Sham of Equality and Dignity in Development

Script for Knowledge Cafe on "Uncomfortable truth in development", 19 November 2020

Some of the things that I am going to speak about may not comfortably be spoken about usually in development. It is not necessary that you have to agree to what I have to say as we can always agree to disagree. And of course freedom of expression should apply to all. 

The topic of my narrative is "Sham of Equality and Dignity in Development." This topic as I have chosen stems from the very basic premise that development is supposed to endeavour to make the world equal and dignified for everybody, whether from global south or north. But due to the truth that development has been theorized and conceptualized historically and pervasively from the global north. Or what my predecessor speaker Ann had called in her write-ups “based on cultural supremacy and capitalism.” Or what we may also understand as western or white culture, the notion of development sham of equality and dignity. The implicit western or white or global north bias of development consequently we see is reflected in the lack of equality and dignity in actual development practices and languages used in development. Especially for the people from the global south.

There are many instances that sham equality and dignity for people from the global south in actual development practices but some of the most important ones are about power relations and decision-making in development. How they are practiced? Who participates? Who decides? Take for example the Sustainable Development Goals or the SDGs, before that the Millenium Development Goals or MDGs and so on. Who theorised, defined and decided these goals for development?  Definitely not somebody from a remote village in Nepal who does not have a toilet. Or a piped drinking water. But by a coterie of technocrats who have always theorized development in terms of economy rather than humanity. I emphasise theorizing development as development has not been accurate enough, as after almost seven decades of receiving development aid in countries like Nepal, there is no definitive answers to how Nepal can actually develop?

Other rampant inequality we find in development practices is in the distribution of the development economy also. Who gets the major share of the development pie? With the so called requirements, provisions and benchmarks, it is an undeniable truth that the so called profit making international development contractors/companies would get the major share of the ought to be non-profit development pie. To reiterate, I know of a project where there were requirements of collaboration of a so called interational and national development contractors. Of the total number of fourteen consultants, only four (28%) were international consultants and the rest of 10 (72%) were national. And as was pre-conditioned and pre-determined by the donor, budget wise, of the total, 71% went to the international contractor and for remunerations of the international consultants, their travel and cost of living etc. And the rest 29% for the national contractor and consultants, though most of the dirty and difficult works were done disparingly by the national consultants. Inequality persisted when the lowest basic daily remuneration of the international consultants were more than five times of the national consultant.

Such inequal theorisations, perceptions, practices and systematic discriminations in development have its implications in the languages used in development. Languages like professional and non-professional staff, international and national staff or consultants, national and international pays and perks, donor and recipient countries, developed and developing countries, first world, second world, third world, experts, beneficiary, further target beneficiary are all condescending and sham of equality and dignity in development. It is unusual for people from so-called development aid recipient countries to be taken as ‘equal’ in development and as agents for change or development — who can define how to develop? Or what needs to be developed? Or how they think development should be. Or for that matter what needs to be changed? Rather than just the one who needs to be developed or benefitted by development. Or being told for decades how to develop.

All these sham of equality and dignity of practices and languages in development has consequently resulted alienation of development from, and blatant lack of ownership by, the people who are supposed to be developed. Barring those who are adjacent to and ready to accept and assimilate in the existing status quo in development. For development to be equal and dignified as such we can start by redressing its own systematic nuances and balancing the power relations, ownerships and by being more accountable to the people who are to be developed.

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