Be rich in obligations (by Paolo Brunello)

I’m doing my PhD research here in Burundi right now, using net-map as my favourite investigation method.

I’m interested in understanding the complex relational dynamics occuring in a bilateral cooperation project in which I was directly involved with a managing role.
While running a net-map interview with one very experienced, highly placed French project manager, who lived and worked in international development in Burundi for 28 years and is married to a Burundian, I was struck by one of his comments. I asked: “What is the most important gain this Burundian ministry officer wants to get out this project?” He answered: “He wants to become richer in obligations.” At first I didn’t really get what he was meaning and I was clearly puzzled, so he continued: “You see, the real currency here is not the Burundian Franc, it’s finer than that. Sure, money is important to them, but what really counts is the favours someone can do and consequently the credits that these constitute for the future. That is to be powerful: to know that you have plenty of people that owe you something and that you can draw on that “bank” when you need.” No big news – you may say – this is true everywhere, not just in Burundi! Yes indeed, I may agree, and yet it was an eye opener for me, something I hadn’t really understood that clearly in my 5 years living here. In fact I hadn’t realised the adaptive potential of such strategy that, in my view, is much more than solidarity. Obligations do not expire and in a world where everything is still quite uncertain and precarious, and even more so after 15 years long ethnic war has quaked all landmarks, where the right of law is not assured and a minister today can become a taxi driver tomorrow, you may well prefer to invest time and effort in strenghtening your social relationships, so that they can be loaded with obligations, like savoury Parma hams hanging in an Italian Delicatessen, seasoning for the right moment to pick them down. This is their priority – increasing resilience through social bonds – rather than implementing project activities timely, according to the blueprint, as we expats expect. Call me naïve, I hadn’t gotten it, and I suspect many other development agents haven’t either, as the mainstream tendency is to focus on the content of what is done or has to be done and to neglect the importance of the impalbable web of social networks (which has little to do with the social networks on the web ;-).

One Response

  1. Hi Paolo,
    Great observation. Reminds me of my Ghanaian friend in his thirties who was jobless and living in the typical up and down of short term opportunities. Once we met an old friend of his and he told me that when they were kids (during the famine) my friend’s father had good ties to the government, so he was wealthier and shared his food at school with the other guy. Now his friend has made a career for himself and when my friend was really strapped for money, he could always go there, because it was clear that this old friend still owed him…

    Integrating this insight into development project design is a really interesting thought. I’d love to discuss that with you (and a group of others involved in the field): If we didn’t know what development projects are supposed to look like and didn’t know anything about bureaucratic limitations and donor mind-sets etc. and the only guideline was to develop a project that works in a system where becoming rich in obligations is the main driver, what kind of intervention would we design?

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