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Sustainable development, indigenous lifestyles, micro-credit and non-governmental organisations look great in text books and policy documents, but what do these concepts mean to the people on the receiving end in Africa, Asia and Latin America? LM reporters scratch away some of the gloss

Global reality gaps

Kathleen Richardson found nothing romantic about life with the Bri Bri Indians of the Talamanca Reserves, Costa Rica

Endogenous indigenism?

Christopher Columbus, once a great hero in Latin America, is now demonised as the bringer of chaos and destruction. In place of the conquistador heroes are 'indigenous' heroes like Pablu Presbere in Costa Rica or Santos Marka Tula of Bolivia. In the West, the rights of indigenous people seem to be championed by every fashion-conscious celebrity. I went to Costa Rica in Central America to sample some indigenous culture for myself.

The Bri Bri Indians of Costa Rica live out in the Talamanca Reserves. The way to get there on public transport is via two decrepit US school buses. Discarded, illegal vehicles are often sold south of the border, where people would rather take their chances with a dangerous bus than walk miles from village to village. In contrast to the racial 'melting pot' I had just left behind in the capital, San Jose, the passengers were all indigenous people, their faces and bodies covered in parasitic scars from a mosquito bite called Papalamoyo. This bite is fatal if not treated immediately, but it is difficult to treat, as many of the villages are miles from any clinic and the bus service is unreliable and expensive. As the vehicle rattled towards the interior, the spine-jolting pain of wheels crashing on the rocky roads knocked the passengers in all directions. Nobody complained because, as they explained, what could they do?

I lived with an indigenous family for two months. Luckily, their house had electricity and a basic, if unreliable, supply of running water. Most people washed in the river; supporters of indigenous culture applaud them for maintaining a traditional lifestyle. Most of the house roofs are made of vines. Insects live and nest in them, frequently falling out onto whatever or whoever is below. These roofs, made with traditional materials, are held-up as another example of indigenous culture. Nobody mentions the bugs.

Wherever you look in a place like the Talamanca Reserve, there is a glaring contrast between the romantic image of indigenism I was familiar with from home and indigenism the reality. Indians live in the poorest parts of Latin America. There are around 30 000 indigenous people in Costa Rica, just one per cent of the total population. They live in eight 'reserves', areas of land that the government demarcated in the late 1970s, located in some of the harshest regions of Costa Rica. Schools, roads, transportation and access to running water are either badly managed or non-existent.

It is hard to imagine anybody wishing to celebrate the living conditions in the reserves. Yet a new bill under discussion in Costa Rica shows how far official policy is now geared around the preservation of these 'autonomous' conditions.

The Consulta Nacional del Proyecto de Ley para el Desarrollo Autonomo de los Pueblos Indigenous (National Consultation on the Law for the Autonomous Development of the Indigenous People) relates to all features of indigenous life. It proposes a new indigenous council at the national and local level, the promotion of indigenous culture and medicine, sustainable development and the protection of natural resources. Previous governments passed laws to integrate indigenous people into society. Now the emphasis is on preserving the indigenous way of life.

But why? Not because the preservation of indigenous cultures benefits the communities, or even the Costa Rican government. Instead, indigenism is being promoted to suit the agenda of the most powerful groups in Latin American society: Western donor countries and the aid organisations which they fund.

The Netherlands determines affairs in parts of Costa Rica as much as the actual government, and is one of the biggest financiers of indigenous projects. As in many Third World countries, these are now managed not by the Costa Rican authorities, but by Western-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Namasol, an NGO based in the Talamanca's main village Suretka, is typical of the organisations now running the show. It is supposed to be an indigenous NGO. But Namasol is funded directly by the Dutch Embassy, and has links with a number of other influential international institutions. It was a little strange to listen to Namasol workers talk about the wonders of indigenous culture while sitting in their air-conditioned office with a fax machine on the desk and two modern trucks parked outside.

Namasol's work is organised around various themes - environmentalism, rights, cultural revival, encouraging indigenous women's participation: in fact, all the key issues that you would find on a fashionable political agenda in the Netherlands, the USA or Britain. While in the Talamanca I worked with Namasol on a project investigating indigenous rights, and realised how much power the internationally-funded 'indigenous' projects really wield.

