Whose Development? A Critical Lens on Development in Africa and Madagascar.

Photo by Sandra Evers

By Aliene van Dijk I still remember vividly the expectations that I had of visiting one of the libraries supposedly holding anthropological studies in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo. I naively thought that even in a country as poor as Madagascar, at least the library would be decent. But it proved quite a deception. In a small one-room building, with walls covered in old books, I found out that reality was different. Sitting on the floor and looking through a very old-fashioned cabinet of cards to look up relevant material, my research partner and I found none. It would probably be interesting for a historian, since the books were so old, but for present-day anthropological fieldwork it was not very useful. ‘How can they study in these circumstances?’, I thought.

Trying to obtain a university degree in Madagascar is not easy. But in the last five years, a special project has been able to provide 16 Malagasy students with a chance to do fieldwork together with a vazaha (white foreign) student. Malagasy students would usually study theory in town and never do fieldwork in their own country. In 2005 anthropologist and Madagascar-specialist Sandra Evers was able to set up a project between the VU and the University of Antananarivo, generously sponsored by the Dutch NGO ICCO. Teams of VU students and Malagasy students went to the field for three months to do research on diverse topics. Through the years the many theses written on land related issues became a specialization.

Halfway through the project, in 2007, a symposium was held in Antsirabe, Madagascar. 28 June 2010 saw its sequel in a Madagascar Symposium held at the VU in Amsterdam, where several speakers shared their insights on the topic: Whose Development? A Critical Lens on Development Issues in Contemporary Africa and Madagascar.

The morning’s program kicked off with Professor Stephen Ellis, who gave a thought-provoking lecture on the postcolonial situation of Africa in general and Madagascar in particular, ending with a plea to rethink the recent situation of post-postcolonial Africa. Professor Ellis postulated that Africa is currently more dependent on outside economic and political organisations than ever.

His contribution was followed by that of Jan van Doggenaar, International Program Director of ICCO, who gave an insightful speech about the changes in development approaches in general, and especially about the changed methods of ICCO during the past 50 years. This Dutch NGO has grown out to be a renowned intermediary, actively working together with local Southern partner NGO’s and agencies.

In the afternoon program, I was given the chance to report about my own research in a rural Malagasy village. I argued that a village is far from a homogeneous bunch of poor people. In fact the different groups and factions within a rural Malagasy village can cause intricacies and difficulties for development projects, like the land certification project I did research on.

Then, the floor was given to former VU anthropology student Caroline Seagle, whose 2009 fieldwork in South East Madagascar on large-scale mining was the basis of her fascinating lecture. Her research showed how a large mining corporation has driven hundreds of people from their land. While the corporation sees itself as minimizing the environmental damage and providing excellent development projects and opportunities to the original inhabitants, her research also emphasized the negative impacts of this corporation on the biodiversity of flora and fauna. However, the Malagasy are put in a difficult situation due to the mining project and have not gained what they might expect from these “development projects”.

The symposium was ended with a highlight: the presentation of the new issue of Madagascar’s social science journal Taloha, which was proudly presented to Jan van Doggenaar of ICCO by Chantal Radimilahy of the University of Antananarivo. ICCO’s support to the research project has been crucial for the publication of the new issue. The new issue Madagascar Contemporain et les Objectifs du Millénaire pour le Développement / Contemporary Madagascar and the Millennium Development Goals, which was the result of the 2007 symposium in Antsirabe, shows how fruitful the relations between the VU, the University of Antananarivo, ICCO and the 16 couples of Western and Malagasy students can be.

Aliene van Dijk is a Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.

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