By Sérgio Calundungo (Angola)
Angolan academic and activist with studies in development and international aid/cooperation. He is, above all, an Africanist and speaks out from this perspective. Founder of the Angola Social Observatory, former director of ADRA, one of the largest social organizations in his country. He is as sharp as he is irreverent, with in-depth knowledge of the role that NGOs should play.
Carlos Lopes the Guinean economist who since 2018 is the African Union High Representative for negotiations with Europe, in one of his passages through Luanda, at the invitation of ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) used the metaphor of the Big Five, to characterize the behaviour of African leaders.
It was more than twenty years ago that I heard him talk about the Big Five, and since then, whenever I can, I have used this narrative, logically adapted by me to describe the way I see and feel the behaviour of the various international development agencies. I have used this narrative many times and, incredible as it may seem, each time I feel that it resembles more and more the reality of the times in which we live.
Anyone who is aware of African fauna, especially in the southern region of our continent, where my country (Angola) is located, among many others, will know that one of the attractions that tourists can see is the Big Five, that is, the biggest animals of many countries in the region. So much so that the best way I have to tell you how I view international development is by drawing a parallel with the Big Five.
Of these animals, the first I would like to highlight are «elephants»; in the world of international development we have many actors, recognized or not, who have historically behaved and still today behave like elephants. In the narrative of many African peoples, elephants represent strength, they transmit the idea that we must walk slowly but firmly, and there are even people who associate them with the idea of calm, stability and persistence. But just like elephants, these actors and development agencies have a big problem: they are very slow in a world that is changing at «cruising speed». I would even say that they are resistant to the changes required, which ends up compromising the effectiveness and efficiency of the aid they propose to offer.
In contrast to the actors and agencies that resemble elephants, we have the «giraffes», elegant, tall, showy animals. As a parallel to the world of the development community, they resemble the agencies and actors that have chosen to adopt or are increasingly adopting a modern discourse, which is presented to us as new approaches to the challenges of international development and the new ways of working. It is these institutions, the «giraffes», that claim to work only and solely with “the right approach», «gender mainstreaming», MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), and all the modern jargon widely used in international development. They give the idea that they are modern institutions, with a well elaborated rhetoric, but in the end, for the people who should benefit from their support, they are nothing more than vain institutions, and like giraffes and unlike elephants, they never have their feet on the ground. They always have their heads in the air in search of new theories and visions that do not fit the realities in which they operate.
We also have the agencies and actors that behave like «rhinos». These animals not only convey the idea that they are strong, defenders of their own and their territory. They are also very corporatist, unwilling to form alliances, however strategic these may be. The institutions that behave this way are ultimately concerned only and exclusively with their projects, their beneficiaries, their audience or their territory. The rest matters little if it is not part of what they consider to be their own.
In contrast to institutions that behave like rhinoceroses, we have development agencies and actors whose attitude, behaviour and practices resemble «buffaloes». Those who know these animals know that they always walk in herds, giving the idea that they are always united and that they are a cohesive group, but we know that when faced with any danger, the herd easily breaks up, each one tries to escape to its own side. They are incapable of fighting and resisting in a united way, they opt for a clear strategy of «every man for himself».
«Finally we have the «lions», curiously an animal that enjoys a certain prestige and respect in Western narratives. The lion is seen as a symbol of bravery, courage and audacity, and commands respect and fear, it is not by chance that it is a very present symbol in institutions, on coats of arms etc… But the alternative narrative I heard and what I was given to understand, is that lions are very lazy. They only go hunting when they are hungry, because they spend the rest of the day sleeping in the shade of a leafy tree… They also have a big problem, they have no gender perspective, because according to what people say, it is usually the lioness who is responsible for hunting and taking care of the cubs!”
So, after all these years, this is the image that I have of many international development actors and agencies. Of course, it is not a comfortable vision for those people who, like me, have dedicated years to this sector, but never had the courage to develop in themselves a critical spirit in relation to the things we did well, the things we did badly, the things we did less well and the things that can and could be improved, but this is not what worries me most, what worries me most is undoubtedly what I am going to say next: just like in a nature reserve or park, if we want to see these animals, we are more likely to find them if we go at a certain time (always the same regardless of the animal!), in a certain place, which is first thing in the morning, by the river, where they normally go to drink water and enjoy the first rays of the sun. With the actors in the development community, it is the same when submitting projects or funding opportunities for their actions, only there is one problem, they never or rarely go together as a single front!As an African and Angolan, I have always been fascinated by stories, and these have always been a powerful pedagogical tool for transmitting knowledge. I hope that this short narrative will partly convey to you one of the many ideas I have in relation to the world of the international development community, a world that I embraced early on and with which I identify, but which does not mean that I stop being critical of its contradictions, of which there are many.