CONFESSIONS OF A ‘DEVELOPMENT’ PRACTITIONER – TRIVIALISING AFRICAN CULTURES

Sometimes back I worked for a membership development organisation (MDO) which had thousands of individual members – men and women who were living in relative poverty from all over Uganda. During a General Assembly of the MDO the members (approximately 400 who had attended the meeting) raised a concern on behalf of all the other members (over 2,500 at the time). The concern was: “we the members want our MDO to do something whenever a member or their family member dies.” The General Assembly resolved that we at their Secretariat – the full-time paid employees – should come up with a strategy to address their concern.

At the Secretariat we thus proposed a Life Insurance Scheme (LIS) for members and their families. The LIS was to be run in such a way that individual members would insure themselves and their individual family members by paying an annual premium to the MDO. There were two types of premiums for adults and for children to pay with different benefits. The highest annual premium was less than eight United States (US) dollars and the benefit was that: if the insured died, their family would be given approximately 130 US dollars (16 times more than the premium). At the Secretariat we had made our calculations, taking into consideration the death rate of members during the previous years, we would need to have at least 200 members to subscribe to the scheme in order for it to be ‘profitable’.

We were pleased with ourselves at the Secretariat because the LIS would benefit the MDO threefold – the LIS would:
• Make the MDO able to do something when a member died.
• Be an incentive for membership in the MDO.
• Be a source of income for the MDO’s development programmes.

We presented our proposal to the MDO’s Board of Directors and on behalf of the MDO’s General Assembly the Board approved the scheme. We were thus genuinely surprised at the Secretariat when our LIS failed and was abandoned two years later. Only an insignificant number of about 20 members subscribed to our LIS!

Why did an initiative that was a response to a public need from the bottom fail? In retrospect, two major contributory factors as to why the scheme was not successful can be identified – The Secretariat:

• Underestimated the power of the Ugandan people’s belief that it is a taboo to prepare for your own death and/or that of a member of your family

• Overestimated the ability of our MDO members to grasp and understand the global-western concept of insurance.

In her book: The Challenge for Africa – A new vision, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai devoted a whole chapter “Culture: The Missing Link?” in which she discussed the importance of taking seriously our African cultural heritage. She pointed out that for decades there has been a deliberate trivialization of African cultures (Maathai 2009). Sadly, it is the norm that the basis of many so-called ‘development’ interventions is the trivializing of African cultures; indeed a major reason many ‘development’ interventions have failed.

Culture is a way of life – a way of life that is distinct in which a group of people or society has its own values, norms, moral codes, customs and modes of thinking. This implies, therefore, that each group of people or society is likely to define and attach different values to concepts, such as development. For example, what is perceived as ‘development’ in the global-western culture may not necessarily be perceived in the same way in other cultures. The current dominant views of ‘development’ are global-western views, for instance, which align ‘development’ with economic growth – the neoliberal view.

Studies (Thierry 1990) have found in contrast that many Africans, including Ugandans, are not homo economicus – they make decisions according to a precise rationality that encompasses elements other than the cost-profit relationship (but not necessarily excluding the cost-profit relationship). If the relational and communal dimensions are safe guarded; if his/her security is not threatened; if other elements such as his/her value system are not brought into question; and if the advantages to be gained from an innovation have been well established; a Ugandan is perfectly willing to change his/her techniques and to increase his/her productivity.

In retrospect, our failed LIS we designed on the basis of global-western values. We seem to have put emphasis on things that our MDO members – whom we perceived as beneficiaries – did not see as important. The Secretariat and the ‘elite’ members of the MDO’s Board misunderstood the members’ request for the MDO to do something when someone dies. For the members, it was important for their MDO, which is like a family to them, to recognize in some way a member who has passed on. Perhaps they wanted a letter from the leaders of the MDO to be read at the funeral, or may be an obituary in the MDO’s newsletter, or may be representatives of the MDO at the funeral, etc. For them, those gestures that are without defined monetary value were just as important.

Thinking back, it seems the members had wanted their MDO to respond collectively to a member’s death. Work should stop for a day, for example. The members, it would appear, did not want a solution, which required individual decisions from the members to prepare for their own death. For the members, they may have expected that their MDO would set aside funds raised for ‘development’ programme in order to make contributions that would cover some of the costs for members’ funerals. This is in fact a nexus of conflict for many ‘development’ organizations in Uganda and also the Government of Uganda (GOU). For example, a GOU Minister (Namboga 2015) went to the extent of suggesting that funeral ceremonies should be held only on weekends in order for politicians and civil servants to engage in “productive ventures other than spending several days away mourning the dead.”

The reality is that whereas in Uganda people attach a lot of importance to burial rituals and ceremonies, it is unlikely that there is a ‘development’ funding organisation that will grant funds for that purpose. This highlights a prevalent contradiction with many so-called non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Uganda who view themselves as the ‘official’ representatives of the Ugandan civil society. It is not uncommon for such organisations to assert that they are the ‘official voice of the voiceless’. But are they really? Apparently not – as evidenced by our failed LIS described prior.

