It’s funny. I’m sure there was a point in the 2010s when I was saying all this, when I’d spotted a pattern in development thinking, a coming around and going around and coming back again to ideas that hadn’t quite yet had their day. But at that time I was still too busy to really notice what was really going on.
It’s not as if there hasn’t been progress. Look at that fabulous invention of a female condom that prevents HIV and pregnancy and just dissolves afterwards. That’s an achievement to celebrate. No, it’s not that things don’t move on. It’s more that there’s a kind of cycling of ideas, a re-cyling that sometimes feels as if there’s not only inertia in the development world, but a kind of amnesia.
It’s more like an absent mindedness than a blanking out of memory. I like to think of it now as a rekindling of desires for something better, a reminder that there are ideas kicking around that haven’t quite come to fruition, haven’t quite made that transition into something breathing and real.
Take the human rights framework. It’s so beautiful it makes tears spring to my eyes when I turn the first article over in my mind, then hold it close to my heart: ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. You’d think all was lost after the UN failed to decide any post-2015 framework, and David Cameron dumped the Human Rights Act and announced that Britain was taking the radical step of turning its entire aid programme over to Price Waterhouse Coopers.
And yet what unfolded was something no-one expected.
We saw the axis of the world tilt. Those countries who had fought for the Right to Development in 1986 and seen their hopes brushed aside came together, renewed and reaffirmed by a world order in which they were no longer the small players, but populous, powerful and able to call the shots. My hero, Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, “President Squid” as my daughter used to call him – lula being the Portuguese word for the white chewy stuff with exciting looking ‘legs’ that she used to love playing with eating as a small child – was cured of cancer with one of the new generic drugs India developed, and became the leader of a new movement for global justice.
We cheered as most of those with principle, and plenty of those who had thought they’d lost theirs forever, returned home from working in Washington, New York, Paris, Geneva and London. Nigeria managed to finally get it right, voting into power the agnostic daughter of an Egun villager, whose father may or may not have been Ibibio. Quite how she made it into high office is less the stuff of fantasy than a story of quiet persistence, vision and the exhuberant mood of possibility that overcame Nigeria when the oil wells of the Delta were turned over to the people of Bayelsa, who decided to pay the taxes and obey the laws their multinational predecessors flouted. Yoruba art and theatre captivated the nation. Igbo ingenuity produced a string of inventions that catapulted Nigeria into the global arena, knocking East Asia sideways and offering Africa a realization of its incredible people-power potential. And Hausa ‘Yan Daudu finally found their rights acknowledged in a glorious new constitution modeled on those of Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, the nation knowing that only the best in the world would do.
In far-away Britain, the banks, palaces and museums were emptied of their stolen treasures. Some were repatriated in acts of solidarity and recognition, reparations for centuries of abuse and plunder. Others were liberated by a group of inspired citizens who declared themselves part of a global movement dedicated to restoring dignity to the world. That’s the most wonderful thing of all, for those of us who sat eyes and mouths open in the universities until we too were swept along by them and became part of it all. What they took as their inspiration was that very declaration of human rights that gave them permission to dream – the dream of being human.
Written for an exercise that asked the Ideas & Actors class – by way of “revision” for their course – to imagine Development 30 years in the future…