Writing on Mozambique, pt. 1: Discourse on Development

I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to work on a paper on the politics of Mozambique. The reasons for this are both political and personal, and the ways in which these two intersect. It was due at the end of April, which seemed reasonable at the time, but then a whole series of events followed and life in general took a tanking dive and I’ve been trying to deal with a lot of that. I haven’t been able to work on the paper, and when I try, I fail quite miserably.

But if I can’t bring myself write on Mozambique, perhaps I can write about writing on Mozambique (argh, postmodernism’s revenge!). I’ve done a bit of research — having gone through dozens of journal and news articles and a few books. All of this raises more than a few questions for me, to which I have no satisfactory answer. I hope my musings here will help to, at least, organize the issues for me and give me focus in writing the paper.

I took the class in the first place for a few reasons. I could have taken David McNally’s class on Marx’s Capital — which would have been fantastic, no doubt — but I felt like I needed a grounding in the way capitalism works, internationally, on the ground. I have more than a passing interest in the politics of southern Africa and I wanted, also, to examine how the post-colonial moment has been working out (answer: not well). Also, I heard that this might be one of the last times that John S. Saul would be teaching the class (and, indeed, it was the last class he taught), and that it was worth it to take a class with him. (Saul is a noted scholar-activist, and he was involved in the struggles against colonialism and apartheid, back in the day.) Of course, I also heard and kept hearing other stuff about Saul — vague and non-specific rumours, all of which turned out to be unsubstantiated; and the fact that he seemed to assign his own work a lot was a bit disconcerting, but ultimately, it wasn’t a problem at all.

I had also known about the “involvement” of Cold War rivals in Angola, and to a lesser extent, Mozambique. Mostly, this came from watching a documentary on Africa in the Cold War in my second-year of university in a vapid international relations course (the course, I’m sure, is still vapid). In Angola, especially, the Marxist-Leninist (though, mostly in name) MPLA fought with Soviet arms and with Cuban troops against the South Africa-funded and American-backed UNITA — and against the South African Defence Force (SADF) itself. (No contest there, in terms of which side I’d take.) But the more I learned about Mozambique in Saul’s class the more I wanted to focus on it. My motivation here was in examining the operations of an “actually-existing socialism,” and that, too, what seemed to be a sincere Marxist-Leninist one (as opposed to the nominally socialist regimes that existed elsewhere, e.g., in Angola). While the stories of Eastern European socialist republics and their ‘transitions’ to capitalist economies are more familiar, that of Mozambique is not so well-known. Indeed, generally, there isn’t much focus on African wars of liberation (notwithstanding the occasional tribute to Nelson Mandela). Among most young folks, the understanding of South African apartheid and the nature of the white-minority South African regime is limited. In general, the ramifications of apartheid for South Africa and its neighbouring states is understated and the impact of free market capitalism is seen, almost universally, to have been beneficial for these countries.

The question I’m supposed to be answering for my class is rather specific, but also remarkably broad:

Assess the nature of the chief liberation movement (Frelimo) in [Mozambique], trace that movement’s development in the post-colonial period (including an assessment of any meaningful opposition it has faced), and assess the prospects that that movement has offered and now offers for realizing the meaningful development of the people for whom it professes to speak.

Some backdrop on Mozambique might be pertinent here, but before I go any further I want to talk about the meaning of “meaningful development.” The very concept of development is — at least among what passes for the Left in academia — rightly contested. Too often, development has come to acquire an economic definition that sees ‘economic growth’ as the basis of any ‘meaningful development.’ This has also meant the adoption of certain ideological prescriptions, whether they emanated from the communist bloc or capitalist institutions. Communist prescriptions dissipated in the 1980s when even the countries of the communist bloc adopted the policies of intensifying free market capitalism, or globalization (i.e., structural adjustment programs prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank). Needless to say, globalization turned out to be, for the most part, crock. Although the often devastating consequences for local communities could be ignored, at this point even at a macroeconomic level it — for the rich — it’s not making much sense.

The emphasis on free market also came with an attendant decline in the power of local communities to make decisions about their lives and livelihoods — to the extent that it ever existed in the first place. In several countries in Latin America and Africa, for instance, this meant gutting social services like health and education. For those already living in dire poverty, this was too much. The discourse on free market reform as posited by the IMF and WB came to acquire meditations on democracy and good governance. The problem, it seems, was simply that all these Third World countries had rulers who were too corrupt. Democratic decentralization was seen as a solution, the state’s power had to go. Needless to say, this hasn’t really worked out too well anywhere, if it has worked out at all. Even Mugable claims democracy now.