It is inevitable that the cultural norms and values reflected in ‘development’ programmes in Uganda are more likely to be those of the funding partners, who in the case of Uganda are mostly from the global-west. This is as opposed to the ‘development’ programmes reflecting or being based on the cultural norms and values of the people for whom the ‘development’ programmes proclaim to benefit. This, indeed, is a major reason why many exogenously designed ‘development’ programmes have failed in Uganda and will continue to do so, unless the designers of such programmes begin to take Ugandans’ culture seriously.

The ‘professionals’ who work in ‘development’ organisations in Uganda have studied or have been trained through a colonial-English-global-western education system. The colonial-English- global-western education system does not easily accommodate African cultures. For those who went through this system, we are taught that the culture of our peoples is backward, their value system and beliefs are reduced to superstition and witchcraft. It is, therefore, not surprising that Ugandan ‘professionals’ tend to ignore the norms and values of their people, but whom they claim to work for. The colonial-English-global-western education system teaches us – the professionals – that the western way of doing things is the right and modern way. Hence, programmes such as Uganda’s Plan for modernization of Agriculture, which in essence planned for Ugandans to do agriculture like it is done in the global-west.

It is our cultural dislocation at our MDO’s Secretariat that led us to perceive the benefits of our failed LIS as obvious. Our economics was right, but it did not fit in the context of the culture of most of our members. Our LIS was global-western in design and was inconsistent with the value system of our people. It was doomed from the very beginning and because of our prioritisation of the global-western logic we failed to see the flaws in the programme design, until much later, when the programme had already failed.

When our LIS failed we were baffled that there are countless self-help groups in rural Uganda in which the members have successfully set up burial funds and yet our LIS was not adapted. In retrospect, the way in which the burial funds of self-help groups are set up is different from the concept of a global-western type insurance scheme. They are set up in such a way that members view them as a collective effort to support each other at time of need. The actions and decisions are taken collectively as a group and there is no monetary profit for the individual members or the group (premium payments) for that matter.

Just in case, it is important to clarify that it was not the case that our MDO members could not afford the eight US dollars annual premium payments for the LIS. The members of the MDO paid annual membership fees – four US dollars or even sometimes life membership fees of 40 US dollars, for which there was no clearly defined monitory benefit. The MDO raised total income of about 4,500 US Dollars from membership fees annually. When, however, the MDo requested its members to pay an annual insurance premium, for which the benefit was clearly defined in monetary terms – life insurance payouts, they declined to do so.

A valid lesson that can be deduced from this discussion, as well, is the importance of taking note of the fact that it is not always the case that people from the same community (Ugandans) have the same level of beliefs in the norms and values that are ascribed to their culture. There are Ugandans, for example, who have no problem with life insurance, most likely, because they have been exposed to the global-western culture and they understand how it works. This indicates that those with good intentions for doing development in particular community need to be careful of whom to consult at programme design. So-called ‘development’ programmes fail because they are designed on the basis of the views of a small group within a community and which is not representative of the values and norms of the larger community. This seems to have been the case with our failed LIS.

Works Cited
Maathai, Wangari. The Challenge for Africa – A New Vision. London: William Heinemann, 2009.
Namboga, Jackie. “Minister wants burials held only on weekends.” New Vision, March 9, 2015.
Thierry, Verhelst G. No life without roots (translations by Bob Cumming). London: Zed Books, 1990.

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One comment

  1. Excellent analysis, Norah.

    “no monetary profit for the individual members or the group” – great observation. The villagers were quick to understand that such approaches would bring more problems than they solve.

    Money can never buy the psychological feeling that comes from overnight vigil support during the mourning. As the fire is kept burning, surrounded by neighbors, friends and relatives sharing local drinks brews and telling stories and jokes, it eases sorrow and time goes fast. You feel closer and more part of the community and it makes it easier to mend differences that may have been lingering between you and you neighbor.

    There are two occasions in African traditions that should never be commercialized to the extent that the West does, namely Burial and Birth.

    Case in point, even with funeral insurance, unexpected issues could rise: http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/columnists/krista-ramsey/2014/03/25/krista-ramsey-dorothy-johnson/6897627/

    Birth (U.S.): The average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care in 2012 was about $30,000 for a vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section – http://www.parents.com/blogs/everything-pregnancy/2013/07/01/must-read/labor-delivery-costs-hospital-bill/

    Before the Kenyan American president’s Obamacare was put into law, insurers could turn down anyone for virtually any reason including pre-existing condition, like pregnancy. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2009/aug/18/pregnancy-pre-existing-condition/

    Any introduction of a new system however good it might be in one society, should never be imposed or implemented on another society with different culture and norms without input of those to be served. An interesting example is of introduction of Saving and Loans Associations in a Karamoja village, that was developed with the help of those who were going to use those banking services, in the following link:- https://www.danchurchaid.org/news/news/saving-culture-rise-in-karamoja

    Liked by 1 person

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