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Needed: Social Engineering?


You will recall Mwalimu's summation for what we need for development: watu, ardhi, siasa safi na uongozi bora - people, land, proper ideology and good leadership. I was thinking about the simplicity and the idealism in this summation. But, you will notice that in these four "necessities" for development, only two are prefixed by adjectives (uongozi bora - good leadership; and siasa safi - proper ideology). These four necessities I think are still relevant. We can replace "proper ideology" with "proper vision", we can see "land" as indicating "resources" in general terms. The point about good leadership has been amply dealt with here. Let us talk about people now. I think that we need, not just people, but good people: honest, hardworking, law-abiding, and thrifty.

But people, in their "natural occurrence", cannot be the agents, the manifest or rather the end of development, and certainly cannot act as a community and for the collective good of the community. So, socialisation - to get the "good people" - is needed. The development of man himself - his attitude, his psyche, his character - is critical before we expect him to be an agent of development or before we think of him as the end of development.

Enter this idea of social engineering. I came across this concept a while ago, in school in fact, but never so much explored it. In thinking about some of the contributions in this blog, and in imagining solutions to what many point as moral decadence in our society (which breeds corruption, dishonesty, fatalism, etc.), I thought about social engineering. The definition from wikipedia refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behavior on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups.

The Cultural Revolution in China from 1966, in which the language, the arts, the culture and indeed the Chinese national identity was reconceputalized, was in fact an exercise in social engineering. It was sort of a middle-course correction to anchor the 1949 Revolution as a reference point for the modern China's social and political life. They were beginning to see decadence and corruption. Also, after the overthrow of Czar in Russia, the Bolsheviks sought to create a new identity for the Russian people, indeed creating "a new Soviet man", as the campaign was called, with fundamentally different ideals.

Now, come to think of it, our own Azimio la Arusha (Arusha Declaration), Vijiji vya Ujamaa, compulsory National Service, and so on, were exercises in social engineering. To some of my friends, we are what we are as a nation, the good and the bad, because of the collective impact of these initiatives and many other Socialists experiments. Of course, after the colonial rule, which also engaged in its own social engineering to get the natives to acquiesce to, or at least live with, subjugation, social engineering was necessary in an effort to build a new nation. But these massive social engineering initiatives were undertaken in the context of a certain era in global political and economic alignment. That era has ended, we have embraced a different trajectory but still haven't undertaken to undo the psyche developed by the socialisation of that era.

Now, do we have to undo it or are we okay and this is not an issue? If we do, what kind of social engineering interventions that would create "a new Tanzanian man" with a new ethical outlook? Obviously, the kind of social engineering that can take place is limited by the prevailing political dispensation. Democracy, and whole panoply of NGOs and activists, limits the kinds of interventions one can undertake. Authoritarian regimes - for better or for worse - have more room to undertake massive social engineering initiatives. Of course authoritarianism is not option. Political scientists talk about "democratic social reconstruction" in which it is possible to transform outlooks and attitudes in the frame of a democratic dispensation. But there has to be a consensus on the ingredients of an ideal society we all want to build. This is one of our challenge.

January Makamba.

August, 2009


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