REVIEW: The Seductive Power of Buzzwords

(Review of “The Politics of Anti-Politics: What does the buzzword ‘community-driven development’ do? The case of Mindanao Peace and Development” by Nikki Philline C. de la Rosa, published in Mindanao Focus No. 1, Series of 2010, Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao, Inc , Davao City)

Nikki Philline C. dela Rosa represents a new generation of serious Mindanawon scholars who are appropriating post-structural theories to help us understand very crucial issues affecting Mindanawons that  have such significant bearings on the future of our beleaguered island!

As such, one hopes and wishes that her scholarly output finds an audience among both key State officials and civil society agents whose collective social, cultural and symbolic capital could be mobilized for the greater good of the poor, powerless and disenfranchised communities across Mindanao and the adjacent islands across the Sulu archipelago.

The author’s published work  – THE POLITICS OF ANTI-POLITICS: WHAT DOES THE BUZZWORD “COMMUNITY-DRIVEN DEVELOPMENT” DO? THE CASE OF MINDANAO PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT – is a must-read for all Mindanawons convinced that a certain level of enlightened rationality should enter into the discursive field influencing State policies and civil society praxis.  The Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao, Inc. does Mindanawon scholars, peace advocates and development workers a big favor by publishing Ms. dela Rossa’s opus which is the popular version of her award-winning unpublished MSC Development Studies dissertation at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), United Kingdom.

While this is the popular version of her dissertation, The Politics of Anti-Politics, nevertheless –  owing to the scholarly style and technical language used – may not find a wide readership both in the country and in Mindanao, where reading serious stuff is confined mainly to those among select circles in the academe.  State officials and civil society agents in Mindanao (those in church agencies and NGOs in particular)  are not known to set aside considerable time to update their knowledge both in terms of theoretical frameworks and case studies that could provide input into their decisions vis-a-vis development  policies and programs.  This is rather unfortunate as there is no question that there are lessons learned when we refer to relevant reading materials.

And certainly, both internationally and in the Philippines, there has arisen a rich literature meant for those engaged in peace and development efforts.  Ms dela Rosa’s The Politics of Anti-Politics should be at the top of the list of required readings for its intended readers.

The publication’s abstract gives the reader an inkling into the exciting peace and development landscape that Ms. dela Rosa engaged with in her study:

“Despite hard lessons of failed programs and unintended consequences, why is it that the ‘development machine’ continues to churn out similar programs again and again? Is there an instrumentality to this propensity? Or is it just a matter of not learning from experience? This study attempts to unravel the elements that constitute the answer to these questions by examining development buzzwords and their instrumentality to the reinforcement and maintenance not just of state power, as Ferguson (1990) posits, but also of what Wade (1996) calls the ‘art of paradigm maintenance’ of the dominant economic and political structure. Using Foucault’s (1991) concept of governmentality, this study examines the World Bank-coordinated project, Mindanao Trust Fund for Reconstruction and Development Project (MTF-RDP) being implemented in Mindanao, Southern Philippines, to answer the question: What does the buzzword ‘community-driven development’ do? At the core of this study is the argument that buzzwords are not innocuous; they are dispositifs of rule and worldmaking that fit the exigencies of both the state and the global power structure, herein represented by the dominant economic paradigm of the World Bank.”

The abstract smacks of intellectualism that can alienate those who are intimidated by the language of development scholarship. However, if State officials and civil society agents are open to widening their perspectives that could make their engagements more productive in the long run and, thus, benefit more Mindanawons, then Ms. de la Rosa’s work could prove to be a useful document.

Most certainly college and graduate students interested in the field of Development Studies should grapple with the content of this document no matter if the initial reading could prove to be intellectually demanding. Professors of Development Studies would do well in making sure that The Politics of anti-politics is in the reading list for their syllabus.  This assumes, of course, that the same professors will not only read this essay but even go as far as reading the original dissertation material.

Perhaps – if the author has the time and the patience to do it – a more readable document could still be pursued and again published by AFRIM.  Discarding some of the more complicated discourses and the highly-technical language that are difficult to grasp, the revised document would be easier to understand and take to heart.  The only rationale behind such a suggestion is because it would be such a shame that only a few readers could benefit from the insights of the author only because it is not that accessible to the ordinary reader.

But that would take a lot of effort on the part of Ms dela Rosa if she considers this suggestion.  For how do you simplify Foucault and his concept of governmentality in the manner that the author already did with this publication?  Many Foucauldian scholars in Mindanao today (and they are a growing number) have all the reasons to believe that Foucault’s theoretical discourses go beyond those of Marx and are therefore more fit in the complex reality of Mindanao. Ms dela Rosa certainly thinks so for which she invested a lot in grappling with a Foucauldian optic to read some aspects of the Mindanao reality especially those interfacing with peace and development agenda.  Just one Foucauldian quote incorporated in the document on page 28 – “Politics is war pursued by other means!” – already provides the reader unfamiliar with Foucault a reason to believe that his theory is worth pursuing.

The major significance of Ms dela Rosa’s work is that it problematizes the interventions of the State and civil society agencies as they engage the peace and development agenda. They are the ones most vulnerable to the seductive power of buzzwords!  Pressured by the discourses emanating from the United Nations (e.g. the UN Millennium Goals), both government agencies and local government units are subjugated to the expectation that they shift their “language” out of which some buzzwords are valorized!

The Mindanao Trust Fund for Reconstruction and Development Project (MTF-RDP) was initiated by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines way back in 2003  and this involved requesting the World Bank to set up a multidonor trust fund for the reconstruction and development of conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. Total project cost is huge; it amounted to a commitment of USD 50,000,000.00.

The main buzzword interfacing the essence of MTF-RDP is “community-driven development”. The words became mantra and all self-serving politicians, local government officials and government employees mouthed them at every occasion to manifest an openness to changing paradigms.  Unfortunately, civil society agents (especially those among development NGOs who are most vulnerable to the dictates of their international funding partners) joined the bandwagon and embraced the mantra. Ms dela Rosa’s lament: “With the growth of NGOs as service providers of development project, there has been a tendency to mimic the same terms and the same strategies of the ‘funders'”.

But in the end – as many critics would have expressed – despite all the money that has been invested in Mindanao through State and civil society agencies, are we nearer to the attainment of our long-cherished dream of a peaceful Mindanao?

Ms dela Rosa does not mince words in her conclusions and one hopes that both government and civil society agents would be open enough to accept her critique: that “the reconstruction and the peace and development discourse currently in ‘fashion’ in the development industry”… “allows elites to retain or regain power.”  She offers a way out for NGOs if they want to truly be regarded as sustaining their militant contribution for peace and development in Mindanao; this can happen if they recognize their “‘relative powerlessness’ in relation to donors and yet are clear about their objectives in engaging ODA projects in terms of where they may interface the project vis-a-vis the achievement of a broader development agenda were to counter the silencing and depoliticizing effects of development projects”.

Let all be forewarned:  beware the seductive power of buzzwords!  { Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is author of several books, among them, “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures” and“The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul.” His latest book, “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” was launched at the Ateneo de Manila University on May 18.  He writes two columns, one in English, the other in Bisaya, for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews).