UTOPIAN THINKING is not always seen as desirable. In fact, the term conjures up an image of being out of touch with reality. But a more positive interpretation sees it as ideas and ideals that guide action towards a better world or society. Faced with acute pressures to realise human rights and improve the quality of life, reflecting on the ideas and values that underpin our policies, programmes and activities may seem a luxury we can ill afford ourselves. Furthermore, in the midst of the complexity of socio-political and institutional change it is appealing to opt for approaches that create some semblance of order, stability and predictability. The recent Isandla Institute conference on 'The Developmental Local State: Lessons from Theory and Practice', funded by the CWCI Fund, reflected on some of these tensions. A key realisation was that whilst core values underpinning the original notion of developmental local government are still valid, the array of values has expanded and our understanding of what these values mean has deepened. Moreover, holding the tension between 'imagining' and 'doing' requires an appreciation of the inherently political nature of development. Without this, we are rightfully accused of being overtly optimistic and unrealistic.
Colin Marx attended the conference and shares his reflections in Thought Matters. Colin recently submitted his PhD thesis at the Open University in London and is an Associate of Isandla Institute.
Recognising complexity and power in realising developmental local government
By Colin Marx
I RECENTLY ATTENDED the conference 'The Developmental Local State: Lessons from Theory and Practice' organised by Isandla Institute. Having been out of the country for the past five years, what was immediately striking is that, five years later, very similar issues are being discussed. These issues include planning, service delivery, democracy, participation, institutional design, finance, city strategies/visions, social development and local economic development. However, what differed from five years ago was a new recognition of the complexity of the issues. There appeared to be a willingness to question how we 'think' (i.e. how issues are framed) rather than how we 'do'. Perhaps this was in the nature of the conference and the participants it attracted, but it seemed to be a broader, more widely felt recognition. This also relates to who the 'we' are and it seemed that there was a recognition that who 'we' are, needs to be more collaborative and co-operative, too. The recognition of complexity and differentiation is generating a more embracing approach to local government.
Perhaps the reflective, more critical, voices have always been around, but it seemed that there was more intellectual space to explore and willingness to listen to different perspectives. And, while there has always been collaboration between different departments in the local state, there seemed to be a sense that practitioners no longer needed to maintain fixed departmental boundaries and identities. What was emerging was a realisation that it is good for boundaries between departments to be porous and that this does not lead to a loss of power or capacity.
One of the differences in the past was that the critical voices were generally harnessed into political agendas to replace one local government initiative/programme with another. For practitioners and politicians this lead to a wariness of criticism and the possible motives that lay behind it. Now there seems to be an acknowledgement that criticism can be more constructive and can be engaged with more positively. From the perspective of those reflecting on practice, there also appears to be the realisation that critiques can find expression in different ways and at different times. Perhaps a good number of people have, by now, worked at different levels of government and can appreciate the nature of the challenges from different perspectives.
In this, I am reflecting largely on the general discussions provoked by the presentations rather than the presentations alone, because I understood the presentations to be deliberately framed in a reflective vein. As far as the presentations were concerned, it was interesting that almost all made reference back to policy and legal frameworks - the Constitution, the White Paper and so forth. It was almost as if these were considered more stable or coherent, as if these could be interpreted in only one way. This seemed to contrast with 'practice' which was too unstable, too differentiated and too complex to act as a reference point (despite the embracing of complexity noted earlier). In this line of thinking, presenters often made references to theory that offered penetrating new insights. The progression was: this is the theory, this is the practice - but it was rare for anybody to then come back to claim the implications for theory. This is a pity because some really interesting theoretical points were made.
There are many, many theoretical insights that emerged. An important overall point that struck me was that the research all demonstrates that the exercise of power is not co-extensive with local government boundaries. This comes into view when the idea of 'development-as-a-lack of x, y, z...' is drawn upon to inform development. Somehow, I think we have equated development as 'filling' what (poor) people 'lack'. The 'lack' of something is equated with a blank space which the development project is designed to fill. This is reinforced by the idea that local government's power is co-extensive with its jurisdictional boundaries. The local state should be able to achieve development evenly and we are surprised when it cannot. But, of course, a lack of services does not mean a blank slate that can be simply be filled by 'development'. Power to distribute resources is highly unevenly distributed, racially framed, fragmented and multiple. A 'developmental local state' that is framed in ignorance of the uneven operation of different forms of power is not going to be able to achieve much development - either physically or in the redistribution of resources/assets/ power/decision-making.
It was surprising that the big issues that so dominated the agenda in the late 1990s - gender, race, class - hardly featured this time around. I am interested that no one was discussing these things rather than suggesting that this was a gap in the project. Also, not one presenter in the sessions I attended mentioned HIV - possibly the biggest challenge facing local government. I am sure HIV will feature somewhere in the book, but it was interesting that it was not presented. There also seemed to be little desire to celebrate/comment on the success of re-orienting the historically racially divided bureaucracy. Similarly, there was little on the redistributive impact of policies and programmes. It is interesting that the presenters did not think it interesting to the audience to talk about these issues. What is perceived as interesting to present are issues related to 'power', 'conflict', and 'participation' rather than 'procurement', 'rates and property taxes', 'information systems' - even though the latter issues are equally important.