Of surrogate futures and scattered temporalities

Development Policy27 Dec 2011Nishant Shah

There can be no refuting Michael Edwards’ claim that the world we live in is not only thick with problems, but that the problems that we are collectively trying to address are ‘thick…complex, politicized and unpredictable…complicated and contested’. It is also difficult to disagree with the fact that the solutions we work with, are often too thin, fetishising enumeration of impact more than actual systemic change in areas of intervention. This is what he calls the ‘magic bullet’ approach to accounting for the work we do in a language and framework shaped by neo-liberal and corporate productivity in the age of late-capitalism.

His call for significantly transforming ‘existing systems of knowledge, politics and economics’ reminds me of another moment of crisis that Michel Foucault was addressing when he called for a systemic change in conditions of ‘Life, Labour and Language’ as a means of restructuring the human condition. I find Foucault’s formulation as a direct complement to Edwards’ triangulation because in his design of the futures, there is an inspiring prominence given to affect, affection, belonging, cohesion, and happiness – things which are often lost in the world of ‘quantiphilia’ that accompanies the ‘quick-fix cost efficient’ alternatives that are gaining centrality in contemporary development discourse..

I find myself nodding vigorously at Edwards’ fine critique of technocratic social innovation that is being offered as the panacea that shall cure all our problems from authoritarian regimes (as in the case of the Arab Spring) to poverty and mortality (as being supported in Asian and African countries to counter unemployment and AIDS).

In the knowledge collaboration on Digital Natives with a Cause? with Hivos, we have increasingly found that it is necessary to think of technology, not as a tool of mediation and arbitration (or of mobilisation and organisation) but as a condition of living. The extraordinary focus on granting access and facilitating inclusion in the digital world often misses out on the need to build social, cultural, political, intellectual, financial and emotional infrastructure that allows for a new kind of collaboratively formed action to come into being.

Instead, following the battle cries of an almost redundant ICT for Development (ICT4D) warrior, governments, NGOs and civil societies are obsessively building physical infrastructure without taking into consideration the quality of access, life, safety, responsibility and change that these technologies bring in. A concentration on these technologies as benign tools (much as a hammer is, till it comes and hits you on the head) obfuscates the complicated, or to use Edwards’ term ‘thick’ reality of technology ecology (politics, power and culture) and instead produces ‘thin’ solutions which are generally one-size, and fit nobody.

These thin solutions also, often depend on heroic individuals rather than Everyday Digital Natives who can actually produce change from the bottom-up, in ways that might be outside the scale, scope and understanding of traditional NGO work.

And yet, I have some reservations in the futures that Edwards conjures for those of us who work with, at, within and through INGOs towards a collective vision of global human development. I shall try and work through them, deeply appreciative of the provocations that Edwards sets forward in this thought-piece and recognising this as building upon his ideas – more a dialogue than an irresolute conflict. And to map my arguments, I am going to fall upon 2 metaphors that I have been thinking through in the last few months.

Surrogacy: Quickly defined as a process where One takes the place of Another, I offer Surrogacy as a way of problematizing Edwards’ rather persuasive metaphor of ‘bridging’. While the essay insightfully looks at the problem of INGOs as a product of their times, and their need to radically restructure their form and practice, the idea of bridging does not offer enough departure from the very points of origin that are being critiqued.

The imagination of an INGO of the future as mediating, arbitrating, managing, making interventions still strongly adheres to the idea that the INGO is essentially a surrogate structure that stands in for the State, the Community, the Society, the Individual, in the furtherance of its goal.

This surrogate structure has been at the centre of most rights based and development design in the last half-century and has led to many problems that fail to address questions of sustainability and longevity. If, we were to rethink the role of the INGO in the future, they cannot be merely about acknowledging different local movements and political happenstance.

We need to look at what happens when the surrogate structure of peerage, patronage and protection is dismantled to initiate change.

One possible solution is to look at the INGO – like I was arguing with technologies – not as actors or agents of change. The ambition might be to imagine the INGO as producing conditions within which change happens, thus looking at a wider investment within different sectors and actors of change, which goes beyond merely capacity building or short term thin solutions.

Temporality: The commonsensical understanding of the contemporary is something that belongs to its own time. We use the idea of the contemporary to refer to simultaneity of events. Martin Heidegger, in his brilliant treatise on ‘Being and Time’ suggests that the Contemporary does not refer to 2 things happening at the same time but actually refers to 2 things that do not belong to the same time, happening together.

It is a powerful way of proposing a Heterotemporality or diverse times within which different geo-political contexts and socio-cultural movements exist. There seems to be a unified future that we are talking about when we look at the notion of our collective futures. However, it might be more fruitful to realise that there are various futures which might actualise at different times and that there has to be a way of accounting for this temporal diversity, which does not yet reflect in our plans for the future.

The Heterotemporality demands different languages, concepts, pasts and practices to come together to form specific and flexible futures for the people we work with. If the century of development work has taught us something, it is the fact that imagining false futures for people who live in different temporalities often create great conditions of precarity, danger and violence for them.

Maybe it is time to first ask the question, “whose future are we addressing, when we talk about a future of the INGOs?” and start a new set of conversations about selective histories, visible presents and imagined futures that inform our discourse and practice in contemporary times.