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April 6, 2019

Development vs progress


April 6, 2019

Development and progress are used interchangeably in our social policy literature without much discussion about their implication on the political economy of social change.

This is partly because most of our policy research generally treats development as a mechanical process to attain progress and prosperity. Even social development professionals see development as a black box – ie a technical mechanism of inputs and outputs to achieve a predictable outcome. Those predictable outcomes are envisaged at the design stage of a development programme to attain the predefined project objectives.

Likewise, for development policymakers a simple and straightforward system of inputs and outputs works well as a pragmatic process to create short-term and visible impacts. Practical and short-term policies create quick wins for political governments. Policymakers, therefore, would not like to burden their minds with a complicated and opaque idea of transformation and social change. Political interference in policymaking perpetuates the perception that formulating policies is, for the most part, a technical process driven by a larger framework of national development plans.

Policymaking manifests in the politics of resource distribution, idea of social equity and most of all the political priorities of a government rather than an objective and independent process of setting development priorities. All social protection and safety net programmes are geared to attain public legitimacy and political mileage in addition to the provision of social welfare to the poor. For instance, the alleged campaign of the PTI government to change the name of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) is driven by political considerations rather policy reforms.

It can be established from the official policy dossiers and manifestoes of political parties that there is an inherent tendency of reducing social policy to a political agenda. In the real world, policymaking cannot be an independent subject in isolation from the political environment of a country. It serves the political interest of an incumbent government to garner popular support rather than enacting the theory of change. In weak democracies like Pakistan, policymaking is all about buttressing the political standing of a government in a fragile system of governance.

Like social policy, development can be anything determined through a project’s logical framework analysis. Developed by a team of technical professionals employed by a development agency or donor, development becomes a project rather than a process of human freedom. In a logical framework analysis, a preconceived project idea gains prominence only because it is adaptable to a given strategic objective of a donor agency or an international development agency. In a nutshell, development becomes reduced to an outcome of a preconceived project quite contrary to its participatory spirit and process of stakeholders’ consultation.

Social development in this sense becomes a highly technical area of expertise – mostly coming from the host country of an international development agency or a donor. Development is seen as a project with strict timelines, given inputs within a defined budget and a set of anticipated outputs and immediate outcomes. And the saga goes on like: ‘development is worth doing only if we could establish value for money from a donor’s perspective’. All of this is fair from the standpoint of a donor or an international development agency because it is legitimate for them to see that their investments have tangible returns.

However, the local implementing agencies of a preconceived development project are left with one choice only: to become a contractor or else lose the deal. This project development framework leaves no space for creative engagement of local perspective and local communities whose interests the project claims to serve.

The local implementing agencies or the recipients of a contractual deal or grant to execute a preconceived development project cannot negotiate the locally workable approaches or some alteration to the project design. This is partly because of two factors; a) the local NGOs or implementing agencies lack the will and capacity to go beyond the menu of activities within a given budget; and b) they operate in a competitive environment where access to development funds is linked to one’s willingness to adopt rather than disrupt the comfort of donors.

In this donor-recipient relationship, it would be misleading to assume the local implementing agencies as local civil society. These subservient local development agencies neither represent the will of citizens nor do they have transformative agenda beyond the scope of a given project. The value for money proposition implies that the local grantee or a contractor of a development project has to ensure strong upward accountability to the donor without being accountable to the primary recipients of the donor money.

Well there is no wrong in accepting donor money for a predefined development project but it is not fair to claim the title of ‘civil society’ to a subservient relationship of borrowed notions and contractual obligations. When local development contractors face resistance against their borrowed ideas of social change, they up the ante to call it an attack on civil society. In reality there is no organic relationship between the civil society and a local development contractor because the latter neither represents the aspirations of citizens nor offers a transformative agenda for the poor.

Contrary to this contractual development, the local civil society has potential to bring about social change. What constitutes the local civil society? The answer is simple: all those spaces and forums where common citizens can express their views without an exotic obligation, and can have an impact on the political life of people. This local civil society includes progressive political groups, local intelligentsia, trade unions, workers’ associations, student unions, journalists’ associations, writers’ forums and so and so forth. The notion of development in our contemporary social policy discourse is highly skewed towards a set of borrowed and vague terms of citizenship, accountability and social change. Even the idea of progress has become subservient to this vague idea of development.

Progress is a process of social and civilizational evolution of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis of ideas reflected through political action of qualitative change in human society. Progress is a long journey of continued engagement punctuated by transformative upsurges which pave the way for a qualitative change in social, political and economic relations of a society.

Development, if decoupled from donor-driven agendas, can best contribute to creating a local critical mass of change enthusiasts who can help expedite the process of social progress. Democratic governments must invest in local development to strengthen the grassroots’ change enthusiasts as a process of strengthening local governance itself.

In developing countries like Pakistan, governments must invest in local governance to trigger the process of social transformation. The claims of the PTI government of creating a new Pakistan cannot come to fruition without investment in local governance. The rich and affluent will not buy the idea of change; it is the poor who must see the dividends of a new Pakistan. This can happen only if the government invests in fixing rural development, where poverty resides. The idea of a new Pakistan does not seem to work because it does not percolate to the rural areas – and so it does not reach the poor.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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