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CommentsOnPringleArticle | ... in the spirit of service


This is an easier-to-read version of a letter posted to the MANSA-L list on 3 January 2007. Basically it is a response to a posting by former US Ambassador to Mali, Robert Pringle in which I highlight the linguistic dimension of development. Below my letter is the original letter to which I'm responding.

RE: [Mansa-l] query re: Mali democratization & cultural drivers

Happy New Year 2007 to all! Here's an item that has been slowly evolving on my desktop for a couple of weeks

It was of interest to see Ambassador Pringle's article, as I am working on a paper that touches on some similar issues, though in another context and with a different emphasis. I hope it is okay to offer some thoughts that were prompted by the introduction posted to Mansa-L and the article itself.

Coming from a background in international development, a field that "discovered" culture a quarter century ago as the "cultural dimension of development," I might feign surprise that consideration of this subject is not already fully accepted in what might be regarded as allied fields. The truth, however, is that the accounting for the "cultural dimension" however it is termed, is not as complete as it might be. And even then it is often used instrumentally (the mining, export, processing and return of indigenous knowledge for example).

An area that I have been focusing on lately is that of language, mainly with regard to localizing of ICT (a technology often touted for its development potential), but also increasingly with regard to more conventional development activities. The "linguistic dimension" of development, if you will. It is of particular interest in this regard to note Ambassador Pringle's attention to language in his profile of the situation in Mali. On the other hand I did not notice as much attention to this subject in the recommendations, an issue that I'll return to below.

French linguist Robert Chaudenson remarked not long ago (2004) the virtual absence of the subject of language in the discourse on development in Africa, even when the "cultural dimension" is invoked. In a recent long-overdue foray into some of the literature on language policy in Africa, including discussions of language in education and the rare items relating to language choice in development activities, confirms this general impression. In fact as I look back on some graduate research on this "cultural dimension," which I did about the same time as I completed work on a Fulfulde lexicon and studied under a Bambara FLAS, I'm embarrassed that I did not make this observation earlier.

One aspect I did catch on to, however, was the asymmetry of treating "indigenous knowledge" (then a hot topic) more or less exclusively in languages of international scholarship and development planning (the only systematic exception being the requisite glossary of local terms). It still seems an interesting example, since for what one might assume are reasons of expediency in development organizations and a particular noninterventionist take on local cultures, there was rarely any effort to working with the process of "local knowledge" in the vernacular. As if local folks just knew this interesting locally-contextualized stuff which could be best analyzed in English or French, but there was no point in developing it further in the original language, let alone reciprocating with good translations of outside knowledge.

Another angle on the subject of the "linguistic dimension" of development comes from the thought that in agricultural development in Africa, for instance, the key to ameliorating production and so on is not so much another technology, an improved crop variety, how to improve soils, or even market reforms, as important as each of these are in their own way. Many experts will say the key really is educated farmers. This in turn has clear implications about the choice of language that are rarely addressed (the most in-depth discussion of choice of language in African development activities I'm aware of is Clinton Robinson's 1996 book, a work that IMO deserves much more attention among scholars and practitioners working on African development). What more appropriate language is there in which to discuss crops, soils, pests, cultivation techniques, potential advances, etc. than the language(s) farmers speak among themselves, with family, at market, in community meetings, and so on?

Agricultural extension realizes this, but mainly in the very tail end of the research-extension chain and then in a more or less ad hoc manner by field agents. All the unspoken (and spoken) biases about the "incapacity" of African languages to express advanced scientific concepts shape the entire system until the interface with farmers, when extension agents with no training at all in aspects of languages and terminology are implicitly expected to prove otherwise.

This gets a little bit away from the main preoccupations of Amb. Pringle's article, but I bring it up as an introduction to a thought I think is very relevant: Language – that is the choice of which languages to use and not to use – may be a much bigger factor in Africa's development struggles than is generally acknowledged. The issue is starting to get attention in the area of primary education. But it is still virtually absent from discussions of agricultural extension and rural development, for instance.

The reasons for this relate not only to low opinions of African languages (already alluded to), but also to concerns and policy decisions on governmental levels that have been amply treated in the literature: national unity/nation-building and the perceived role of a single language in promoting that, the problem of resources to work in multiple languages and so on. It also relates to expediency on the part of development agencies.

It would also seem that a basic structural problem has been figuring out approaches to multilingualism – acknowledged as such or not. Multilingualism itself not a new topic (some still influential studies go back several decades). However, neither the independent African states, nor the powers that dominated aid and development in Africa have been willing or interested in considering the issue of languages or multiple languages seriously. Many languages were and are seen as a problem; ignoring the issue is the tacit "solution." Africa, by implication, then has no languages (like it has "no history" or "no institutions"). Or perhaps it has "too many" (this sort of juxtaposing of extreme opposite impressions about Africa being something remarked by many). In any case one language – a borrowed one – was seen as the ideal solution (and the only recognized model anyway) (on the latter point, see for instance, Bamgbose 1994).

