Some readers may be heading to the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) this week in Cologne, Germany, whether physically or online. The conference’s focus is ‘African futures’ and there is a fantastic set of panels planned, with a bewildering 1900 papers accepted! As the description of the conference theme states, “The future is ambiguous because it is uncertain, unknown, and open; but the future is not completely contingent, as it emerges out of specific pathways, past and present. While some futures appear to be more likely than others, alternative futures compete to shape the present.”
Sadly, I will miss the conference, but a few years ago, in advance of when the conference was supposed to be held but was cancelled due to the pandemic, I contributed a chapter to an excellent book on the conference theme. It is now available open access from Brill, and was edited by Clemens Greiner, Steven Van Wolputte and Michael Bollig, who are all involved with the conference. There are sections on re/thinking, living, confronting, imagining, relating and concluding, with a lot of chapters on many themes. Mine is in the second section and is called, A New Politics of Uncertainty: Towards Convivial Development in Africa, which draws on thinking developed in the PASTRES Programme, supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant. This blog is an extract from the chapter, removing the cases and the references. I hope it gives you a taste and encourages you to read the book!
Rethinking African development
Africa continues to face multiple uncertainties: climate chaos, food insecurity, migration flows, economic volatility, conflict, epidemic disease outbreaks, fragile governance, and more. Indeed, it is these issues that dominate popular academic and media coverage of Africa. It’s all doom and gloom, disaster and catastrophe. The solution, so the narrative goes, is economic and governance ‘reform’, aiming to ‘stabilise’ economies and societies and so control uncertainty. Such interventions are, in turn, combined with ‘emergency’ humanitarian interventions to deal with the worst. Aid and investment packages therefore aim to control, to manage uncertainties, to reinstate a stable status quo, while emergency responses override normal routines, imposing an often-securitised solution, blotting out local initiative and agency.
This short essay asks if there are alternatives to this dominant approach to aid and development in Africa that foster what I call ‘convivial development’; one that fulsomely embraces uncertainty, ambiguity and even ignorance. Following Ivan Illich, I take convivial development to mean an approach that engages with context, facilitates inclusion of multiple knowledges and skills, fosters a caring approach to people and environments centred on social justice and, as a result, necessarily embraces complexity and uncertainty.
This essay makes the case that, in many respects, Africa is ahead of the game in constructing such alternatives from the margins, and that the global North, also confronting the multiple uncertainties of a turbulent world – most recently and dramatically the COVID-19 pandemic – should start learning from Africa, reversing the flow of development thinking and practice.
Development as control: the failures of ‘progressive neoliberalism’
The dominant control-oriented narrative of development for Africa has resulted in numerous projects and programmes, most of which fail. Whether this was the disastrous ‘structural adjustment’ reforms imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 1990s, or the more modulated ‘good governance’ interventions that followed, these were all premised on an assumption of control, and the creation of stable, liberal economies and democracies in the image of the West. While China offers a different model through its brave new Belt and Road Initiative, the story is the same, although the politics are different.
Yet the assumptions are flawed, and the dangerous fallacies of control exposed, perhaps especially in African contexts. Simplistic technocratic impositions fall apart, and the ideal-type models of Western (or Chinese) development fail, even when ameliorative additions, such as ‘participation’ are bolted on. The colonisation project of aid-led development, whether emanating from the North or the South, despite the power, influence and the resources, has been shown to be seriously lacking.
And, even in the global North, the old order, constructed around various forms of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and pushed through aid programmes to Africa, is being challenged. Climate change, for example, means that economic systems, and a commitment to growth at all costs, have to be overhauled. The financial crash has meant that approaches to financialisation have to be fundamentally re-thought. The COVID-19 pandemic requires a radical rethinking of disease preparedness and response. And the rise of authoritarian populist movements, and the sustained attack on liberal values, is resulting in a refashioning of once democratic regimes and liberal economies.
Facing up to uncertainty is at the heart of all these challenges. One response is to reinforce the technocratic order, finding ever-more elaborate technological and governance responses that aim to keep control in the face of rising uncertainty. Whether this is geo-engineering or climate-smart cities to confront climate chaos, or tighter regulation of banks and finance houses to offset a future economic meltdown, such approaches all rely on a politics of control, which frequently resorts to securitised, sometimes even militarised, responses in the face of unfolding ‘crises’ and ‘emergencies.’
The increasingly apocalyptic language of threat, breakdown and collapse fuels anxiety, fear and isolationism. This also creates space for regressive forces, which, in the absence of alternatives, feed off a sense of helplessness, offering order and control through increasing authoritarianism. A populist politics of blame emerges – accusing ‘foreigners’ and ‘migrants’ and attacking a remote ‘elite’ on behalf of ‘the people’. Regressive, nationalist versions of authoritarian populism create a powerful imaginary of a past when uncertainty and fear did not impinge. And such narratives can have a religious inflection, one that deploys religious beliefs to generate certainties, whether evangelical Christianity, Hindu nationalism or fundamentalist Islam.
