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Toon van Eijk: The primacy of personal change

Toon van Eijk | 03 February 2010

The WRR report is thoroughly analytical and comprehensive. It is one of the best reports on development aid in the last few decades. The crucial issue is: how to implement its mostly sound recommendations?

Robert Chambers (1997:220) distinguishes in his book ‘Whose reality counts?’ three interrelated dimensions in change processes: institutional change; professional change of working methods; and personal change of behaviour and attitudes. In his view, personal change is primary and has to precede and accompany institutional change. In order to make Dutch development aid more effective, the WRR report proposes a new organization – NLAID – which should employ truly professional people. That would adequately cover Chambers’ institutional and professional dimensions, but not yet the dimension of personal change.

Professionalism and priority setting

The staff of the NLAID should be professionals with in-depth knowledge of the selected priority themes or sectors in a limited number of countries, and with relevant contextual knowledge and skills. NLAID thus needs people with ample field experience, because experience is the only way to acquire contextual knowledge and skills. In most cases, such field experience cannot be acquired in air-conditioned offices in capital cities. Long-term and frequent contact with the relevant target groups in their local settings is absolutely necessary in order to become ‘streetwise’.

What about personal change?

If the key to change processes, and thus development, is behaviour and attitudes, how can we effectively and efficiently promote attitudinal and behavioural change of local actors and their foreign facilitators? Unfortunately, the dimension of personal change is largely neglected in the WRR report, which is not surprising because this aspect of development does not surface in the literature on development either. In my view, the discipline of social psychology ought to be incorporated into the discourse and practice of development aid.

Multi-dimensional development

Development encompasses scientific (including ecological), technological, economic, political, socio-structural or institutional, cultural and psychological aspects. The last two aspects receive hardly any attention in the WRR report, probably because these aspects are usually seen as intangible, elusive or hard to change. The WRR report acknowledges that it is very difficult to simultaneously tackle the different aspects of development, which unfold at different levels of aggregation (at local, regional, national and global levels). Holistic or integrated approaches are notoriously difficult to put into practice.

Moreover, development is a process characterized by as many unanticipated as anticipated outcomes. Full control of the development process is not possible. I have labelled this the illusion of intellectual holism: who has the intellectual capacity (whether extended by computer power or not), moral authority and political power to coordinate, fine-tune and implement the now so popular '3D' approach? Who is able to decide on the right balance between defence, diplomacy and development in multiple locations – and time-specific contexts? Groups of relevant stakeholders nearly always get entangled in power struggles, personal hang-ups and the dilemma of collective action: people have the tendency to wait for others to take action. Unfortunately, proactive and altruistic behaviour is the exception to the rule. Is ‘social engineering’ in the sense of personal change possible? All development interventions aim at social engineering, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The paradox of sequencing and embedded globalization

If we can only ‘facilitate’ development by creating ‘the right conditions’, as the WRR report correctly argues, then the question is how to determine which specific interventions contribute to development without creating aid dependence. The report also says that the ‘everything is connected to everything else’ ideology is paralyzing and that choices must be made in order to be able to sequence interventions (pp.200-1). At the same time, the WRR report repeatedly emphasizes the complex interaction between the economic sphere, government bureaucracy, political systems and society. In order to promote ‘policy coherence for development’, the report recommends that participatory mechanisms to advance the coherence, consistency and coordination of global economic and social policy must be established. Global markets got increasingly disembedded from society and national states through new technologies and policies of liberalization, privatization and deregulation. An ‘embedded globalization’ is proposed, but nobody knows yet what this will look like (p.172).

