Why Has “Development” Failed?

(The Capuchin, Winter 1992, pp. 5-6)


Across the Third World, there is a widespread feeling that development strategies and programmes have failed, leaving people worse off than before. There are many reasons for this, such as trade policies, terms for loans, and the control of international institutions by the First World. However, many contributory factors are particular to individual countries. In Zambia, where many Irish missionaries work, there are local factors that impede development, factors which stem either from people’s attitudes or from institutional structures. Consider the following:


  1. There is a deeply entrenched mentality of helplessness and dependence, the product of government paternalism and development projects which did not involve people as participants.
  2. Zambians have a poor self-image, lack confidence in themselves, are deeply fatalistic and have no clear sense of identity.
  3. There is deep-seated mistrust in society. People are afraid to trust one another for fear of being deceived.
  4. There is real fear among people that, if they succeed, they will arouse jealousy among others, who will use witchcraft as a way of hitting back at them to keep them at the common level.
  5. Peoples’ minds are locked into the present. The past is gone and the future has not yet come, so there is little learning from experience or planning for the future.
  6. Manual work, especially in agriculture, is despised as inferior.
  7. People are patient to the point of being passive and timid. As a result many civil rights have become inoperative in practice.
  8. The individual is dominated by the group; personal independence is seen as a threat to group solidarity.
  9. There isn’t a work ethic because people don’t see a reason for committing themselves to the service of others.
  10. The very high proportion of discards from the school system has been taught to see themselves as failures, and they do.
  11. People are often lethargic and unwilling to try. This despair and cynicism may be the product of bad leadership, personal loss such as the deaths of several children, malnutrition or simple laziness.
  12. There is deep-seated disillusionment with the fruits of independence; it is seen as having let people down.
  13. High levels of drunkenness and alcoholism are both a sign and a source of social disintegration.
  14. People are caught in the turmoil of a change of culture. They are unable to sort themselves out between the old and the new, the African and the European, and have lost direction. Africans are not Europeans, but they are trying to work a system based on Europeans ideas, attitudes and assumptions.
  15. The bureaucracy stifles initiative, seeing it as a threat to its power.
  16. There is a well-founded feeling that the system is loaded against the small man, that only those with political connections can get ahead.
  17. Corruption has become entrenched to the point that people have come to accept it as normal and so exploit one another just as others exploit them.


  1. Independence led to a European elite being replaced by an African one; of the two the European was more responsible, efficient and hard-working.
  2. Authority works strictly from the top down; there is little involvement of people in decision-making.
  3. The education system is geared to creating a self-perpetuating elite increasingly removed from ordinary people.
  4. Undernourishment, disease and poverty have formed a vicious circle; each contributes to the other.
  5. Rapid urbanisation has drained the most promising people away from rural areas and from agriculture, where Zambia’s only economic hope lies.
  6. The extended family system, as it actually operates, penalises success. Anyone who gets ahead will be sucked dry by importunate relatives.
  7. There is no authority structure which functions effectively; government, party and tribal structures frustrate one another into impotence.
  8. The rise in violent crime in urban areas encourages the departure of professionals whose skills are badly needed.
  9. Rapidly increasing rates of AIDS are hitting hardest at the very groups which are contributing to running the country, namely, professionals, civil servants, businessmen. Their higher earnings and greater opportunities for travel put them in the high risk category.
  10. Efforts to decentralise authority have not been accompanied by a sense of responsibility or accountability. They have simply localised the opportunities for corruption.

What can be done about these Problems?

  1. Zambians need to recognise that the solution to their problems is in their hands. Outsiders cannot do for a country what its own people are not prepared to do for themselves.
  2. A gradual, co-ordinated elimination of foreign aid over a period of perhaps twenty years would help to destroy the crippling sense of helplessness and dependence that have undermined Zambians’ self-respect. Replacing aid with trade on just terms would restore Zambians’ dignity.
  3. Zambia’s resources need to be re-directed to rural areas because that is where the future lies.
  4. Most importantly, Zambia needs changes in the area of human relationships and motivation, including a sense of responsibility and service, and the development of conscience. These are indispensable to making structural changes work, and it is the task and the challenge of the Christian faith to bring them about. The biggest single help to the development of Zambia is the Christian faith.