Growing up – freedom or obligation?

Reading the many stories of locally-led development shared through the blog event Day Without Dignity 2012 – Local Champions was fascinating. Some of the posts told stories of local champions; others talked of how their perspectives had been changed when they sought out local knowledge or learned from local people.

Many times, it seems, the deepest differences in our thinking are not talked about because we each assume that others see the world the same way we do. These are, in effect, our ‘built-in’ lenses, the ones we don’t realize we have. One of those differences, I believe, is the idea about obligations to family when we reach adulthood – about the extent to which we have ‘free will’ to pursue our own destinies as adults.

I remember exactly when this difference became clear to me. I was doing research in Brčko District in northern Bosnia, where local people have created a governance structure that reflects and respects all ethnicities. I was trying to understand how the district’s financing worked initially, and I was talking with a distinguished gentleman who had been involved in that process.

Trying to indicate that I had understood what he had said, I said ‘so it is like what happens when a person becomes an adult and thus independent from their family because they are earning their own money’. I remember the look of profound shock on his face as he explained to me that on reaching adulthood, a person becomes able to contribute to their family’s welfare through their earnings.

A cultural divide
Thus did I encounter what seems to be a fairly large cultural divide between North America and much of the rest of the world. I grew up in North America with the idea that when I became an adult, I might go somewhere else and work and eventually create my own family far away from my original family home. My parents’ obligations to me, in many ways, ended when I became an adult. Similarly, I did not expect my children to support me in old age.

In many other parts of the world, however, reaching adulthood means one is now able to contribute materially to one’s family’s wellbeing. In fact, reaching adulthood means taking on a whole set of responsibilities for one’s family – sometimes in effect becoming, at least economically, a parent to one’s own parents. ‘Free will’ for the individual, in that sense, is a foreign concept.

In many cultures, a young man cannot marry until he is able to support his parents and siblings as well as a wife. In many cultures, a young man’s earnings go into a family ‘pot’ that is allocated by the senior male in the family. But in North America, the idea of getting a job is so that you have your ‘own money’ that you can spend as you wish.

A brilliant book by Patrick Chabal, called Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, explores some of these differences in cultural understandings and their implications as they apply to Africa. He suggests that one of the western challenges in analyzing African politics is that we see through a filter that is created by our own assumptions about how societies, economies and political systems work – that we see individuals as ‘free agents’ and in fact, that we think such ‘free agency’ is a key part of being modern. His book explores what the ‘politics of being’ means in an African context, and as I read it, that picture is much closer to the one held by the aboriginal peoples of North America than to the rest of the continent’s inhabitants. It is a picture that is rooted in place, in family, and in obligation.

Polycropping vs monocropping
Another equally fascinating book, entitled Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott, looks at how the western idea of a state has developed and why so many projects intended to better the human condition have failed. He argues, in essence, that we create a ‘map’ that reduces the complexity of societies and then develop projects and approaches that rely on that artificially simple understanding. He provides a diverse variety of examples.

One involves the story of what happened when colonial agricultural specialists first encountered indigenous farming in West Africa. Local people were planting different crops in the same field simultaneously (now known as ‘polycropping’), which in that environment is exceptionally efficient. But those fields seemed sloppy and disorderly to the specialists, who considered ‘monocropping’  to be ‘modern’ – with often disastrous effects on crop yields and soil conservation. Polyculture, on the other hand, was perfectly suited to the local climate and local cultural and family practices.

This story illustrates why these kinds of assumptions matter so much. Projects often are designed from within our view of how the world works. The story about monocropping and polycropping is not that far removed from what many see when looking at ‘traditional’ societies in conflict. We assume that conflict has wiped the slate clean so that there is no local governance left in villages, and we start out to rebuild governance. In doing so, we are often more focused on the individual as a free agent than we are on the family as the unit around which society is organized.

‘Traditional’ societies may seem as messy and disorderly to western eyes as those West African gardens looked to colonial Britons, Obligation to others, and commitment to one’s family or other social unit, may be seen as inviting corruption, rather than being the normal way in which society works. Better to spend some time in those gardens first, asking people to explain why specific crops are grown and why they are planted together in specific ways, before trying to redesign their farming practices.

More reading:
Chabal, Patrick (2009). Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling. Zed Books: London and New York.

Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.


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