Why imposed foreign ideas don’t work

When you force a square peg into an object with a round hole you won’t succeed.

You damage both objects or one gets more damaged than the other. Similarly, when foreign projects or ideas, however altruistic or technically sound, are imposed especially quickly on different cultures, chances are they will not succeed and people in the receiving cultures might get hurt in the process. Foreign ideas such as indirect rule, modern birth control and structural adjustment programs that have been imposed on recipient populations have generally run into difficulties and caused suffering.

More often than not people hesitate to accept new ideas for rational reasons. For example, subsistence farmers are generally hesitant to replace old with new seeds for fear that if something goes wrong they might starve. Peasant farmers hesitate to sell their land and start business in towns for fear that business failure might spell disaster for the entrepreneur and his/her family. Poorly educated workers generally hesitate to look for another job especially during economic hard times because should they fail in the new job, they may not get another one or do so quickly. So they stick with what they have regardless of low pay and/or unsatisfactory working conditions.

The colonization of Africa would probably have lasted longer if it had been based on the principle of equity. Instead, by and large, it imposed white settlers in some countries at the expense of indigenous people, indirect rule in others and forced previously antagonistic ethnic groups into new administrative units such as districts. In many cases minority groups were preferred as indirect rule chiefs over majority ethnic groups. In some parts of Uganda indirect rule used pre-colonial minority authoritarian rulers that had recently colonized native or indigenous populations, stripped them of their properties and forced them to labor virtually for free for their new masters.

A combination of pre-colonial tribute, free labor on public works and chiefs’ properties, colonial taxes payable only in cash that were socially, culturally and economically destabilizing through forcing men to look for jobs in far away places, and church tithes fomented resistance to colonial rule and local chiefs. Additionally, children of chiefs were educated, got good jobs and incomes and consolidated their political positions at the expense of the subjugated majority populations. Because of connections made during the colonial period and accumulated wealth and influence, many descendants of indirect rule chiefs have continued to rule, exploit, marginalize and impoverish the majority native populations by authoritarian means or under the guise of representative democracy causing untold suffering and fomenting post-independence resistance and instability.

Some leaders have managed to re-establish pre-colonial exploitative and authoritarian arrangements. Neo-colonialists (old and new) rely on minority groups that are vulnerable and therefore easier to use as puppets thereby creating tensions between the privileged minority and exploited majority groups especially when the latter understands and begin to reclaim their inalienable rights. Developments in the great lakes region are a case in point.

The idea of birth control or family planning in Africa is good. The problem is that it was introduced so soon after independence and raised questions about the real motives especially when birth control became one of the conditions for international assistance by some donors. It was also wrongly assumed that once women get contraception services, fertility rates would drop immediately. Western supporters of birth control ignored the education level of women and dependence on their spouses as well as the crucial role of men in determining family size. They did not pay enough attention to side effects much less to religious, ethnic and cultural dimensions.

There is evidence of a direct relationship between population growth and poverty or subsistence economy. The poor or rural dwellers in general have more children than their rich or urban counterparts. There is also evidence that after much population loss due to war, epidemic or some other cause, the survivors produce more children than would have otherwise been the case.

Demographers and other family planning advisers who suggested alternative and gradual approaches, in addition to birth control facilities on a voluntary basis, including education of girls beyond primary level and empowerment of women economically, socially and politically were marginalized or not employed at all. There are some people who still want quick results and are pushing for contraception to reduce numbers even long after the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development shifted focus from numbers to persons.

The idea of stabilization and structural adjustment or the Washington Consensus is good. The problem was its ‘shock therapy’ version, which required comprehensive and simultaneous implementation of the entire package of measures to all adjusting countries that caused problems and resistance.

Economists and others who recommended gradualist and sequenced approaches either lost their jobs or were marginalized. In the process innocent people especially women and children who had nothing to do with the problems that the Washington Consensus was trying to solve paid a very heavy price. They have become poorer, hungrier, less healthy and educated, unemployed and restless forcing governments to spend limited resources on police, legal and prison services and some have become authoritarian to contain the potentially explosive situation.

Fortunately, important lessons are emerging at the international level and in the academia. They include rejection of one-size-fits-all, support for national policy space and recognition that in the end a foreign idea however altruistic and technically sound will not work without sufficient and genuine support from recipient populations.

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