Ultimately language policy is of course for Africans to sort out (Guinea just had a conference on national language policy this past November, by the way), but the issue is also one that donor country policies inevitably influence one way or another. Which brings me back again to Amb. Pringle's article. If it is worth calling attention to cultural institutions and their value to sustainable development (in its fullest sense) then why not also the vehicle for the cultures – their languages?

A couple of questions:

  • In suggesting a guide to customary law, would this be in the original languages too or only French? This does not have to be codified, but the explanations in the original languages also could be of value for wider education and discussion. Writing about African customs only in European languages seems like it might miss some nuances and exclude some audiences. Limiting expression in any language to oral transmission is limiting.
  • Is there more that donors could do to facilitate positive and productive approaches to multilingualism in Mali (and other countries of Africa) that build on established ways of working with multiple languages? To a certain degree this happens by necessity already (e.g., in customary law, in community radio). But it happens really in spite of an officially monolingual policy, and without any serious support. This is certainly not to suggest displacing French but to recognize that attempts for better communication and education in a multilingual context will always fall short if it is monolingual only. This is not an understanding or an argument that comes naturally to people from an overwhelmingly monolingual society, but it merits serious attention when dealing with a country like Mali.

With more time and a more thorough reading there might be more questions and less reciting of points I'm working on, but this is nevertheless what came to mind. Hope it is of some interest and value such as it is. Thanks in advance for any feedback.

Don Osborn

Bamgbose, Ayo. 1994. "Pride and prejudice in multilingualism and development." In. Richard Fardon and Graham Furniss (Eds), African Languages, Development, and the State. London: Routledge.

Chaudenson, Robert. 2004. "De Ouagadougou (1988) à Ouagadougou (2004) en passant par Libreville (2003)." In Penser la Francophonie: Concepts, actions et outils linguistiques. Actes des premières Journées scientifiques communes des réseaux de chercheurs concernant la langue, Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), 31 mai – 1er juin 2004. Paris: AUF. Pp. 211-221.

Robinson, Clinton D.W. 1996. Language Use in Rural Development: An African Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

From: mansa-l-admin@xxxxxx.xxxxxxx.xxx On Behalf Of Laura Arntson
Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006 7:42 PM
To: Mansa-l@xxxxxx.xxxxxxx.xxx; mande-studies@xxxxxxxxxxxx.xxx
Cc: rpringle9@xxxxxxx.xxx
Subject: [Mansa-l] query re: Mali democratization & cultural drivers

Note to Mansa Members [From Robert Pringle]
Please reply to: rpringle9@xxxxxxx.xxx

[Robert Pringle] recently completed research on democratization in Mali reported in two publications: a short article entitled "Mali's Unlikely Democracy" in the Spring 2006 edition of the Wilson Quarterly, and a longer version entitled "Democratization in Mali: Putting History to Work" published in October 2006 by the US Institute of Peace (cofinanced by with USAID) in their "Peacework" series, available on their web site at http://www.usip.org/pubs/peaceworks/pwks58.html

HE WRITES: The content of the two published English versions differs substantially. The longer, more formal USIP publication contains some important material not found in the other (for example, a discussion of the Office du Niger, a section comparing Mali to its neighbors, and greater emphasis on policy recommendations for the aid donor community). It also includes notes on sources and acknowledgements not found in the Wilson Quarterly article or in a French translation, just prepared by USAID Bamako, which is based on a longer draft of the article published in the Wilson Quarterly before it was shortened and edited for publication. However the general conclusions of both English versions and of the translation are substantially the same.

I want to bring this to the attention of Mansa members because one of the main conclusions of the research is that cultural factors, of a kind often considered to have little if any relevance to political development, have been drivers of Mali's democratization, now held in high esteem by many who until recently had never heard of the place.

If culture has indeed driven democratization, it follows that Mali needs to start paying more attention to the preservation of its cultural base, now fraying under the impact of global norms.

Practical considerations, covered in the "recommendations and conclusion" section of the USIP paper, include the need to recognize and build on Mali's extraordinary corpus of customary law, which both foreigners and Malians tend to dismiss as anachronistic or worse, but which is in fact a pillar of democratic decentralization. In my view a good first step would be to fund a guide to customary law (not to be confused with codification) written by Malian social scientists. It could be used to educate magistrates and development specialists, including foreigners working Mali.

A more obvious problem is the lack of good history textbooks in Malian schools. This too could be fixed with foreign support, if we are serious about helping to sustain Malian democracy.

This is of course gets to the heart of what Mansa is all about, which is why I thought members might be interested.

Robert Pringle
Retired US Foreign Service
Ambassador to Mali, 1987-90


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