Rural Development
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Rural Development

Putting the last first

Robert Chambers

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eBook - ePub

Rural Development

Putting the last first

Robert Chambers

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About This Book

Rural poverty is often unseen or misperceived by outsiders. Dr Chambers contends that researchers, scientists, administrators and fieldworkers rarely appreciate the richness and validity of rural people's knowledge or the hidden nature of rural poverty. This is a challenging book for all concerned with rural development, as practitioners, academics, students or researchers.

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CHAPTER ONE Rural poverty unperceived

DOI: 10.4324/9781315835815-1
The past quarter century has been a period of unprecedented change and progress in the developing world. And yet despite this impressive record, some 800 million individuals continue to be trapped in what I have termed absolute poverty: a condition of life so characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.
The latter-day ease with which officials, businessmen and international ‘experts’ can speed along highways has the effect of almost entirely divorcing the rural sector from its urban counterpart; no longer must ‘dry season’ earth roads be negotiated and preparations made for many night stops in villages. It is now possible to travel 100 kilometres or more through the countryside (in limousine comfort) during the morning, and get back to the city in time for lunch having observed nothing of the rural condition. Why the hurry (one may ask)? Can there be no digression from the superhighway path? But account has to be taken of the age-old motive for human action, fear of involvement. Time does not change human behaviour so very much, and still today what might be unpleasant or personally demanding, but is not actually seen, is often ignored.
What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve about.
Outsiders are people concerned with rural development who are themselves neither rural nor poor. Many are headquarters and field staff of government organisations in the Third World. They also include academic researchers, aid agency personnel, bankers, businessmen, consultants, doctors, engineers, journalists, lawyers, politicians, priests, school teachers, staff of training institutes, workers in voluntary agencies, and other professionals. Outsiders underperceive rural poverty. They are attracted to and trapped in urban ‘cores’ which generate and communicate their own sort of knowledge while rural ‘peripheries’ are isolated and neglected. The direct rural experience of most urban-based outsiders is limited to the brief and hurried visits, from urban centres, of rural development tourism. These exhibit six biases against contact with and learning from the poorer people. These are spatial-urban, tarmac and roadside; project – towards places where there are projects; person – towards those who are better off, men rather than women, users of services and adopters of practices rather than non-users and non-adopters, and those who are active, present and living; seasonal, avoiding the bad times of the wet season; diplomatic, not seeking out the poor for fear of giving offence; and professional, confined to the concerns of the outsider’s specialisation. As a result, the poorer rural people are little seen and even less is the nature of their poverty understood.

