Development as Struggle

In her recent ODI blog post, “What Egypt tells us that development discourse doesn’t?”, Lisa Denny points out that ‘people’s resistance & solidarity’ will have a greater positive effect on the country’s development than all of the planned interventions of governments and external agencies.

I agree and feel that is as it should be. For me, “What Egypt tells us that development discourse doesn’t”, is that people themselves are the motor force of history, and that people’s organisations are the vehicle of change. It has always been thus.

In the UK, women’s suffrage, comprehensive education, and a national health service (free at the point of delivery) were not gifts from above, but were the hard-fought gains of decades of people’s struggle to realise the freedoms and capabilities they most valued.

Islington Suffragettes 1908

Like the UK quest for women’s suffrage, the ‘sudden’ Egyptian uprising of #Jan25 was the result of many years of work by community activists, in youth organisations, workplaces, mosques and churches. The Kefaya movement had mobilised street protests against Mubarak’s continuation since 2005, there was a sustained series of workers’ movement, sit-ins and sleep-outs from 2008-2010, and the 6th April Youth Movement, founded in 2008 to support the 6th April strike, progressively transformed itself into the popular political movement famous for using Facebook  as one in building support for the popular struggle.

It is ironic that just when the UK government is at great pains to feign support for people’s uprisings in the Arab world, DFID announced that it was shutting down the Civil Society Challenge Fund. The CSCF was a multi-million pound budget used, inter alia, for building the capacity of people’s organisations to advocate for human rights and hold their governments accountable.

Twenty years ago we were able to secure DFID Civil Society funds for work with the Movimiento Comunal Nicaragüense under the revolutionary Sandinista government, as well as with the South African National Civic Organisation, whose members put their lives on the line to bring down apartheid. Securing funds for this kind of work today would be, shall we say, ‘problematic’. The development discourse has been effectively depoliticised.

The discourse of struggle organisations has also moved on. Kefaya and other key movement structures in Egypt took a principled decision not to accept any external foreign funding following their analysis that such funding had distorted and corrupted other civil society structures.

Right now, European and US agencies are falling over themselves to be seen to be working with Arab civil society structures, yet the vanguard of the Egyptian movement has no appetite for aid. Perhaps what Egypt also demonstrates is that the development discourse has become increasingly irrelevant to those activists focused on delivering lasting and meaningful change.

In Latin America too it is actually Venezuela, ostracised by the OECD, that has succeeded in provided 17 million citizens with free health care & halved extreme poverty, Ecuador and Nicaragua are refusing the neo-liberal prescription of the IMF & World Bank, and Bolivia has actually expelled USAID.

Tahrir Square Protester 2011

As Lisa Denny concludes in her post, the development discourse needs to focus more on ‘why things change’ and on the ‘potential for bottom-up change’.

In the UK at least, the development discourse has shied away from discussing political struggle for two decades. The events of 1989 put progressive activists on the back-foot and (whilst a period of reflection is positive) the development discourse has suffered from the lack of any progressive political critique.

Now however, people’s organisations in Africa and Latin America are on the front-foot, demanding freedoms, an end to corruption and, in Egypt at least, political revolution.

It seems to me that the development discourse needs to ‘get with the programme’ and incorporate the politics of social change and people’s struggles to secure their rights and freedoms. To be considered relevant, the development discourse should reflect the critiques of neo-liberalism and US Imperialism that informs new social movements, as well as learning from their innovations of tools and techniques of community mobilisation and action.

Mubarak has moved on, but the regime remains intact. Today the country is being run by the military; a military funded by the USA to the tune of US$1 billion per year. Perhaps this other form of aid dependency will yet determine the outcome?

On the upside, change in Egypt could result in a progressive new political dispensation that genuinely reflects the will of the people; on the downside we could see Egypt’s US-funded military shepherd the installation of a new puppet government subservient to the will of Washington/Israel). The outcome is far from certain at this point.

Lisa Denny is 100% right to point out that ‘people’s resistance & solidarity’ will have a greater positive effect on the country’s development than all of the planned interventions of governments and external agencies.

Whether Egyptians gain new freedoms and capabilities, or continue to suffer unfreedoms and structural underdevelopment, as pawns in a wider political and economic struggle, will be determined by people’s resistance and solidarity.

Development discourse ought not be neutral to the outcome. We should be engaged in debate about how best way to provide solidarity to people’s struggles, and how to empower those community activists in youth organisations and workplaces that drive change, in order that people can attain the freedoms and capabilities that they have reason to value.

The discourse urgently needs an injection of politics; without one it will continue to wither and become increasingly irrelevant to development.

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