Sand in the third world's oyster

''Profession?'' ''Development planner,'' I usually reply, which satisfies the Zambian and Zimbabwean immigration officers who have recorded my comings and goings over the past five years.

The title never satisifies me. It is pretentious. Who am I, a mzungum (white person), to ''plan'' other people's development? Why perpetually remind the third world that we are the first?

I could profess more humbly to be a ''development worker,'' but that too is flawed: I don't ''do'' the real work of development. I don't mold bricks, stump fields, or dig wells.

Prof. Garrett Hardin, writing a few years ago in ''The Limits of Altruism,'' is probably to blame for my recurrent malaise. ''An important appeal of philanthropy,'' he explained as I prepared to leave for this assignment, ''is precisely the irresponsibility of it. Telescopic philanthropy is especially appealing because we are unlikely ever to hear of the mistakes we make.''

At the far end of the telescope, the philanthropic, do-gooding development planner can only wish that it were so. His task is to evade responsibility, to guard against even the appearance of making decisons or bearing burdens that belong on other people's self-reliant shoulders.

Having committed his organization and donor constituency to supporting a project, he seeks to disown responsibility for its success. The project, he tells the people ad nauseum, is theirs to win or lose.

Privately, he knows that at some stage he may have to ask embarrassing questions about critical tasks left undone or funds not accounted for. He knows that the project may stagnate if he does not visit periodically to renew interest and cooperation among the major actors.

Development, alas, seldom occurs spontaneously or in a vacuum devoid of external forces. New ideas do not float about like windblown seeds. Migrating birds do not conveniently deposit appropriate technologies on remote African villages.

The development planner is the carrier of new ideas, new approaches. He is part of the information diaspora that is inevitably overspreading the planet. Introducing an improved pit latrine from neighboring Zim-babwe may well rank as my most tangible contribution to development in Zambia.

If the development planner helps people exploit new ideas, to adapt to change as painlessly as possible, he also is an irritant - the grain of sand that enables a village to coalesce round a project, as it enables the oyster to produce a pearl.

The trick is to be the mailman, the irritant - the development planner - and no more.

Instinct helps. Among those appealing for assistance, who is truly prepared to make the most of the resources at your disposal? Which village or self-help group is prepared to implement its own plans?

And which, sadly, has been corrupted by government largesse or by foreign donors who gave aid without strings?

While there is no sure way to distinguish one from the other at first blush, being honest helps. When introduced to a prospective project, I first explain to the people what Africare is not. It is not a substitute for hard work. It is not a blank check. It may be the extra pair of hands that makes a project possible. That's all.

When I asked a large meeting of cattle herders whether they would contribute a minimum of labor to building the dam they wanted, they grumbled at such heresy. After all, the government (in palmier days) and even a foreign embassy had built dams for others in the district without asking them to lift a shovel.

We could have given the government $30,000 to build the dam, in which case the same cattle herders would have expected the government to maintain it. This it almost certainly would have been unable to do, given today's serious financial constraints. And within a few years, the unattended structure might have been swept away during the heavy rains.

I left the cattlemen to think about whether they wanted a dam that belonged to them, or one that belonged to the government and Africare. Evidently they decided they did not want the dam at the price in self-help that I quoted. They have not renewed their request, leaving me to conclude that the dam would have been more a convenience than a necessity.

Not far away, however, we have helped other cattle owners build four dip tanks partially on self-help. Instead of disbanding their project committees, they are now planning how to maintain theirm dip tanks in the face of cutbacks in government's usual operating subsidies.

The moral here is not that one group of cattle herders was lazy and the other not. Among many competing demands in rural Africa, people will work on something if it is worth the effort. The dip tanks were. The dam was not.

We do not provide aid without strings. We expect recipients to account for the funds they receive. We expect them to take their own objectives seriously. When they don't, we reconsider our commitment.

If this seems itself paternalistic, I would argue the opposite. It is a sobering experience to be held accountable. It is not paternalistic to treat people as responsible, competent human beings. It ism when we expect them to fail and shy from holding them answerable.

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