But that’s not all to the discourse on development. The very concept of development implies teleology, i.e., there is something to aspire to. Hence, we see, long before the 1980s, language of “backward” countries, which soon came to be replaced by terms like “underdeveloped” or “developing.” These weren’t simply terms being used by imperialists or Western commentators, but were employed by revolutionaries of all stripes themselves. The problem, for many critics of Eurocentrism (particularly postcolonialists), is that the term ‘development’ implies aspiration toward a European standard, be that capitalistic or communist. This was — and is — true on the ground, as well, as Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) go to poorer countries and tell the people how to run their lives. Farmers who have been using indigenous technology for years are suddenly told their methods are unsustainable, and are encouraged to adopt technology based on ‘scientific’ criteria which, in some cases, turns out to be unsustainable itself (e.g., via erosion and stuff). Students in Western universities are encouraged to go “over there” to build a well, as if this know-how is somehow so esoteric and incomprehensible that ignorant Africans would be unable to do it on their own (else, why haven’t they done it yet?).

My own views on the idea of ‘development’ are fraught with ambivalence. There is something to be said about the lack of control people have over their own lives and livelihoods — but this isn’t something that is restricted to the poor and the wretched, its quite intrinsic to capitalist society. There is also something to be said about poverty, in terms of reliable access to food, healthcare, shelter, clothing, education, and the like. To the extent that we can talk about ‘development’ (or a similar concept) I think it has to be framed in terms of reducing poverty and the alienation of people from control of their own lives. Having said that, I also think it’s important to let people define ‘development’ for themselves.

But there are problems with all of this. For instance, despite the above-noted demise of globalization — in theory — it still reigns in practice. And in a lot of theory. For that reason, a lot of people think that the way to reduce poverty is precisely through the free market capitalist system — without thinking about the fact that that might just be the cause of poverty. The evidence about the relationship between economic growth and poverty reduction is ambiguous because of the way these categories are defined. No real link is made to inequality-reduction, that’s not really seen as an issue. Moreover, the assumption behind free marketeers is that poverty reduction is not a collective effort, but a personal and individualistic enterprise (ergo, discourse of market). Thus, they examine consumption bundles — how much can or do people consume. Things like healthcare, education, so on, don’t come under the definition (except perhaps under broader ideas of ‘human development’). The assumption is that — I’m actually not sure what the assumption is there. The focus is on raising the consumption bundle, or something. Actually, the focus is more on the reduction of something called “absolute poverty.” This is defined as a person living on less than 1 USD per day, adjusted for purchasing power parity. I don’t really know what that means, either. Raising someone’s income from 1 USD to 2 USD might make a difference, but depending on prices of commodities and relative incomes, it might not do much. It might also be that taking people away from, say, subsistence farming, and putting them into waged labour reduces their stability (in Mozambique, in fact, many people do a bit of everything).

The question is, where does poverty come from? An ahistorical view of poverty just sees it as something that exists: it’s there. Maybe it has something to do with laziness, or a lack of institutions, or a lack of technology, or a lack of this, that, and the other. I’m not saying there isn’t any truth to these ideas, in fact, I’m sure there is a lot of truth to them. But a historical view would at the very least attempt to contextualize the present situation as the result of a series of events. I’m referring here to the history of colonization and the creation of certain patterns of trade and production. (Bear with me, this will all make more sense when I delve into the history of Mozambique.)

One of the problems with trying to figure out how people see their own situations, especially in places like Mozambique, is that it, too, is individualized. For instance, studies show that women-led households in Mozambique perform much, much better when the woman has some level of education, or if they can get their children some level of education and their children contribute back to the family. Well, we’ve figured one thing out — education is important. Many people in Mozambique see this as a necessary prerequisite for ‘development’ (whatever that may mean to them). So we can ask ourselves how Mozambicans can be provided education [note: see the passive tone that creeps in? the omniscient narrator tone?]. We realize that the infrastructure exists to a great extent, the problem people have is getting their kids into school in the first place. It costs too much. How do we fix that? Moreover, people’s perceptions and needs vary over time and geography. The same thing may not necessarily be true for farmers in Northern Mozambique as it is in Southern Mozambique, but national economic policy is often wielded as a blunt instrument that applies to all parts of the country. Within the context of a global capitalist system, them shits is complex. There are no easy answers. Adopting a socialist program, for instance, still means having to negotiate with the world market.

Having said that one can look at the direction in which a country or society is headed. Are the policies and actions undertaken by governments positive for the people they rule over? And … that brings us back to the question of “meaningful development.” And I guess, to get a sense of it, at some point you have to define it. So what I’m going to try to do for that is go through whatever anthropological and sociological data I have gathered, i.e., interviews with people and surveys, and see what I can construct out of that. Of course, my own ideas and ideological predilections will play heavily into that. It’s deeply flawed, and there’s plenty of hubris involved, but it’s the best I can do, I think. Unless someone has other ideas about approaching the question.

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1 Response so far »

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    nomes » Writing on Mozambique, pt. 2: Development and Marxism said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

    [...] I considered my earlier post on the definition of “meaningful development” I realized that a lot of what I said [...]

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