- Surrogates of the State: NGOs, Development, and Ujamaa in Tanzania
Michael Jennings has written an interesting book dealing with the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in development, focusing on the role of Oxfam in Tanzania. I highly recommend it. Given the increasing role played by Northern NGOs in the promotion of civil society and development in the global South, it is a book that could have been written about NGO work in any country in the developing world. Nonetheless, its concentration on Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s is instructive: Tanzania was a model developmental state for Africa because of its policies of “socialism [End Page 202] and self-reliance.” Northern NGO engagement at the time meant that these NGOs were committed to (or in broad agreement with) the state policies in Tanzania. In that context, an analysis and assessment of NGO work also becomes an assessment of the policies pursued by the state.
Jennings’s basic argument is straightforward: Oxfam, the leading NGO organization in the United Kingdom, has been an important player in Tanzania’s development since independence in 1961 (although some form of charity assistance was present before 1961). In the 1960s Oxfam’s development assistance strategy in Tanzania was marked by its “participatory development” approach, encouraging initiatives from the grassroots. The ujamaa policies of Tanzania fit this profile well; hence the enthusiastic response from Oxfam. By the mid-1970s however, the voluntary ujamaa villagization policies of the Tanzanian government had given way to forced villagization; in the process, the state moved away from a strategy of “participatory development” to adopt a top-down strategy. Jennings argues that rather than resisting such a change in policy, Oxfam went along with it, and in effect “enabled” the state in its new approach—effectively undermining local-level democracy in Tanzania. Jennings attempts to explain this “enabling” posture of Oxfam as a situational response to the realities on the ground—given the dominance of the state. He nonetheless argues that Oxfam, by pointing to the contradictions between forced villagization and participatory development, could have been a more forceful advocate of the grassroots approach to development in its dealings with the state. Instead, Oxfam’s approach to development essentially became a replica of that of the Tanzanian government.
Jennings’s critique of Oxfam is indeed valid in terms of the “accomodationist” strategy it eventually pursued. Nonetheless, he does not give sufficient attention to the fact that Oxfam’s posture was a reaction to hard political realities on the ground: as an NGO operating in a foreign country Oxfam had limited room to maneuver in opposing a state strategy that, by most accounts, had the support of much of the international donor community. Jennings’s critique, however, is less compelling when he argues that Oxfam in essence abandoned its principles of “justice and equity” to embrace the “developmentalist” posture of the Tanzanian state, for he acknowledges that the amount of funds Oxfam was spending in Tanzania was miniscule compared to the rest of the state’s budget; therefore its withdrawal would not have changed state policy in the slightest. That Oxfam went along with the government’s program suggests instead that Oxfam found some (acceptable?) merit in the Tanzanian government’s approach to development. (Indeed in his conclusion Jennings acknowledges that Oxfam did not have much choice but to go along with the Tanzanian government’s plan if the NGO sought to remain relevant in Tanzania’s development equation.)
In the end, Jennings’s critique of Oxfam’s activities in Tanzania fails to acknowledge or appreciate fully the reasons for the shift in government [End Page 203] policy from “ujamaa villages” to “development villages.” By 1972 it was clear to the Nyerere government that despite its desire, any rapid economic development through voluntary villagization was simply not happening. Peasants were reluctant to take chances with their lives based on “communal” living; and yet they were still demanding and expecting “development” from the government. Forced villagization was the option chosen by the government...