The real engine of development

by David Week on 07 August 2010

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I was listening this morning to an ABC Radio National program on the great Indonesian poet Rendra.

He spoke in many ways about development. A little scrabbling around on the Internet found these lines:

Hiburan kota besar dalam semalam
Sama dengan biaya pembangunan sepuluh desa!
Peradaban apakah yang kita pertahankan?

The night life of one city
Could fund the development of ten villages!
What sort of civilization are we sustaining?

Rendra, as an activist, believed that development lay with the people. He put this into many striking poems and plays. Perhaps among the most famous of his lines are these:

Because we are abandoned on the streets
And you own all the shade…
Because we endure floods
And you party on pleasure boats…
So we don’t like you.

Because we are silenced
And you never stop nagging…
Because we are threatened
And you use violence against us…
So we say to you No.

Because we may not choose
And you are free to make plans…
Because we only have sandals
And you are free to use rifles
Because we must be polite
And you have jails
So No and No to you.

Because we are the current of the river
And you are the stones without heart …
So the water will erode away the stones.

Here Rendra is railing against the elite of his own country. I think that most development programs avoid ending up as tools or allies of wealthy elites. None the less, I think there is still something in Rendra words for development professionals. It’s a lesson I first learned in East Timor, in the days shortly after the referendum, and independence.

At that time, I was asked by AusAID to go East Timor, and assist the World Bank on a minor matter. I ended up becoming involved in other projects, and going back periodically, for over 18 months.

When I arrived in Dili, everything was empty. Burnt out houses. You could walk without worry down the middle of the main street of town. (And we did.) Within a few months, the streets were jammed with traffic, stores were opening everywhere, and three sisters had turned one of the burnt houses into The Burnt Out Restaurant, which was immediately very popular.

Meanwhile, we were still writing our project plans to get the main finance flowing. Despite our much vaunted Western expertise in speed and organisation, it was they who were fast and organised, and we who were slow and struggling with our own organisational challenges.

Lessons that stay with me:

  • 99.99% of all development (and reconstruction and recovery) is done by the people affected.
  • If there 800,000 local people (as there were), and 5,000 new foreigners (about that number), who’s actions are going to have the bigger impact?
  • Think carefully about what your part of the .01% contribution is going to be, to be as helpful as possible: leverage your skills.
  • Remember: your role is to help them, in ways that they find helpful. You can’t develop another country. You can’t reconstruct a country. Keep perspective: you’re one actor among many.

People are the real engine of development. We can only contribute a bit of fuel, or a few spare parts.

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