Canadian journalist, John Stackhouse’s book ‘Out of Poverty: And Into Something Comfortable’ (2001:Vintage Canada) tells stories (drawn from 10 years of living and travel) out of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Africa of the many ingenious ways that the poorest of the poor have taken control of their lives by bypassing the very institutions that have been put in place to rescue them. He touchingly narrates to us about how these deprived peoples have found their own homegrown solutions to their problems.
In reading his brilliant writing one is struck by his hope that multi-party electoral democracies coupled with guarantees of community rights, individual liberty, organizations of the poor, and freedom of markets can lead to poverty eradication with the poor setting their own agenda of development, charting their own destiny, and choosing their own leaders.
In particular, there is a story out of Africa that we choose to dwell on today. Why? For the very simple reason that our own political leaders need to learn lessons from it. Namely, just how to treat the poor as subjects of development capable of contributing to economic growth with human development and equity by respecting their aspirations, traditions and way of life. Further, reading the manifestos of the national parties one can not help feeling that in most of our leaders lurks a latent Nyerere, the failed dreamer of socialism through radical social engineering.
President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, a former school teacher, came to power in 1961. He ruled a one-party state for nearly 30 years. In 1970, in the first elections ever, he won 99% of the votes. In the elections of 1975 and 1980 he won 93%. In 1985 he quit office admitting of setbacks; but continued as Chairman of his Revolutionary Party till1990.
It is said that he was a man that wished to run while others walked development. He believed that development was a race against time, against the population explosion and against poverty. He was full of cataclysmic thinking borne out of his adherence to the Malthusian theory of the population bomb. So was much of the development literature of the 1960s and 1970s. He was obsessed with the thought of an impending food scarcity for the projected 75 million Tanzanians by 2001.
And so he and his development partners looked for a new seed, new fertilizer, new technology, and new institutions. In fact, they looked upon the culture of the developing societies as a constraint, or as a sheer hindrance worthy of neglect (to those who were disinclined to be politically incorrect). And in being so engaged they assaulted the history and traditions of these developing nations, especially the indigenous peoples.
And the West lapped up his theory of African socialism as they too were in a race against time from environmental disasters, refugee invasions and the march of communism. They forget that Tanzania, with a population of only 15 million in 1961, was about the size of Western Europe and had 120 distinct ethnic groups and 200 languages. They put their own faith behind Nyerere’s devout Christianity, his belief in what the state can do for people’s welfare even as he distrusted private initiative and free enterprise like much of the world’s leaders then did to a greater or larger degree.
At a period in development history when the likes of Suharto, Pinochet, and Idi Amin were on the horizon it is no wonder that the modest, austere, uncorrupted and intellectually gifted Nyerere had many world leaders calling on him for advice in such personalities as Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Chou En-Lai and Robert McNamara to name a few.
His vision for a Great Society led by Big Government and the Welfare State just caught on like fire as everybody, including the American President Lyndon Johnson had similar visions for his own country with its deprived black people.
Nyerere truly mesmerized the world with his strategy of self-reliance, import substitution and the commanding heights of the economy’ that he borrowed from Jawaharlal Nehru, a Fabian socialist much admired by him.
In the urban sector he was not content with the export of cash crops like cotton, coffee and sisal. He nationalized urban land, banks, big commercial farms and many industries as well as mineral assets.
In the countryside his dream of ujamaa or “familyhood” was founded on communal living, equality and austerity, especially by public servants. His ‘new model of rural development’ subscribed to communal property and the individual’s duty to work on it. His 1973 programme of “villagization” sought to, forcibly, bring into clusters the peasantry and pastoral people so that they could be ‘easily’ provided the basics of life like health, education, water, and sanitation. One recalls Prime Minister Tulsi Giri having similar ideas in the early 1970s as a follow up to King Mahendra’s ‘Back to the Village’ national campaign of the late 1960s (as if urbanization was really a problem in Nepal).
When the poor lived on millet and corn he opted for wheat, as aid was readily available from Canada, the world’s greatest wheat grower. So was multi-million dollars to erect a modern bakery as a state monopoly that resulted, firstly, in the closure of the local charcoal bakeries and, then, in the closure of the modern bakery itself as losses overtook the original cost of its establishment (already costing 50% more than those available through untied aid).
His grand legacy is a Tanzania that is classified as a least developed country, a national debt that is four times the national GDP and a bankrupted economy.
A school teacher who once dreamed of universal primary education for all has a legacy where over 50% do not attend school even today.
The current government now spends four times the amount to repay debts than on primary education. Where people had no choice over either development goals or indeed choices over means to their future goals being bound by the stark reality of one-party central planning. The first free multi-party elections was held in 1995, which the main opposition groups boycotted. Julius Nyerere died in 1999 having lived to see most of his policies undone before his eyes.
Rana is with Institute of Development Studies