Zimbabwe: Broken landscapes: The failure of development

Date: May 30, 2011
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The developed world is getting richer while the developing world continues to languish and grow poorer. It is a familiar observation, mostly because it is true.

Earlier this month the Fourth Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) met in Turkey, where more than 2000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) called for a new approach to development.

They rightly argued that all previous dominant development theories have failed, only helping to increase the numbers of the world’s poor and negatively impacting the lives of women, who often bear the brunt of unsuccessful development projects.

Their conclusions are inescapable. In the last three decades, only three countries have graduated from LDC status. In fact the number of LDCs has grown from 24 in 1971 to 48 today.

There is anger at the “Northern Elite” of development partners who fund massive war technology whilst failing to honour much smaller commitments to aid that could really make a difference. The current development paradigm has dismally failed and needs to change fast.

In Zimbabwe I walk through a village in Matabeleland South and on a micro level it helps tell this sad story. The government called it Village 14 when it resettled people here 30 years ago and that is how it has stayed. It doesn’t have any other name.

More than ten international agencies have sunk 50 or so boreholes but then abruptly quit the local scene or changed the focus of their work. They no longer have an interest in, or systematic records of, previous work in the province. Institutional memory can be very short – sometimes deliberately so.

Most villagers I greet are women. The few males I encounter are old men and young boys. The able-bodied men are working in South Africa or Botswana and sending money home.

Villagers are attending a presentation by an NGO that wants to build a new dam “for the women in the community.” Almost 99% of the audience are women. The donor or “partner” will supply the materials and technology; all the villagers need to contribute is their labour – a sweet deal? But what happens when eight or nine agencies all want to tap into the labour time available from these (mainly) women?

“Why build a new dam when we can rebuild the old dam wall?” One vociferous elderly woman has interrupted the donor in full flow. Assenting voices cheer her on. The donor explains that they have no mandate for rehabilitation only new construction.

The women persist. The present dam is “underused” rather than completely derelict, many point out. Solutions and ideas bubble up now from all corners of the hall in a cacophony of sound. Eventually order is called. “We have no money for rehabilitating old infrastructure, only new buildings,” is the polite but firmly repeated reply.

The meeting breaks up with an agreement to meet again in two months time. The donor will take the women’s views back to their city offices – but they must not hope too much for a change of heart.

Public shows of affection are rare in rural Zimbabwe but outside I see many women and men hugging and the loud banter and laughter from the crowd tells me the women feel they’ve made their point. Six months later the old dam wall remains broken and the new dam is nowhere in sight.

These are memories from field visits I conducted way back in 2004. Not much has changed.

In rural Matabelaland today, little remains of the early enthusiasm for development projects. Many projects of the 1980s era lie in ruins or are seriously underperforming.

The high risks associated with living in marginal land areas means communities are often suspicious of untried and laborious new development projects. Their acceptance or rejection of development projects is therefore often a finely balanced calculation of the possible benefits of a better livelihood or the risks of it failing to deliver – and failure now is all around them.

Water is crucial for these villagers. The negative impact of non-functioning water resources is incalculable. Lost agricultural production threatens food security.

The range of crop varieties grown is also shrinking rapidly. The elderly point out the demise of traditional crops such as millet, sorghum, rapoko and other drought-resistant cereals. They say despite many interventions over the years soils are now exhausted, fields are filling up with erosion gullies, wells have dried up and most rivers fail to flow at all except in rare years of exceptionally heavy rainfall.

While many of the villagers are doubtful about the community’s ability to make a change without external help they also bemoan the lack of status they, and particularly their traditional leaders, are given in negotiating with increasingly aggressive NGOs and their projects.

Yet from the village voice to the global voice, the protest is rising and women’s voice and agency is there in full force. I wish I could tell the women in Village 14 that many of their concerns were expressed recently in Turkey. Regardless, I suspect it wouldn’t matter unless I could also bring them some tangible change. And change will only happen if a new development paradigm listens to these village voices and the solutions they offer.

Trevor Davies is a gender activist and Director of the African Fathers Initiative. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.



2 thoughts on “Zimbabwe: Broken landscapes: The failure of development”

Mona Hakimi says:

An anonymous political science teacher in Malawi: “The tyrants love aid. Aid helps them stay in power and contributes to underdevelopment.”
Paul Theroux: “What if all the donors just went away?”
“That might work…”

Trevor Davies says:

I wrote this in 2011. Nothing has changed.

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