What is “Development” – and why does history matter?

“Ah, development!” the lads I lived with in Zimbabwe used to crow when someone appeared with a new purchase – a pair of shoes, a cap, a bicycle. Development meant improvement, but it also meant acquisition, something tangible, something new.

Life in our little hamlet in the hinterland of a small mining town in southern Zimbabwe was punctuated by relatively few experiences of Development. A bumpy red earth road ran to the nearby town, its one street lined with shops that met needs rather than evoked desires. The fields around us were all too often dry as a bone. The muddy river that separated our and surrounding hamlets from the adjoining neighbourhood was the children’s playground, with its flat, smooth, rocks and murky pools. Sporadic beer parties attracted those men who would have no compunction about being labeled as drunkards, and older women whose license to be louche flouted the gender norms that so constrained those who were still of child-bearing age.

I’d come to Zimbabwe to escape the grey cloud that hung over Thatcher’s Britain. I didn’t quite know what I was there for. I’d worked in greasy London restaurants, saving travelling pennies by cycling and living in a squat, nourished by kitchen pickings. Landing in the bright sunshine of the Zimbabwean spring, I’d looked around me and found an Africa very different from the place of my imagination. The main streets of Harare were lined not with mud huts but buildings that looked like something out of an American Western, with their wooden balconies and long porches. A ride out of town in the back of a pick up truck a couple of days into my stay took me south along smooth tarred roads, through settlements that seemed like a chain of staging posts with the same kind of shops and houses, dots on a landscape of imposing balancing rocks poised amidst acres of iridescent green.

Zimbabwe’s whites lived in expansive bungalows, their interiors all chintz and little England. I wanted none of that. I met an Irish volunteer teacher; she found me a job in her rural school, my Whiteness enough of a qualification. And, almost without realizing it, I came to join the project of Development. Every morning, the children would sing the national anthem, Ishe Komborera, while we stood straight-backed to attention. My eyes would brim with tears as rows of children, many with bare feet but all with neat gingham shirts and dresses, sang in harmony. These were moments of beauty I will never forget. And then the chants: ‘Up with progress!” “Down with everything that gets in the way of progress!” Educating the nation was the way to make change happen in a country where my forebears had stolen those chances from generations of African children. And I was proud to be part of it.

But the word ‘development’ still hadn’t become part of my vocabulary. What I was doing was Education. I reveled in my work, and used it as an opportunity to create spaces for creativity in a school setting where rote learning and regular beating were the norm. I moved south to a school built in a rural area where there had been no Education, let alone any Development, a school with walls but no books, crowded with children seeking a better future. I learnt that parents were keeping girls at home, fearful of them becoming pregnant. Visiting their mothers, I found them worried about something else as well – the pills that they’d been given by the community-based distribution agents who’d promised them Development. They were making some women have headaches, bloat, feel sick, miss periods. Medicine was supposed to make you well, not make you ill; these pills were supposed to free women from the uncertainties of their bodies, not become a source of pains and worries. Women sought my help because as a white woman I must know what to do. A participatory research project was born, one that years later would bring me to the Institute of Development Studies on the Sussex campus and into my current job.

At that stage, I had no knowledge of Development. I was worried about these women. I was angry that they were not being given a choice. I’d experienced the capricious effects of these pills in my own body. I felt a deep sense of injury that these black women saw me as someone whose knowledge was superior to theirs, someone who would have the power to give them answers simply because of the colour of my skin. A powerful combination of guilt, hurt and fury would come over me as I came face to face with the privileges I had as someone born into Whiteness in a country that sought dominion over the rest of the world. A world apart, we were connected. People from my country had shoved their forebears off productive land, corralling them in settlements to farm in places that weren’t even good enough for the white men’s cattle to graze. People from my country had produced a small educated elite, just enough to help them run the country. The masses were left without. Men’s education was just enough to create a generation of low-level clerks to administer colonial governance; hygiene and home-craft were administered to the thin stratum of women who had any access to the ‘benefits’ of development.

My engagement with development, and my understandings of the term, stem from these encounters. Development is both about intervention and its lack: it is about choices made about change, choices that are deeply political and that inherently preclude other kinds of choices. Some of what we now know as development is reparative – trying to make good something that was broken or damaged, trying to make up for something that was bad or went bad. Some of what is done in the name of ‘development’ is extractive, exploitative: pouring aid into countries that might otherwise spill over into situations that would generate a tidal wave of refugees, ‘stabilising’ regimes that might otherwise threaten access to oil and other resources. Much – but not all – is matched by good intentions, but not by the capacity to really engage people in a process of imagining themselves living differently and defining for themselves what would take them there.

For me, development is a word that is both overstuffed with meaning and full of empty promises. But what keeps me engaged is the complex storm of emotions that listening to those children singing Ishe Komborera produces in me. It’s about feeling that we can’t give up on a word that promises better things, nor cease contesting its use by those who produce poverty and distress in its name. And that’s where, for now, I’ve found my place: and why, for me, history matters.

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