Development from the perspective of indigenous worldviews.
Do aid policies and practices enhance the wellbeing of the populations they claim to assist? Development thinking is shifting from the basic needs and income-based approaches towards a more holistic view of development.
Happiness and spiritual wellbeing are increasingly being valued and interest towards indigenous worldviews grows while looking for alternative economic development models. The African Ubuntu and Latin American Buen Vivir cosmovisions see “development” differently: the primary objective is not to achieve “progress”, and there is no such thing as underdevelopment.
This article will present how spirituality has been viewed by different development theories, and discuss how the indigenous philosophies Ubuntu and Buen Vivir define wellbeing. The intention is to increase discussion about more culturally sensitive approaches in development cooperation through a deeper understanding of indigenous worldviews’ epistemological and cultural context.
Researchers and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are today reflecting the possibility that institutional arrangements proven efficient in highly industrialized Northern countries might not be suitable to other contexts.
African authors have criticized development cooperation for its ignorance of pluralism and lack of cultural awareness. Their main critique is that values such as individualism and liberalism are imported, and have degraded the traditional values of respect among people and communalism.
African cultures are group-oriented. The community holds an important position: the elderly are valued, and the young and those of working age are willing to be responsive to both their immediate and extended families’ needs.
Modern education, based on the liberal philosophy that rewards individuals and not groups, is distant to the kind of brother- and sisterhood that have their basis in African spirituality. The political, economic and social world that formed the traditional order of communal solidarity or belonging has since changed due to the spread of Western influence.
Authors such as Sophie Kotanyi and Brigitte Krings-Ney (2009), Pascah Mungwini (2011) and Ali A. Abdi (2013) argue that due to imported political and ideological influences such as colonialism, Christianity, and socialism there is less mutual respect between generations and between genders. Additionally, the recent increased availability of material goods in Africa has augmented inequalities.
Development cooperation has been a topic of critique and rethinking over the past fifteen years. The agenda of development has been broadened from mere economic development (tracked by gross domestic product, GDP, and per capita income) to human development, and wellbeing in its multiple dimensions: the UNDP Human Rights Index measures since the early 90s the combination of life expectancy, education, and economic development; and since 2012, the World Happiness Report suggests the measurement of “Eudaimonia – a sense of meaning and purpose in life”. Spirituality has been found to be a key factor to wellbeing, yet not always considered in practice.
The classic development theories such as the Modernization theory in the 1950s did not consider religion relevant – other than maybe as an obstacle to modernity. The concept of development looked much like the western societies from which the theorists came from.
Through modernization and rationalization, religion lost its authority. This view is called the Secularization thesis – or as Max Weber famously stated: “The disenchantment of the world”. In spite of its name, the statement applies only to two heavily secularized exceptions – one geographical and the other social: the geographical exception is western and northern Europe, and the social exception is the international intelligentsia. The rest of the contemporary world is anything but secularized.
Several studies have proven that spirituality, prayer, and education correlate positively with overall life satisfaction – particularly so among low-income populations. Higher income and corresponding consumption were not found to make people happier, implying that consumerism is inefficient at producing happiness.
How can this information be used in the context of development cooperation? We can approach the topic along the lines of Amartya Sen, the father of the Human Development and Capability Approach. Sen argues that development, as a process that expands people’s wellbeing, becomes a matter of promoting what people value doing or being. What is needed is a supportive social, political, and cultural environment, which recognizes the plurality of traditions and identities. For Sen, to deny pluralism can be a source of repression. A secular state has a moral duty to ensure equal treatment of religions: to provide the conditions for people to live in dignity and harmony with each other and nature, not simply modernization.
Similar to Sen, Arturo Escobar (one of the most influential figures behind the Post-development theory) classifies the current development tendencies as ideological exports – and with the deployment of norms and value judgments – as a form of cultural imperialism. Escobar argues that while some societies lack both resources and power relative to others, development cooperation should support locally tailored approaches. Local communities and traditions should be encouraged to address their own problems.
While Ubuntu (which means ’humanity’ in Zulu and Xhosa) comes from Africa and Buen Vivir (which means ’good living’ in Spanish) from Latin America, these two philosophies share many similarities. Both visions are based on the belief of a universal connection among humanity. This connection embraces the living, the dead, and the unborn, as well as the natural world. The basic principles of these two philosophies are harmony and humanity.