The most basic condition for development

The WRR report correctly argues that development aid needs to be linked to the maintenance and enhancement of global public goods, such as climate, energy, food, trade, migration and security. Fortunately, the report also underlines that the large global issues are inextricably bound up with the ‘small’ personal life of every man. Policy coherence finds its counterpart in ‘personal coherence’ (p.273). To my mind, this is crucial. If you want to improve the world, start with yourself. Citizens in rich and poor countries need to build a proactive, developmental attitude and engage in ecologically and societally responsible behaviour. Personal change is primary. The bad news is that personal change cannot be easily prompted from the outside: it has to happen ‘from within’. The good news is that the common denominator of the large global issues and small personal issues is inadequate human performance, and that human performance can be enhanced through techniques for consciousness development. Although the current social sciences, educational systems and institutionalized religions have only very partially succeeded in improving human performance, empirical evidence suggests that meditation techniques can effectively improve human behaviour (as I have documented elsewhere). If personal change is essential and personal behaviour is grounded in consciousness, then the most basic condition for development is consciousness.

The ability to manage for oneself

The WRR report emphasizes that development aid primarily ought to strengthen the ability to manage for oneself. When foreign aid contributes maximally to the ability of receiving countries to solve their own problems, then the development leverage of aid is best. The ability to manage for oneself (self-management) is grounded in the Self: the more access one has to the level of universal pure consciousness, the higher the ability to cope for oneself. The personal ‘consciousnesses’ constitute together a collective consciousness, which underlies all societal structures. Markets, governments, political systems and societies are embedded in this collective consciousness. ‘Embedded globalization’ becomes possible when the globalization process is embedded in a coherent collective consciousness at various levels of aggregation. When the collective consciousness is incoherent, policy coherence for development will be difficult to establish.

Human capital

The WRR report strongly suggests that the problems in sub-Saharan Africa are not due to a lack of money, but rather a lack of human, social and institutional capital. I agree with this observation, but I would add that social and institutional capital are, ultimately, grounded in human capital. Human capital is basically the ability to manage for oneself. Does contemporary foreign aid contribute to the formation of human capital? The WRR report mentions that Surinam received about €4 billion between 1975 and 2010. The GNP per capita in 2010 is about the same as in 1975. Apparently the Surinam and Dutch governments did not succeed in creating the right conditions for development in 35 years of Dutch aid. Taking into account that Surinam is a small country, which the Dutch know quite well, one can wonder what Dutch foreign aid can contribute to the ability of self-management in other countries. The WRR report underlines the permanently ‘searching’ character of development aid. ‘Searchers’ rather than ‘planners’ are needed in NLAID. Perhaps the merits of consciousness-based development in relation to searching abilities can be investigated.

Weber’s thesis

The WRR report refers to the work of Weber, who emphasized that an ethic of self-discipline, hard work and saving contributes to economic development. The report concludes that although a causal relationship between religion and development does not exist, religion is an important – destructive and constructive – force to bear in mind. I agree that a one-to-one causal relationship between Protestant religion and economic development in northwestern Europe – in the sense of a historical necessity – does not exist, but correlations do exist. Instead of focusing on the (positive or negative) effects of institutionalized religions on narrow economic development and wider embedded globalization, I would rather underline the role of experiential spirituality or personal consciousness development. More often than not, experiential spirituality is missing in institutionalized religions. Nevertheless, the role of experiential spirituality in consciousness-based development warrants more attention. It generates human capital.

Lessons from Farming Systems Research and Development

When reading the WRR report, I was stuck by the analogies with the rise and fall of Farming Systems Research and Development (FSR&D) in the last three decades of the previous century. Also, FSR&D started with a diagnostic survey in order to identify the most pressing bottlenecks in location- and time-specific farming systems. Then adaptive technologies, suited to the ecological and socio-economic conditions of farmers, were developed in close collaboration with the target groups, mainly in on-farm experiments. The FSR&D approach, under donor pressure, soon became a catch-all term and lost its meaning. If it proved difficult to implement a rather holistic and participatory methodology at the level of (groups of) single-farm households, what can we expect at higher levels of social aggregation? Who can handle multi-dimensional development at the level of districts, regions, nations or the globe? Whether a truism or not, everything is connected to everything else. On page 109, the WRR report gives a nice example which shows that the societal impact of more money for local schools is dependent on, among many other things, the quality of agricultural research. The report emphasizes the importance of ‘global governance’ in the context of development aid. Global governance is a bit more complex than FSR.

About the author

Toon van Eijk

Toon van Eijk is a tropical agronomist and rural development expert.

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