Namasol has acted as an intermediary between the Costa Rican government and the indigenous people of the Talamanca in the National Consultation on the Law for the Autonomous Development of the Indigenous People. Namasol played a central part in the consultations organised throughout the indigenous reserves, acting as the official mediator between the people, the government, the university, NGOs and international agencies. Namasol speaks as the voice of the indigenous community in the development of national policy. But from where does it derive its legitimacy? Not from the indigenous people themselves, who played no role in electing this NGO to a position of power. Not from the Costa Rican government, either. A few yards from the Namasol office is the only officially funded Costa Rican indigenous organisation, CONAI (Comision Nacional de Asuntos Indigenas). CONAI was set up in the 1970s with a mandate to ensure the integration of indigenous people via health, education and 'help with property'. Today, because of its associations with government, CONAI is a discredited institution due to be scrapped under a new bill.

In fact Namasol seems to derive its authority from the Dutch Embassy which funds it. So when NGOs like Namasol demand that indigenous people want cultural autonomy, a revival of traditions and sustainable development, whose concerns are they expressing?

Reinaldo Gonzalez Jefe of Namasol complained to me that 'in the schools the children are taught about things like elephants and planes. There are no elephants here only in Africa, and they do not know a plane'. He thinks 'indigenous education should be set in its context', meaning that children should restrict their knowledge to aspects of indigenous life like the river, things 'which they know and are important to them'.

This is the direction which indigenous NGOs want to take in Costa Rica. Whatever education is available to those in more developed regions, the new generation of indigenous Costa Ricans will be starved of the kind of knowledge that allows them to broaden their horizons. Gonzalez himself has benefited from access to a world beyond the reserves: in his family house there were two televisions and a stereo. But in the name of 'indigenism' these things could be denied to Costa Rica's poorest communities.

Other officials I talked to lived one life themselves and preached the virtues of another life for the indigenous communities. Erik Van der Sleen, Head of the Education Department at the Dutch Embassy in San Jose, explained to me that 'we used to think that people in Latin America wanted development, but they don't want development like we have it. They want to be able to choose for themselves, they want a non-material development'. Of course Van der Sleen rarely relied on public transport when travelling in Costa Rica, nor did he travel much on the roads ('I always catch planes').

What research there is into the views of indigenous groups themselves is often selective and overlaid with prejudices. I met two law students from a prestigious US university who were making a documentary about indigenous people and their reactions to mining in the Talamanca. Did any of the indigenous people agree with the mining? 'Yes', one student replied, 'but we didn't interview them'. These two men seemed to have no shame at their selective interpretation of the facts. They simply assumed that those who supported mining had been bought off by the mining companies. Like many others, they had come to the Talamanca to prove their own assumptions about indigenous people.

My own research gave a very different idea of what indigenous people want. In my interviews with indigenous people in the Talamanca reserves, many articulated a desire for modernisation, including better roads, a decent transportation system, clean water, more and better schools and clinics. Namasol usually came last in people's list of priorities. There was a big gap between the powerful NGO and the people it purports to represent. The resources the people want and need were often not those demanded by Namasol or supported by its benefactor, the Dutch government.

In order to get the modern goods they are denied, the inhabitants of the Talamanca reserves simply use their indigenous status to barter for support and resources. A colleague of mine who studied traditional diet in a nearby village of Coroma, commented that the family never ate traditional food and bought everything from the local shop. A few days later I was watching a programme made for Japanese television, and saw the same family showing how indigenous people live in the Talamanca complete with traditional diet and songs - which my colleague never heard in all the time she spent there. Yet these fraudulent TV images of indigenism in Central America are the stuff policy is made of, while the reality of everyday life in the reserves is something only the romanticised indigenous groups are forced to put up with.

Talamanca's 'indigenous' bank isn't doing much for these children, Costa Rica

Micro-credit schemes may be popular with British development agencies, but how much can they help the poor in Africa? Bruno Waterfield reports from Ghana

'God's gift' to Ghana?