Buen Vivir, a social philosophy rooted in the indigenous worldview of the peoples in the Andes, emphasizes nature and indigenous spirituality. Buen Vivir is institutionalized in the constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009).
Many scholars (e.g. Ruttenberg 2013; Grugel & Riggirozzi 2011) have begun referring to Latin American contemporary economic, political and social context as a post-neoliberal era, associated with the region’s now majority leftist governments. Disappointed with rising income inequalities, elite-based politics, and the dollarization of Ecuador in 2000, indigenous-led social movements want to change the development model from a growth-oriented approach, which submits nature and human relations to profits – thus creating inequality and injustice – to a more holistic vision where prosperity is not based on material wellbeing.
Theorists and activists have suggested Buen Vivir as an alternative to development and neoliberalist principles. Benedetta Crimella and Margherita Giordano (2013) summarize it nicely: Living well is not about living better than others or better than in the past, but about living a full life.
Ubuntu is a complex life philosophy, based on the belief that all of humanity has a common origin and so belongs together. While Ubuntu has not been specifically named in African constitutions, Crimella and Giordano argue that its basic principles can be found in the constitution of South Africa for example.
This principle creates a common bond and destiny for humanity: “I am because you are, and you are, because we are.” The community is perceived as a holistic ensemble of humans who share the earth together with the spirits of ancestors. The Ubuntu philosophy is found across the continent, just with different names and nuances.
In Zimbabwe, Unhu or Vobwo indicates a strong sense of belonging together. In Botswana, Botho means humanity, in Tanzania Ujamaa means unity with countrymen as one extended family, and Harambee in Kenya signifies working together. In Mozambique a rich vocabulary in the local languages relates to sharing and connection between people. For example, Xitique is an informal credit system based on mutual trust, whereas Kurhimela/Xitoco, Tsima/Ntimo are agriculture work activities based on friendship.
Ubuntu’s key principles are collective worldview and spirituality. In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that the World Happines Report 2013 scored people of Sub-Saharan Africa more generous than anywhere else in the world. In the same report, only for the two traditional development indicators – GDP per capita and years of healthy life expectancy – Sub-Saharan Africa scored the lowest.
Islam and Christianity have influenced the indigenous spiritual practices of many African countries. This has created an enigma of dualism for practitioners: On one hand they may practice the African way of life while keeping Christian principles. On the other hand, those Africans who favor Christianity and reject the traditional philosophies see Christians as good people and traditional beliefs as ’obscurantist’.
Mozambique provides an example of how traditional practices, together with Christianity and Islam co-exist in a non-detrimental way. In Mozambique, it is common to stay connected with the traditional values as well as worship in churches or mosques. It is not atypical that the same person consults both the curandeiro (a Mozambican traditional healer) and a modern healthcare facility; while modern healthcare is often desirable for specific ailments, traditional healthcare and counseling offers explanations to the many mysteries related to illness and death.
According to the World Health Organization 80 per cent of the population in Africa uses traditional medicine. Traditional healing often views illness and healing from a holistic perspective, requiring attention both to the spiritual and physical aspects of a person.
Studies on religions and development cooperation are still at an early stage. More research is needed to measure the spiritual implications of development. Moreover, deeper understanding on the underpinning worldviews of the targeted communities as well as of those who aim to conduct development projects is needed.
According to Ubuntu and Buen Vivir, there is no such a thing as underdevelopment. Rather, the problem is social disharmony. To maintain harmony and equilibrium, Buen Vivir and Ubuntu favor conservatism, and societies are built on communities whose primary aim is not to achieve progress, but rather to establish harmonious relations.
Scholars largely agree that individual and community wellbeing go beyond materialistic and modernist conceptions. As development thinking is shifting from a growth-oriented approach to a more holistic vision where prosperity is not based on material wellbeing, indigenous cosmologies are increasingly seen as inspiring frameworks for alternative development models.
The author is a freelance writer focusing on social issues in Africa and the role of indigenous spirituality in development projects in Mozambique. The author is based in Maputo, Mozambique, and holds Master's degrees in European politics and economics.