We, the outsiders

The extremes of rural poverty in the third world are an outrage. Faced with the facts, few would disagree with that statement. The outrage is not just that avoidable deprivation, suffering and death are intolerable; it is also that these coexist with affluence. Most of those who read this book will, like the writer, be immeasurably better off than the hundreds of millions of poorer rural people, living in this same world, who have to struggle to find enough to eat, who are defenceless against disease, who expect some of their children to die. Whatever the estimates of numbers – and endless scholastic argument is possible about definitions, statistics and the scale and degree of deprivation – there are so many people who are so poor, the prospects of future misery are so appalling, and present efforts to eliminate that misery are so inadequate, that numbers are almost irrelevant in seeing what to do next. So much needs to be done, so much more radically, that no estimates, however optimistic, could undermine the case for trying to do much more, much better, and faster.
But who should act? The poorer rural people, it is said, must help themselves; but this, trapped as they are, they often cannot do. The initiative, in enabling them better to help themselves, lies with outsiders who have more power and resources and most of whom are neither rural nor poor. This book has been written in the hope that it will be of some use to these outsiders, especially but not only those directly engaged in rural development work. Many of these are headquarters, regional, district and subdistrict staff in government departments in Third World countries – in administration, agriculture, animal husbandry, community development, cooperatives, education, forestry, health, irrigation, land development, local government, public works, water development, and the like. They also include all others, from and in both rich and poor countries, whose choices, action and inaction impinge on rural conditions and the poorer rural people – including academic researchers, aid agency and technical cooperation personnel, bankers, businessmen, consultants, doctors, engineers, journalists, lawyers, politicians, priests, school teachers, staff of training institutes and voluntary agencies, and other professionals.
We, these outsiders, have much in common. We are relatively well-off, literate, and mostly urban-based. Our children go to good schools. We carry no parasites, expect long life, and eat more than we need. We have been trained and educated. We read books and buy newspapers. People like us live in all countries of the world, belong to all nationalities, and work in all disciplines and professions. We are a class.
The puzzle is that we, the people of this class, do not do more. If any of us had a sick or starving child in the room with us, we imagine we would do something about it. A child crying from pain or hunger in a room is hard to shut out; it pins responsibility onto those present and demands, impels, action. Yet we live in a world where millions of children cry from avoidable hunger and pain every day, where we can do something about it, and where for the most part we do little. There are some exceptions: they include those who live with, work with, and learn with the poorer rural people. A very few have chosen to reject the privileges of our class for themselves and their children and live lives which reflect their convictions. Yet most of us manage to evade those choices. What is the difference between the room and the world? Why do we do so much less than we could?
There are many explanations. One is the simple fact of distance. The child is not in the room with us, but in Bihar, Bangladesh, the Sahel or a nameless camp for refugees, out of sight, sound and mind. Time, energy, money, imagination and compassion are finite. People deal first with what confronts them. Rural poverty is remote. It is even remote, most of the time, for those outsiders who are ‘working in the field’ but who are urban-based, like government and other professionals in regional, district or subdistrict headquarters. One starting point is then to examine, as this first chapter does, the nature of contact or lack of contact between urban-based outsiders concerned with rural development and the poorer rural people.
But distance is only the easy part of the explanation. There is also a wilful element of choice. Outsiders choose what to do – where to go, what to see, and whom to meet. What is perceived depends on the perceiver. Outsiders have their own interests, preferences and preconceptions, their own rationalisations, their own defences for excluding or explaining the discordant and the distressing. Selfishness is a powerful force. Putting one’s family first seems natural and good, and ‘charity begins at home’ is a great let-out. Disillusion with development failures and a knowing cynicism about ‘where the money goes’ are given as reasons for doing nothing. Outsiders are often ignorant about rural poverty but do not want to know what they do not know. The less they have of direct and discordant contact and learning, and the less they know, so the easier it is for myth to mask reality. Outsiders as a class need comforting beliefs: that rural deprivation is not so bad; that their prosperity is not based on it; that the poorer people are used to it and like life their way; or that they are lazy and improvident and have brought it on themselves. Such convenient beliefs about social ills are suspect. They present a challenge for analysis. Critical self-examination is not easy. What follows in this book is only one beginning. It invites outsiders concerned with rural development to analyse the ways they learn, think, feel and act, and to see how these might be changed to make things less bad especially for the more deprived of those who are rural and poor.