Not so long ago, development projects viewed industrialisation and the modernisation of agriculture as the way to raise living standards in undeveloped areas like Northern Ghana. Today, such large-scale development projects are deeply unfashionable. When I visited the offices of Action Aid, a British-based non-governmental organisation working in the Tamale region, project co-ordinator Ismail Lansah told me that it was better to help a farmer get a bullock plough or some chickens (their manure can be used as fertiliser) than for him to get into debt with tractors and chemical fertilisers.

The notion that gradual, small-scale development is the best way to help the poor of Northern Ghana is the basis for a micro-credit scheme piloted by Action Aid in the region. By last summer the scheme involved 510 people organised in 17 groups of roughly 30 members. Unlike banks, micro-credit schemes do not demand collateral: the 'collateral' is group membership. The groups meet every six days, administering repayments and deciding who gets what loan.

All group members must save 500 cedi (roughly 15p at August 1997 prices) per week as well as paying back their loan, which varies between 50 000-200 000 cedi (£15-£60). Everybody in the group receives a loan which is charged at commercial interest rates - 40+ per cent a year. Action Aid insists on this, because as Ishmail put it, 'for the scheme to be sustainable people must face realities'. The surplus generated by the credit scheme goes back into a 'kitty', to fund more loans. Most loans are used to buy utensils to process corn, cigarettes and matches for trade, food to process for trade, or tools for primary producers.

The philosophy behind micro-credit appears sensible. To survive, the poor rely on subsistence farming and small-scale trading, which just about sustains them but no more than that. With the help of a small loan, the argument goes, they can invest to make a small but significant increase in their income.

When I visited the Wumpani (God's Gift) Women's Group, one of Action Aid's micro-credit projects in Ward E, an urban area of Tamale, I began to have my doubts. Micro-credit seems to bring only the most marginal improvement in the income of its debtors, but in order to gain this improvement those involved in the project have to hand over what little independence they have to the supervision of a Western-based NGO.

Ward E was basically a shanty town - mud huts, open sewers and no evidence of electricity. Even though we were an hour late, the women involved in the project were waiting for us in a 'meeting hall', a large round hut with wooden pillars holding up the roof. The group had been going since October 1996 and had been about to disband when Action Aid's intervention saved it. None of the women spoke English, which was a sign of Northern Ghana's under-development compared with the rest of the country. But the group's secretary was a man, and he did speak English. He showed me the accounts.

The total assets held by the group were 615 892 cedi (£186) with, by my calculation, somewhere between another one and two million cedi (£300-£600) given out in loans. There were 30 women in the group. Of the 18 we met, 4 traded produce direct from farmers, 13 processed produce to sell - many made groundnut oil, some traded in cooked fish - and one traded in a processed commodity, soap. Had the scheme made them better off?

Fati, a trader in fried fish, said her loan had enabled her to buy cooking utensils and more stock. She now spent more time trading and the loan had increased her weekly income to some 5000 cedi (£1.50). She had not yet started to pay back her loan. Even in Ghana, 5000 cedi is not a good weekly wage: income per head is supposed to be more like £250 a year, roughly £5 a week. After paying her dues to the group and loan repayments, Fati would be left with an income of about £1 a week. There has been a marginal improvement in her circumstances. But her living standards are essentially the same as they were before the loan, with little prospect of nearing even Ghanaian averages.

Where Fati's life has changed is that she must now account for herself to a group overseen by a British-based NGO. This NGO does not only demand repayment: it demands that its debtors behave in a certain way. Just before the women sang us a traditional song to wish us well before leaving the project, I looked at the file holding the minutes of the group's meetings. They were in English. They could not be read, let alone understood, by any of the women to which the group is supposed to belong.

One of the early sets of minutes laid out the 'values' of the group: 'Respect each other's views. No shouting. Do not underestimate illiterate members. Remember this is group work. You have to be tolerant and be patient and accommodate issues, we should not impose our views on others.' I wondered where those dinner party values originated from; surely not from the African women who have to live by them, but from the etiquette of British-based charities.

