Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"A Shadow of the Real Thing": Furrow Societies, Water User Associations, and Democratic Practices in the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"A Shadow of the Real Thing": Furrow Societies, Water User Associations, and Democratic Practices in the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania

Article excerpt

In his essay on democracy and development in Africa, Gavin Williams in this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History argues that both the socialist and the liberal economic policies of African states over the past thirty years have contained anti-democratic features that belie their putative goal of increasing people's participation in national development. One of the foci of this essay is the ujamaa socialist development program of the late 1960s and 1970s in the United Republic of Tanzania that led to the decentralization of management and administration to the village level, but did not remove policy-making from the hands of the leaders of the one-party state. (1) The second focus is the discursive shift in the meaning of "decentralization" since the mid-1980s, decoupling it from "socialist self-reliance" and rearticulating it to the terms "community participation" and "local empowerment." These signifiers of "neoliberalism" (and often more radical views of development) now emanate from ministerial offices in Tanzania that once promoted its particular form of African socialism.

Neoliberalism has become a catchall term in development discourses, but I use it to describe the articulation of a specific set of political policies and neoclassical economics principles. The pro-privatization and decentralization policies of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom in the 1980s illustrate the emphasis on limiting government intervention in the market common to most neoliberal political administrations. Neoclassical economics contends that open markets with minimal government interference will create national economic growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this ascendant view has led to the liberalization of foreign trade and the promotion of export crops, the devaluation of the national currency, the privatization of state-owned industries, and minimal government involvement in regulating the prices of basic foodstuffs on the market.

Williams suggests that neoliberal conceptions of "participation" and "empowerment" indicate little in the way of democratic politics. This is because heavily indebted states, such as Tanzania, are limited in the extent of local democracy they will tolerate because citizens' groups may actively oppose the conditions of aid imposed by international financial institutions. In this age of globalization, many African governments espouse an ideology of democracy that appears universal in its benefits, but it does not necessarily lead to the creation of a more democratic and just society.

Another way of conceptualizing this problem of democracy and aid comes from the work of Irving Leonard Markovitz, whose phrase "democracy lite" aptly describes the restricted form of community participation that conforms to the demands of neoliberal economic policies. Markovitz's piercing critique of mainstream civil society discourse--with "community participation" as one of its principal signifiers--exposes its role in buttressing institutions engaged in macroeconomic structural adjustment.

    Every society contains many conflicting elements. Those elements of
    civil society that come to the fore in any historical period are
    those most aligned with the dominant social and economic forces....
    The objective of these dominant forces is stable, predictable, and
    effective--for their purposes--government. The cheapest way to
    achieve this end in the modern era is through "mild democracy."
    "Democracy lite," like "lite beer," which smells and looks like beer
    but has no body, is but a shadow of the real thing. Institutions of
    participation promise that "the people" or "civil society" can do
    anything that they want. The reality is that these democracies come
    circumscribed by "conditionalities," reinforced by international
    actors, superpowers, and lending agencies that do not hesitate to
    intervene in domestic politics. … 
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