Cores and peripheries of knowledge

The argument is set in a context of cores and peripheries of knowledge. Globally, these reflect a gradient from extremes of wealth to extremes of poverty. At one end there coexist rich, urban, industrialised, high status cores, and at the other, poor, rural, agricultural and low status peripheries. In the cores there is a mutual attraction and reinforcement of power, prestige, resources, professionals, professional training and the capacity to generate and disseminate knowledge. Both internationally and within individual third world countries, centripetal forces draw resources and educated people away from the peripheries and in towards the cores. Within third world countries, skills migrate from rural to urban areas, and from smaller to larger urban centres, feeding in turn the international flows of the brain drain. The centripetal system is self-reinforcing. Staff and resources drawn to the rich, urban, industrial cores add to the mass which generates prestige and rewards and attracts yet more staff and resources.
At the very centre are the black holes of professionalism – space programmes and defence in the United States and the USSR – sucking in staff and resources which are then lost to sight. Research points where the rich and powerful direct it – to arms, rockets, chips, cars, minerals, chemicals, diseases of the affluent and ageing, and the mechanised agriculture of temperate climates. Trained and drawn towards these cores are those professions which directly touch rural life, like medicine, engineering and agriculture, looking inwards to the establishments of the rich world as their arbiters of priorities and excellence. At the other extreme, there are government staff, voluntary workers, and researchers pushing out into, clinging to, or stuck in the rural periphery. Some have failed to move inwards into the system; some have rejected it; and some are trying to change it.
The allocation of resources to research is a measure of the imbalances of the system. Overwhelmingly, research and development (R and D) expenditure in the world is concentrated in the industrialised countries. It might have been thought that rural poverty deserved a higher priority than defence, yet we find over 50 per cent of the research scientists in the world engaged in defence work (DF 1979). In 1980, although there was a stockpile of nuclear weapons with one million times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, the USA and USSR were spending well over $100 million per day on upgrading their nuclear arsenals, compared with a recent figure of a derisory $60 million per year devoted to tropical diseases research (Sivard 1980, p. 5; Walsh and Warren 1979, p. 20). Over a wide range, there remains deep ignorance about many researchable physical and social aspects of rural life – soil erosion, the diarrhoeas, the political economy of pastoralism, drudgery-reducing technology for rural women, the management of canal irrigation systems, levels of human calorie requirements, seasonal interactions between nutrition work, sickness and indebtedness, the relative importance of different contingencies which make poor people poorer, forms of organisation to overcome the tragedy of the commons – to make but a quick, short list which could be extended many times over. A tiny diversion of resources to increase sensitive research on topics such as these might mitigate the misery of many millions of people. But the mainstream of the R and D system flows in another another direction, passing by on the other side, and drawing resources away after it.
Why this should be so can be understood partly in terms of how education and professional training articulate with the preoccupations, power and prestige of the cores. Prolonged professional conditioning has built biases of perception deep into many of those concerned with rural development. These direct attention towards whatever is urban, industrial, ‘high’ technology, capital-intensive, appropriate for temperate climates, and marketed and exported; to the neglect of what is rural, agricultural, ‘low’ technology, labour-intensive, appropriate for tropical climates, retained by the household and locally consumed. Many interlocking influences shape ambitions, mould ways of seeing things and sway choices of where in the world one is to work. These include textbooks, curricula, examination questions, professional journals, academic awards, national and international distinctions, professional values and ideas of sophistication, the media, the priority accorded to armaments and security, the desire of elites for international mobility. Most professionals face away from rural areas; most live in towns. And even among that minority who face the other way, or who live in rural areas, their conditioning has often disabled them. They direct their attention to those with whom they have most in common – the less poor rural people. They see and link in with whatever they can find which is familiar and prestigious – with whatever is modern, marketed, urban in origin, and sophisticated. They prescribe for only that specialised part of the diverse rural reality for which their training has prepared them.
At its ugliest, such professional training inculcates an arrogance in which superior knowledge and superior status are assumed. Professionals then see the rural poor as ignorant, backward and primitive, and as people who have only themselves to blame for their poverty. Social Darwinism then lives again in the ideologies of the prosperous and therefore virtuous elites looking out on the rural mass, the poverty of whose members reflects their lack of virtue. The very phrase – ‘the rural mass’ – fosters stereotypes, convenient glosses hiding ignorance of the reality. Not only do urban-based professionals and officials often not know the rural reality; worse, they do not know that they do not know.

The urban trap

It is by no means only the international system of knowledge and prestige, with its rewards and incentives, that draws professionals away from rural areas and up through the hierarchy of urban and international centres. They are also attracted and held fast by better houses, hospitals, schools, communications, consumer goods, recreation, social services, facilities for work, salaries and career prospects. In third world countries as elsewhere, academics, bureaucrats, foreigners and journalists are all drawn to towns or based in them. All are victims, though usually willing victims, of the urban trap. Let us consider them in turn.
For academics, it is cheaper, safer and more cost-effective in terms of academic output, to do urban rather than rural research. If rural work is to be done, then peri-urban is preferable to work in remoter areas. Rural research is carried out mainly by the young and inexperienced. For them rural fieldwork is a rite of passage, an initiation which earns them the right to do no more, giving them a ticket to stay in the town. But the fieldwork must first be performed in the correct manner as prescribed by custom. The social anthropologist has to spend a year or so in the village, the sociologist to prepare, apply, analyse and write up a questionnaire survey. The ritual successfully completed, the researcher is appointed and promoted. Marriage and children follow. For women, pregnancy and child care may then dislocate a career and prevent further rural exposure. For men, family responsibilities tie less, but still restrain. Promotion means responsibility and time taken with teaching, supervising, administration, and university or institutional politics. The stage of the domestic cycle with small children means accumulation of responsibilities – driving children to school and picking them up again, family occasions, careful financial management to make ends meet, moonlighting and consultancies to supplement a meagre salary – all of which take time.
The researcher has now learnt enough to make a contribution to rural research. He or she has the confidence and wit to explore new ideas and to pursue the unexpected. There is evidence enough of this in the books by social anthropologists who have undertaken second a...

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