The failures of neoliberal styles of development are littered across Africa. The ‘Africa rising’ slogan was short-lived, as the fragilities and dependencies of economies and polities were exposed. The flood of investment that was to follow the post-crash ‘land rush’ never materialised, and the painful struggles against corporate violence continue across the region, whether around biofuel plantations in Ghana or geothermal plants and oil fields in Kenya. And, at the same time, the in-roads made by extremism of all sorts is undermining whole regions, alongside the fabric of emerging democracies. Whether this is violent insurgency in the Sahel, Somalia or northern Mozambique or the attack on gay rights in Uganda, for example, the same attempts at control, and creating an imagined, regulated order are seen.
Embracing uncertainty: what are the alternatives?
So, what are the alternatives? How can embracing uncertainty generate emancipatory futures, and alternative imaginaries of development in Africa? As the multiple failures of neoliberal capitalism are tormenting the West (at the same time as even China’s seemingly endless growth path is faltering), can Africa lead the way in prefiguring a future where a different approach is realised; one that does not fall into the fallacy of control, but encourages a more adaptive, responsive, reflexive approach, redefining what we mean by development, progress and modernity?
While arguing against the idea that somehow eliminating uncertainty provides the magic bullet for development, I want to make the case that alternatives that genuinely embrace uncertainty are already happening, but they have been suppressed by standardised, regimented, control-oriented development approaches. Where can we find such alternative development approaches? Certainly, not in most of the aid agencies, NGOs, foundations, technical departments and government offices that have presided over failed development over the last half-century or so. In various ways, dressed up in diverse buzzwords, these have all become trapped in the expert-led, control paradigm of the past, which has fostered the failed neoliberal development project and ignored or supressed uncertainty.
But alternatives can be found, usually on the margins, perhaps amongst the wreckage of a failed aid project or investment programme. Here, in highly dynamic, informal settings, improvisation, practised performance, experimentation and continuous reflexive adaptation are a necessity, often in parallel ‘twilight’ institutions. For, this is what daily life is like, and has to be. Uncertainty is necessarily embedded in the everyday practices on the margins, of those living in precarity. It is therefore these vernacular understandings, rooted in long-standing collaborative practices, deep and diverse knowledge and cultures, which fully embrace responses to uncertainty.
This is not a call to reify and recapture a static form of ‘indigenous’ knowledge and culture, as such settings are always changing, always uncertain; nor to suggest that simplistic versions of ‘participation’ are the solution. Local knowledges and cultures are deployed not for timeless rituals, but to cope with and respond to change. This generates innovation, sometimes social, sometimes technical; but this is always co-produced in context, not as some form instrumental ‘participatory development’. These are the places of ‘real economies’, created and practised through social investments, and rooted in place. These are also the sites where new forms of politics emerge, necessarily linked to collective action, mutual support and community solidarity; because, in order to respond to radical everyday uncertainties, people must work together.
These flexible, informal, collective and rooted responses I argue cumulatively result in the remaking of the economy, the state and society from below through new forms of conviviality, and so require a radical rethinking of development.
Principles of convivial development
Across the examples explored in the chapter (on food security and seeds, on pastoralism and grazing and disease responses), a number of principles can be identified. Responding to uncertainties usually requires flexible, adaptive responses, not fixed, standardised packages. Experiences of uncertainty will differ depending on who or where you are, making situated perspectives and diverse knowledges essential. Differentiated actions always need to be responsive to social difference, cultural beliefs and lived experiences. Building the solidarities necessary for collective responses is vital, and this requires strong, rooted institutions, effective local leadership and the autonomy to create new solutions. Innovation, improvisation and creativity are key, and these emerge through flexible performances involving multiple actors, and no pre-defined script. Therefore, sharing, extending and multiplying such innovations as responses to uncertainty are centrally what development needs to be about, suggesting new roles for experts, state agencies and development projects.
This in turn means rejecting the ‘we know best’ stance of mainstream development, decolonising the process, and encouraging emergent, grounded, creative solutions. These principles, learned from those at the margins – in these cases from southern African farmers, from mobile east African pastoralists and west African villagers confronting Ebola – make up, in the words of Ivan Illich, the varied ‘tools for conviviality’. Thus convivial development – one that is responsible, social, shared and led by a political community, not experts or managers – is an approach that truly embraces uncertainty: outside the mainstream, in the margins and already being practised across Africa.
This positive vision eschews the hype of ‘Africa rising’ but focuses on the real solutions being generated for the current, universal dilemmas of development, North and South. Rather than repeating the failures of technocratic development, perhaps we all should turn our gaze elsewhere, and seek out the principles of convivial development on the ground, ones that genuinely embrace uncertainty, and generate a refashioned version of modernity and progress for Africa and the world.
This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland