THE COURAGE TO CHANGE PERCEPTIONS; Pierre Pradervand Sociologist
Pierre Pradervand spent close to 11 years in Africa in the fields of research , program administration, and communications. A Swiss sociologist, he was one of the first Western population specialists to oppose the narrow Malthusian approach to population control which was the hallmark of the '60s and early '70s , and to argue for a broader "development" approach -- a view not generally accepted. In 1975, with the backing of the Canadian International Research Center, he founded Famille et Developpement, a popular African development magazine. "F et D," as it came to be known, emerged as something of a journalistic phenomenon in the Third World. Highly respected for its integrity, this grassroots educational periodical became one of the best-selling international magazines in subsaharan Africa.m
He is now back in his native Switzerland and, as of 1981, will serve as a consultant to the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the field of public education on Third World issues.m
The following exchange took place with Henrietta Buckmaster, editor of the Home Forum page.m
The first half appeared yesterday on this page.m
The Brandt Commission has stressed that in the 20 years ahead of us global issues will come to a head for mankind. One of the most important issues is learning how to respect each other -- everywhere. Is that too idealistic a statement?
Ultimately it has to be the basis of any dialogue between the North and South. Talking together is one of the most traditional of African virtues. It's based on mutual respect, and the basis of respect is love. It may be trite to speak in this way, but it doesn't alter the truth.
How is one going to say that in public? And can Africa face the enormous economic pressures, the investments, the power that the Western countries have in terms of money and technology and greed? How can "Northern" countries deal with people of other cultures as their genuine equals -- not technologically their equal, at this time, but equal on the basis of their shared humanity?
I think what is needed is a gigantic, unprecedented effort of mutual education. And this includes the Soviet countries, and North America, because in the last 20 years, technology and only technology has brought the peoples of the world into close contact, but on a terribly unequal basis. In Gambia, for example, it's been estimated that out of every $100 spent by tourists -- and tourism could have been a great resource -- $83 is returned to Europe. The airlines are operated by foreign companies, the hotels belong to foreign countries. So do the top personnel.Most of the food and drink comes from abroad. What prospers most is prostitution.
But for an educational effort to have any impact, people have to wantm to be educated. Do you think there exists in the West a real widespread desire to better understand other cultures and people?
Well, many people appear to be quite undisturbed by their ignorance. And this is one of the major obstacles to international understanding today -- our indifference and selfsatisfied egocentrism. We are not even interested in getting to know other cultures and people, let alone appreciate and love them.
What activates development?
Real development is not the result of material inputs but of mental attitudes. I just received a few days ago a remarkable letter from a European friend who has been totally integrated into the life of a West African village. He lives in a hut, eats local food, has adopted local customs, lives off agriculture -- I have yet to come across another such example of cultural integration. He is attempting to introduce new agricultural techniques with very modest help from a few friends at home. He was writing that the main development problem in his region was overcoming the mentalitym of dependency. Peasants have come to expect everything from the state or aid agencies. So, clearly, the main problem is a mental one -- getting people to realize and believe that they can change their destinies, whatever the difficulties. Unquestionably the greatest failure in the field of development in the past 20 years has been the almost total lack of active popular participation in decisionmaking. In such a context, whether a country is formally democratic or not makes little difference. The mechanics of material aid will fail as long as the nonmaterial aspects -- call them mental, spiritual, whatever -- are not given the overriding importance that belongs to them.
What form of aid do you feel is acceptable?
Do you know the proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for always"? Yet I am not really sure most Western or Soviet politicians are at all eager for that form of aid based on stimulating self-help! Yet this form of aid is the only one that can work in the long run, because it avoids the aggressive paternalism of traditional aid and can lead to authentic selfgovernment, which is the hallmark of real democracy.
To be a devil's advocate, some social historians believe we cannot shift the tide at this time -- that a catastrophe will come first be fore we can build a new society.
The philosophy of the crash is a deterministic version of history. I think that man has much more freedom to act than most people are ready to believe.
In what way?
By a quantum leap, a fundamental change in our sense of reality. The greatest challenge we have is not poverty on an unprecedented scale in the midst of plenty or massive famines or overpopulation or the possibility of a global catastrophe due to atomic warfare or ecological breakdown. The real danger is living with old thought patterns in a radically new world. Einstein was saying similar things in the early '50s, but people just shrugged and said he was feeling bad about the atomic bomb. Now we see more clearly how right he was.
Isn't all this a bit fuzzy?
Maybe it will become clearer if I give some examples. The "United States" or "Switzerland" -- I say this as a sociologist -- is basically a belief pattern organized around certain sets of ideas and accepted by a sufficient number of people to win general acceptance. These beliefs are based on ideas and values pertaining to law, education, social customs, the economy, and what is more generally called the American -- or Swiss -- way of life. "United States" is basically a mental concept -- an incredibly powerful one, but still a concept. A few centuries ago the very concepts of USA, or petroleum, or social class, Nazism, atomic energy, women's liberation, latrogenic diseases, stress were unheard of, "unthought." In a few decades or centuries, many of these concepts and others will have disappeared from human consciousness, and new ones will have taken their place. Yet in the name of such beliefs nations are ready to send soldiers all round the globe, we are ready to risk the annihilation of the world -- including ourselves -- in atomic warfare.
Why, if these concepts are simply organized beliefs, do they wield such power?
The only power they have is the power given to them by those who believe in them. Take any person whose life is entirely organized around a fairly narrow set of beliefs: a diehard patriot, a member of a sect or of a terrorist movement. When she or he loses "faith," her or his life is, from that day, entirely disorganized.
Talk some more about basic values or substance.
Take love, for instance. I think love is the only reality in the universe which is at the same time its own cause, means, and end. Whether we believe in love or not in no way affects love's power, per se. Love as substance gives usm power, not vice versa. It is because I have grappled so long with these problems of urgency in the development field that I dare say with utmost conviction that the most important -- and hence urgent -- problems of today are the problems of spiritual values, of this quantum jump of consciousness; of a society based on values of substance rather than on social beliefs.
Meanwhile, we have the priorities of food, water, work, for millions of desperate people!
I fully realize this must sound quasi-delirous, a sort of "metaphysical autism" to those who are deeply involved in getting urgent supplies to Cambodia or Somalia. But experience has shown me that we will never solve these problems of poverty, of urgency, until we have solved the much more fundamental problems of substance.
All this sounds very idealistic . . .
I've worked for 14 years in the field of development problems. For years I've seen children looking for food in my garbage can. In Dakar I lived next to a shantytown with one water tap and no public latrines for 2,500 people. So my idealism is the result of a very pragmatic sense of what needs to be done. That's why I dare to say with such conviction that the most important -- and urgent -- problems of today are the problems of a society based on new values of substance rather than on preconditioned beliefs.
I ask you sadly: Are hard-nosed realists in positions of power going to dismiss all this as wishful thinking?
Of course they will. But "realism" and "idealism" are also matters of definition. The hardnosed realists are really the world's most hopeless dreamers and represent the world's greatest danger, because they believe the solutions of yesterday are adequate to cope with the problems of today, and that the old ways of thinking can offer solutions to the problems of tomorrow.m As Tarzie Vitacci, dean of Asian journalists, once told me, "The future is pushing us from behind." Projecting the "past" into the "future" is useless. We need a new daring -- the courage to change our perceptions.