Harmony versus progress
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.
Culturally myopic aid work
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.
Indigenous beliefs are typically more practiced in the rural areas. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo, Addis Ababa, 2013.
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 importance of spirituality to wellbeing
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.
Traditional Ethiopian dancers in Addis Ababa 2013. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo
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.
The indigenous cosmovisions
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.
The thowa, made with buffalo hair is used by curandeiros to exorcise evil spirits. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo, Maputo 2013
Living well is not about living better than others
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.
I am because we are
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.
Kutxulissa a vito, a Mozambican traditional ceremony unites the families of the namesakes and involves gift giving, singing and dancing. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo, Maputo 2014
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.
The church in the day, the curandeiros at night
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’.
Tinhlolo, the divination set of the Mozambican curandeiro. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo, Maputo 2013
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.
Understanding worldviews of both the targeted community and ourselves is crucial. Photo: Marianne Kuusipalo, Maputo 2014
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.
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