I recently found myself in the offices of a Big Donor on a panel with hefty scholars and superstar practitioners of Tanzanian development. By which I mean there were four greying Tanzanian gentlemen of distinguished repute... and me. Yeah, I don't know how that happened either :) Sadly for them, I don't think the Big Donor got what they were hoping for from my presence other than visual confirmation of the person behind the allegedly 'infamous' Mikocheni Report. I had a good time, though. I have never been within sniffing distance of a Big Donor's kitchen before, where some of the sausage of development aid gets made. It was instructive.
One outcome of the meeting was being asked to check out the new Ni Sisi campaign by Twaweza and share a few thoughts about it on the blog. A suspiciously charming and risky invitation on the part of head honcho Rakesh Rajani, but if he's game, I'm game. "Ni Sisi, a new campaign which promotes the idea that citizens can bring about change themselves, rather than waiting for governments, politicians, donors or NGOs to do it for them,"
Well, hello! Citizens are finally showing up in African development discourse :) Of course I have beef with the sentiment 'rather than waiting for government, politicians, donors or NGOs to do it for them.' because it implies that we who live in developing countries are inert. If we were that indolent, we'd have died out by now. You see, before the African was enslaved and colonized.... oh, alright, let's not go down that road again. But you get my point, neh? Our current 'helplessness' is as much a product of the states we have crafted these past umpteen years as anything else.
It's a matter of perspective. Tell me why you think so many Africans live in poverty, and I'll tell you the brand of development work that suits you best :) To give you some idea what I mean, I am a major Nyerere fan, but check out Mwalimu's Wikipedia entry. That, my friends, is what benevolent dictatorship can be like*. I like to assert that this is the first generation since his reign that Tanzanians have had enough breathing room, access to information and general freedom for the idea of active citizenship to be welcome, rather than politically threatening to the state.
Of course, I love what the Ni Sisi campaign is selling. This isn't the first nor will it be the last time someone is going to try to activate citizens. If they had attempted this in the 1980's, for example, Twaweza's staff would be languishing in exile/jail. But it's a new millenium and Africa ariseth from the ashes of her ignominous past like a glorious mythical beast. Active-citizenship campaigns are the right thing for this segment of our evolutionary path. So rock on Twaweza, and everybody else who is trying to give the power back to the people and stimulate that ever-elusive bottom-up transformation.
I do have a beef, but it is a small one. The Ni Sisi campaign TV ads so far are just a touch ridiculous, much of that having to do with the soundtrack. And the too-cool-for-school color palette. Haki Elimu- Rakesh's last gig- got the tone of their TV ads right because they were shot here for consumption by TZ-ians. These ones taste they're trying to appeal to a non-EA audience (donors?) in spite of the carefully placed Kiswahili signs. They are weirdly glorious, as though it's that easy to shame weevil-doers into better behavior. Ha! I mean, I get the point of aspirational messaging etc... but, you know, come on. The radio ads are better crafted.
*Yeah. History is contested, right? That wikipedia page is clearly full of agenda. Is it incorrect? Not really. Is it imprecise? Sometimes. Is it fascinating? You bet. Nyerere was good, and terrible, and a lot of things in between. Interpretation is everything.