Before I visited the Wumpani Women's Group, Ismail told me that Ghanaian women had practical skills that no university could teach. He told me a story about how, during a financial scandal of the 1970s, banknotes became temporarily worthless in Ghana. A white collar type like Ismail had to go and borrow money from a woman selling kerosene who was so poor that she only dealt in coins, which were still recognised as currency. According to Ismail, the moral of this parable is that 'there is more wisdom in a woman who can feed her family on several hundred cedi per day than a university educated man'.

Action Aid's micro-credit schemes take this humbling dictum as their starting point. But in my reading, Ismail's story confirmed how little Action Aid thinks it is possible to raise the living standards of Tamale's poor, and how short it is selling the men and women in its credit schemes. It may indeed take wisdom to feed a family on a few pence a day, but university-educated white-collar workers with banknotes have the opportunity of a life beyond mere survival. Maybe those who preach the virtues of sustainable development should join the Wumpani Women's Group credit scheme, and then ask themselves if this really is the best the Ghanaian poor can hope for.

Bruno Waterfield spent a month in Ghana working with a charity. These are his personal views

'Empowered', but still impoverished: the Wumpani Women's Group in Ward E, Northern Ghana

Orders from above

by Para Teare

Message from: Whitley Bay, Newcastle

Port received: Ekumfi-Atakwa, Southern Ghana

Communicator: Professor John Knapton (alias Nana Odapagyan Ekumfi the First )

Content of message: 'I Nana Odapagyan Ekumfi the First, hereby forbid the marrying of any girl, until her education is completed.'

Kwesi Andam, a professor of engineering in Ghana, drives into the village of Ekumfi-Atakwa. As everybody runs out to meet him he delivers their chief's orders: that girls in this village can no longer marry until their education is completed. Says who? A white, middle-aged man living 3500 miles away.

With the click of a mouse, professor John Knapton of Newcastle University can lay down the law to 520 people in Ekumfi-Atakwa. The villagers have made him an honorary chief, and as he told me, 'you do not question the chief. I could order heads to be cut off if people disobey my ruling'. He was smiling, but it was technically true. My mind flashed back to what my African friend from Sierra Leone once said to me: 'Chiefs are chosen by the people, thus becoming the people's God.'

Knapton's extraordinary powers derive from the fact that, 20 years ago, he taught Kwesi Andam, a student from Ekumfi-Atakwa. He kept in touch with Kwesi, now a professor in Accra, and helped him collect money to build a library and donate clockwork radios to each home in the village. In a community of mud huts built on a hill, without running water or electricity, the people of Ekumfi-Atakwa were sufficiently grateful for his efforts to make professor John Knapton an honorary chief.

In a community where basic resources are obviously so precious, how does Knapton think that outlawing a traditional cultural practice can make a difference to the quality of people's lives? Knapton, after all, admits that resources are needed for the people of Ekumfi-Atakwa to live in decency and comfort. 'Nearly all the young people want to escape from this village. Everyone wants to be like Kwesi. They all want to own a car.' He and Kwesi are currently raising a quarter of a million pounds to build a secondary school. This, he argues, will provide education for all the children in Ekumfi-Atakwa, and education is the key to escaping from poverty.

But what seems to rankle with John Knapton is that, whether there is a school for them or not, girls are usually married off young. Imposing a rule that girls and boys should be educated equally is effortless and a lot cheaper than providing resources. When villagers oppose this attack on their way of life, Knapton dismisses them as men who are now deprived of having sex with young girls. As he says, anybody who opposes can raise the issue at the District Council, and the villagers can even deselect him next year: although Knapton knows that this never happens.

Professor Knapton thinks his ruling will further girls' education, and who can deny that this is a laudable goal? I can. I think this intervention into Ekumfi-Atakwa is less about making a tangible improvement to these people's lives than it is about making himself feel good. It is one thing to provide resources to build a school, and quite another to impose moral codes upon a country that is not your own.

What right does John Knapton have to tell these people at what age they can get married? If Nana Odapagyan Ekumfi the First really wants to do something for 'his' people, shouldn't he be challenging the age-old prejudice that villagers in the Third World should always do as the white man says?

Para Teare is coordinator of Genderwatch

Nana Odapagyan Ekumfi the First (John Knapton)

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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