Abdi, Ali A. (2013). Decolonizing Educational and Social Development Platforms in Africa. African and Asian Studies 12(1–2): 64–82.
Beek, Kurt Alan Ver (2000). Spirituality: a development taboo. Development in Practice 10(1): 31–43.
Berger, Peter (2009). Faith and Development. Society 46(1): 69–75.
Booth, David (2011). Aid effectiveness: bringing country ownership (and politics) back in. Working Paper 336. London: Overseas Development Institute.
Deneulin, Séverine & Carole Rakodi (2009). Religion and the Transformation of Development. World Development. University of Bath Opus Online Publications Store.
Deneulin, Séverine (2012). Justice and deliberation about the good life: The contribution of Latin American buen vivir social movements to the idea of justice. Working Paper no. 17. Bath Papers in International Development and Wellbeing. Bath, UK: The Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath.
Crimella, Benedetta & Margherita Giordano (2013). Indigenous Voices: Enriching Contaminations between Buen Vivir, Ubuntu and the Western World. Study paper in the Department of Economics, Roma Tre University, Rome.
Escobar, Arturo (1992). Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements. Third World and Post-Colonial Issues 31/32: 20–56.
Green, Edward C. (1996). Indigenous knowledge systems and health promotion in Mozambique, in Hans Normann, Ina Snyman & Morris Cohen (eds.): Indigenous Knowledge and Its Uses in Southern Africa. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 51–65.
Grugel, Jean & Pía Riggirozzi (2012). Post-neoliberalism in Latin America: Rebuilding and Reclaiming the State after Crisis. Development and Change 43(1): 1–21.
Helliwell, John & Richard Layard & Jeffrey Sachs eds. (2013). World Happiness Report 2013. New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
James, Rick (2009). What is Distinctive About FBOs? How European FBOs define and operationalise their faith. Praxis Paper 22. INTRAC.
Kotanyi, Sophie & Brigitte Krings-Ney (2009). Introduction of culturally sensitive HIV prevention in the context of female initiation rites: an applied anthropological approach in Mozambique. African Journal of AIDS Research 8(4): 491–502.
Mariano, Esmeralda (2002). Childlessness: Whom to blame and how to cope. Symbolic representations and healing practices among the shangana of southern Mozambique. MA thesis in Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.
Masango M J S (2006). African spirituality that shapes the concept of Ubuntu. Verbum et Ecclesia 27(3): 930–943.
Mungwini, Pascah (2011). The Challenges of Revitalizing an Indigenous and Afrocentric Moral Theory in Postcolonial Education in Zimbabwe. Educational Philosophy and Theory 43(7): 773–787.
Munir, Fozia & Ashar Awan & Syed Nisar Hussain Hamdani (2012). The Impact of Worship on Individual’s Well-being. Journal of Advanced Research in Law and Economics Volume III, Issue 2(6): 21–30.
Nkondo, Gessler Muxe (2007). Ubuntu as public policy in South Africa: A conceptual framework. International Journal of African Renaissance Studies 2(1): 88–100.
Ntseane, Peggy Gabo (2011). Culturally Sensitive Transformational Learning: Incorporating the Afrocentric Paradigm and African Feminism. Adult Education Quarterly 61(4): 307–323.
Ruttenberg, Tara (2013). Wellbeing Economics and Buen Vivir: Development Alternatives for Inclusive Human Security. Tufts University working paper.
Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ter Haar, Gerrie & Stephen Ellis (2006). The Role of Religion in Development: Towards a New Relationship between the European Union and Africa. The European Journal of Development Research 18(3): 351–367.
Trindade, Catarina Casimiro (2007). O dinheiro em poder delas: a prática do xitique na cidade de Maputo. Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social do Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), Campinas-SP, Brasil.
Tyndale, Wendy (2003). Idealism and Practicality: The role of religion in development. Development 46: 22–28.
Vernon, Phil & Deborrah Baksh (2010). Working with the grain to change the grain: Moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals. London: International Alert.
Waldmüller, Johannes M. (forthcoming 2014). Clash of Utopian Paradigms? From Anthropocentric Human Development to Biocentric Rights in Ecuador, in Sandra Brunnegger & Jason Pribilsky (eds.): 21th Century Utopias from Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.