Fresh Hope For Africa

Succesful development at the grass roots

`MAASTRICHT Conference on Africa: averting a nightmare,'' cries out the title of a recent population newsletter. Gloom and doom seem to have become almost the norm when people start speaking about sub-Saharan Africa. Yet such a pessimism is dangerously one-sided. New leadership is springing up, new political freedoms are being won, and above all a startling mobilization is taking place at the grass roots, mainly in rural areas. For anyone familiar with the grass roots of Africa for the past 15-20 years, this evolution is stunning. Isolated peasant farmers who once felt like helpless victims of circumstances have set up well-organized, increasingly efficient organizations.

The Naam movement of Burkina-Faso is an example. This organization has over 200,000 members in more than 4,000 villages fighting successfully against desertification. They are setting up peasant social security and credit and banking systems, organizing sophisticated barter exchanges on an international scale, and undertaking family planning education in remote villages.

This grass-roots mobilization is not only happening in rural areas, or only in Africa. As Alan Durning of the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute illustrated in his pioneering study ``Action at the Grassroots: Fighting Poverty and Environmental Decline,'' this empowerment is happening worldwide, from the shanty towns of Lima to the fishermen of Kerala, India. Though it is often still fragile, it is possibly the most hopeful sign on the world development scene.

Grass-roots empowerment points to the main failure of what has been called ``development'' over the past 30 years - the total lack of grass-roots participation. ``Development'' has been done to people, for people, despite and against people, and especially without them.

Authentic empowerment, or even meaningful partnership, is impossible where there is financial dependency on donors - be they so-called Northern NGOs (nongovernmental voluntary organizations), Western governments, or international institutions.

This dependency expresses the ``charity'' orientation of most aid coming from the voluntary sector in the North. It is imperative to replace traditional forms of assistance with innovative new schemes for financing grass-roots development - schemes which empower our partners in the South to become financially independent. Such approaches already exist and are beginning to function well. Thanks to them, people's organizations are setting up businesses and enterprises with the aim of making a profit - and they're making one!

For three decades, thousands of private voluntary organizations in the North have solicited funds from the public, with the promise that these donations would create ``development.'' Yet never in the history of humanity have so many people suffered from hunger (35,000 die each day as the result of chronic undernourishment). Never have so many been unemployed, homeless, illiterate. Children eat newspaper instead of bread, prostitute themselves for 6 cents in Bangkok brothels, and I have met women who walk daily 24 miles for water. Between 700 million and 1 billion people live in conditions of poverty that defy any definition of human decency. Clearly, ``charity'' has not worked in terms of alleviating massive poverty, even if it has helped millions on an individual basis.

Why? Because in a world where the economic structures are fundamentally weighted against the poor and dispossessed, building a well here, a maternity ward there, handing out a few pills and even vaccinating millions of children will not fundamentally alter the picture. The structural injustice will continue. Fundamental changes in world economic policies are needed, and they will come only through the pressure of public opinion.

In November I attended the general assembly of Africa's largest peasant farmer NGO, the so-called ``6-S Association.'' In a startling move the representatives of 400,000 third-world peasant farmers gave their organization a new goal: the education of the public in the North! A growing number of voices in the South are pressing their NGO partners in the North to devote more and more of their time, effort, and money to educating their own public. NGOs from the North, they say, should concentrate in the South on institution building and training. Their top priority should be to make themselves useless as soon as possible. After all, isn't this what we have been preaching for 30 years - self-help for the poor?

In the coming five to 10 years, private voluntary agencies in the North should be spending at least 50 percent of their income for massive educational campaigns at home. They need to set deadlines for handing over the totality of their projects to their partners in the South - the indigenous NGOs and especially the people's organizations. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, ``I know of no safer depository of the ultimate powers of the society than the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.''

Do we believe that?

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