Dirty Hands and Extended Metaphors

Last week, in a discussion with a group of young farmers in Tanzania’s semi-arid Pare mountains, I found myself with a handful of loose, poor quality soil.

My employer works in quite remote dryland areas where the conservation agriculture techniques it promotes are growing more and more necessary; where it might be possible to plot a curve between soil quality and livelihood expectations.

I was struck by two things that have stayed with me since.

First I realized I was holding livelihoods – tangibly and physically crumbling the extent of the potential of people’s farms in my hand.


Next, how intricately, inextricably and intimately linked the quality of that soil (and so of livelihoods) was with a huge (universal) and incredibly messy web of contingent factors. The price you pay for green beans in Tesco, how many trees were felled last year on the other side of the Pare mountains, my contribution to human-made environmental change in flying to find myself soil-in-hand – all could be factored into the equation that produced the extent of those farmer’s yields. It was quite moving, emotional even, to have the ‘cosmopolitan’ political beliefs I have long held confirmed in such a physical way. But also disturbing, as it made me realise that if I contribute to discussions about development alternatives, I enter into a game with the highest possible stakes.

We are talking about livelihoods. If I’m going to entertain ideas of alternatives then I need to be a part of the process of articulating them; validating, legitimating and making them real. Because even the smallest, most apparently unrelated of my (in)actions have direct livelihood consequences. That is probably, inescabeably true for everybody. More than this, that group of farmers seems pretty happy with the subsidized water tanks, conservation (and organic) smallholding capabilities and market access that this small and relatively conventional NGO has facilitated for them*.

So I hope my first contribution to collectivedevelopment will be a cautionary tale –

We need to be clear, and active if we talk about rejections of orthodoxy. Certainly I’m still open to ideas about alternatives to Development (especially ‘indigenous’ ideas), but am newly mindful of the need to articulate them. Just as Development might be a monolithic and monotonous machine – so we who are open to alternatives should be open to an acceptance of those occasions when the orthodoxy seems to get the job done, lest we become a monolith ourselves.

We, like the man at the IMF, are responsible for the development process, as are development beneficiaries the world over. Development, the machine with the capital D, is happening in the real world.

The question, is how we justify our right to question it.

(C) Sean Durham


*My employer offers training and subsidises water-tanks,
drip-irrigation kits and other useful things to groups of participants
who express an interest in building those tanks etc for themselves and
who get involved in tree-planting initiatives. Handouts and outsourced
labour don’t seem to be on the agenda except when it comes to fine
cups of coffee, which they will personally make for you at no hidden cost. More info on their very interesting work at http://www.liana-ry.org/

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