social mobilisation was a vital step to organise rudderless, disorganised and stagnant societies.

Contrary to the claims made by development agencies, all traditional societies were governed by indigenous institutional structures. Village management – including the distribution of responsibilities, public works and social safety – were the key functions of traditional institutions. In non-feudal societies like Gilgit-Baltistan, the tribal elders used to form water management, public works and overall village management committees in consultation with the people at an open meeting.

The new institutions formed through social mobilisation withered away with the drying up of the donor money. This is because these institutions became dysfunctional after the life cycle of the project for which they were formed came to an end.

The claims of bringing about social transformation were not realised as these institutions could not provide a viable alternative to a traditional village-based management system. One of the key factors of the inefficacy of these modern village-based institutions is that the development agencies did not devolve powers to these institutions. Development agencies considered them to be one of the project outputs and instruments of the cost-effective implementation of programmes.

Each development agency formed its own village-based organisation to implement the projects and none of these organisations could become vehicles of social investment. In 2010, I led the largest social mobilisation project of the country with the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF). One of the most challenging tasks was to create an institutional interface between traditional village organisations and the genesis of modern interest-based organisations. The donor-led framework of social mobilisation was so disconnected from the real context of institutional genesis. The project could not achieve the desired outcomes despite all the design tweaks that were to the displeasure of the donor.

This wasn’t an utter failure as the institutions formed through this social mobilisation process gave a voice to women and marginalised groups to articulate their grievances. However, these institutions proved to be short-lived because they could not supplant tribal social orders with a new egalitarian and inclusive system of local governance.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: ahnihal@yahoo.com

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