Neoliberal pull

The majority of development workers would likely consider themselves to be progressives, i.e. politically left of centre. In the course of being involved with development work, however, we often lose our consistency on this ground. It can happen that over time two distinct sets of political standpoints develop, one for our home country and another for the developing country we temporarily call home.

Whereas in Canada we would undoubtedly support socialized healthcare, free public education, guaranteed access to drinking water, and assurance of food security; for Ghana our positions on such matters vis-à-vis the government’s role can take a contrasting leaning. We come to note that governmental institutions are not developed to an extent that would allow them to deliver services and guarantees in a satisfactory manner. However, instead of working to enhance the ability of governmental institutions so that they eventually achieve a satisfactory level of competence, we put our hopes in the private sector.

This happens, so far as I’ve been able to discern, not as a result of conscious decision-making – i.e. through a review of the factual record from which a judgment is made on the course that should be taken. It happens, rather, because of a trickling down of sentiments from donors. Donors fund efforts which forward their dogma, which tends to be a right-wing creed. Development organizations become involved in such efforts, attach a sense of ownership over them, and adopt a political attitude that matches the stance forwarded in them. I’ve heard a couple members of EWB use the phrase “neoliberal pull” recently. I’m not completely sure for what purpose they used it. But it seems to fit well with the tendency I’ve described.

TV say if you po’ you must slow and shiftless, but you pay ‘em to say that [1]

Over time this sentiment has made its way into the general way of thinking within the development sector. Hence, we find would-be development workers adopting similar outlooks before they themselves have had a chance to be influenced by way of experience. We hear right-wing slogans like, “Handouts don’t work,” repeatedly uttered by people who have received more “handouts” than the vast majority of people on the planet, and for whom “handouts” have worked.

The idea that poor people in Ghana have become lazy as a result of receiving “handouts” from the government and NGOs is extremely pervasive within the development sector. The poor supposedly no longer have the inclination to work hard to better their lives because they are under the impression that someone will come around to make their lives better for them. How such a perspective can continue to exist after one spends a day helping a farmer weed his field by hand, or sees small children spend countless hours in the scorching sun selling petty merchandise to support their families, I don’t completely understand.

I can understand, however, the general trend towards the right induced by the choices of donors, as I’ve laid it out above. I’ll use my own work as an example to illustrate this further. The project I’m attached to often takes my mind into thinking about ways in which cheap credit can be made available to small farmers solely by means of the private sector. I can easily imagine myself becoming comfortable within the bounds I’m constrained by, and not considering that the right approach to take in making cheap credit accessible to small farmers is outside the space allotted by the project.

If I had not taken the time to step back and set my scope beyond the space slotted to me, I can see myself working out a solution that would fit and work well enough within the bounds of the project and from thereon holding it up as the answer to the entire problem of credit in agriculture. Fortunately, I know that such an answer would be no answer at all.

In a paper[2] published in The Journal of Peasant Studies Ha-Joon Chang tells us that

in Ghana, the World Bank’s insistence that sectoral allocation of (subsidized) credit to agriculture be abolished has made all the major banks, except the state-owned Agricultural Development Bank, move away from funding agriculture – Barclays Bank, one of the two largest privately-owned banks, closed down all its rural branches and the Standard Bank, the other largest private bank, closed down its agricultural department at its head office. While the private sector banks in Ghana have more recently moved into microcredit, little of the credit goes into agriculture. Between 1997 and 2006, only 2 percent of commercial bank loans went to agriculture.

He goes on to write that “experiences show that significant involvement of the government in agricultural credit provision is crucial. The simple fact is that, without some subsidy elements and/or mandatory lending to small farmers, private-sector financial institutions are not going to extend enough credits to small farmers.”

It’s just not that profitable to extend credit to small farmers, and regardless, it’s too risky for the private sector on its own to give loans to small farmers because almost everything about what they can achieve depends on rain – sounds easy enough to understand. It’s not so easy to explain to someone who has put a lot of effort into realizing an outcome that defies this fact. I’ve tried: One gets to hear a lot of anecdotes explaining the extent of public sector incompetence in lieu of ideas formed with the support of empirical evidence.

Buying into a reality that originally bought you [3]

By buying into the ideological standpoint of those who buy our services, we risk turning our backs to the people we seek to help. Our approach to development work should not be formed by experience obtained through work conducted within strict bounds, or by internalization of the views of others which have been formed in such a way, but through an independent review of the factual record.

[1] The Coup, Lazymuthafucka

[2] Chang, Ha-Joon(2009) ‘Rethinking public policy in agriculture: lessons from history, distant and recent’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 36: 3, 477 — 515

[3] Saul Williams, Penny For a Thought


5 responses to “Neoliberal pull

  • Leah

    Loved this post Umair. I myself have made that assumption before – although my point of view was that it seems more practical for farmers to wait for the free borehole rather than put the effort into doing it themselves when they could be doing other things with that time! Can you describe the context of your project a bit more? You mentioned this “box” around your project, and I just couldn’t picture what type of constraints this box may lay on someone’s thinking.

    • Umair

      Ah, thanks for the question Leah. I can see how being more clear about the bounds that exist around my project would have been the way to go.

      Let me try to have a go at it:
      The project I’m attached to is itself attached to a larger project, which has a mandate to work with different actors in the maize value chain (farmers, input dealers, aggregators, retailers, insurance and credit providers, etc.) in order to improve the value chain’s functioning. This is to be done without the inclusion, in any meaningful way, of governmental authorities. The project takes a “private-sector led development” approach.

      Any scheme that would involve, for example, the government enforcing credit allocation to agriculture as a way to make credit available to small farmers is outside the imagination of the project. We have to think about how to get farmers access to credit without any government involvement. The project doesn’t care about the historical record showing that without government involvement small farmers aren’t going to gain access to cheap credit on a large scale.

      Of course, every project needs to have bounds. Every kind of approach can’t be within the scope of any one project. But the fact that the bounds around the project are ones which support the ideological standpoint of the donors is not so great because that ideology has been repudiated by history.

  • sparkybrown12

    My name is Mark Brown and I am an acute victim of “neo-liberal pull”.

    I have been afflicted with the condition and I have not received any cure.

    Handouts do work for farmers in Canada, but that’s because there is a donor who has it in their interest to competently and continually supply them. In Ghana, that doesn’t exist. Canada also has an economy which has positive features which must be attributed to healthy levels of business competition.

    I have started not trying to judge my tendencies for being right wing or left wing, but just what works. If a company is going to buy more off of a farmer for an extended period of time and cause him and colleagues to compete and push each other for quality to make their country more competitive relative to Canada or some other “developed” nation, I support that. I support that more than I support good-intentioned projects which will last for the few short years that they have funding to unsustainably buy from a community group and push it into a marketplace.

    I think that being socialist is about making “social” decisions. To me that is what is best for my brothers and sisters. If it happens to be linking them to a multi-national corporation, my gut might be alarmed at first but it can be the right thing to do. The “social” thing to do.

    My name is Mark and I am a victim of neo-liberal pull. I don’t think my case has seeped in from right-wing project ambition, it has come from seeing what helps the farmers I work with.

    I still support building of packhouses, warehouses, roads, the facilitation of ferilizer and seed credits too. But I only support them if they are going to last. In most of the cases that I see projects don’t last. Governments sometimes do and corporations sometimes do. If they are ready to act “social”, I welcome them in my work.

    One Love

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