Dr. Kusum Gopal, an anthropologist who has served as a United Nations (UN) Expert and Technical Advisor to government agencies, speaks to The Chronicle on challenges facing developing countries and offers solutions. Her work covers a diverse range of issues - Gender, Public and Reproductive Health, Childcare, Domestic Violence, Education, Reconstruction, Refugee Relief work and, Conflict Resolution - all matters that deeply affect policy making of the developed and developing countries.
We met up at the Wolfson College in Cambridge, where she granted this paper an interview.
Q: Development remains the agenda of many governments, and has attracted considerable international sympathy efforts and investment. Yet, it has less than a perceptible impact in the lives of ordinary people in the developing world. Why has it been such an uneven process? Could you elaborate?
ANS: This, indeed, remains an extremely serious dilemma. Each country has its own forms of governance, and institutional systems in place that facilitate not just the decision making processes, but the implementation through bureaucracies' facilitations. There is, in general, an awakening to learn at each stage from the lessons of the past forty years and re-evaluate why. We had 'Garibi Hatao' in India, in Tanzania, poverty reduction has been governed by Mkukuta, in Vietnam, Doi Moi - economic reforms, and so forth, there is always hope, and improvements can take place rapidly, when solutions are applied correctly.
In this context, it is important to reiterate that 'development' is a moral narrative, based on ethical measures which are central to the raison d'être of governments' support. For example, the legislative frameworks of UN Special Agencies, which seek to promote the valuable consensus of universal ideals for peace and prosperity for humankind, based on the Universal Charter of Human Rights. Development needs to be understood in a comprehensive manner that values the rights and contributions of all peoples and all cultures to coexist.
That is to say, it should not just be seen in economic or market terms or political terms - democracy or, the politics of inclusion, but include also, as central to its understanding, longevity, education, freedom and happiness, and maintaining the exuberance of the cultures. We need to keep in mind also, the danger of what one important economist warns about - the development of underdevelopment - as that would prevent progressive measures from causing further damage, such as increasing poverty and the spread of hunger. To my understanding, 'community participation' at all levels is probably the best way to forge successful development programmes, and engagement in national dialogues is essential in raising support.
Q: What do you mean by community participation?
ANS: Certainly, much ambiguity exists in the use of this term. That is why we need to define what a community is. Basically, it means that people living in an area are encouraged to get together and collaborate with the government's efforts to make their lives better. A community can be defined in terms of a shared ecology, common locale and participation within a social system which eventuates in common interests between people sharing many-stranded multifarious relationships with one another, combining feelings of interdependence, loyalty and identity, whatever their familial and generational differences. Such interactions generate continuing inter-functioning between interests groups, and the gradual development of perspectives can be encouraged to lead to development of joint action and activities with institutions, through participation.
Often in such interventions, not just what people value, but whom they respect is important. Thus, in some cases, elders in a village, a celebrity such as a film star, or a pop star's endorsement and active participation can be of enormous significance. To continue the involvement, results must be monitored and evaluated, so that accountability can be established. Mainly, the education must take into account local traditions and belief systems, and work with such forms of cultural address.
Q: In Ghana, teenage pregnancy and matters concerning adolescent health continues to be a challenge, and many young girls lose their chance to improve their lives. What can be done about this?
ANS: When a girl gets pregnant during adolescence -- often the man or boy gets away and she is penalised by society, in most instances. That is why there has to be a deep understanding of cultural values and allegiances. It is imperative to know, and to understand within any specific context, how men and women relate to each other - that means being gender-sensitive. Gender is not just about women - the other half of gender is man. Gender is what it means to be a man in relation to what it means to be a woman, what it means to be male and masculine, in relation to female and feminine, or what it means to be a boy, in relation to what it means to be a girl - that is, gender is about inter-relationships. As is acknowledged, gender needs to be understood as a process, rather than a category, of "doing gender," rather than the "being" of it. It is certainly not fixed. There is no universal category of man or woman.
Many aspects of human life, such as cultural beliefs and values, are subjective and resist quantitative measurement, nevertheless, such subjective phenomena inform social behaviour, and must be taken into account. Mainly, indigenous beliefs and practices critically influence gender roles and relationships by transforming identities and personhoods, thereby, affecting profoundly, the health and well-being of communities. Thus, health services, particularly aimed at catering for men's sexual and reproductive health, should be developed in conjunction with women and male involvement, and their participation in the construction of masculinities, as there are many kinds of masculinities as there are in femininity.
That is why more knowledge about men, men's changed life situations, and their sexual expression, needs to be developed through discussions. And, in all contexts, at a global level, formal medical education of the body is extremely important in this regard. For example, the genital epithelium of women is more vulnerable in the transmission of sexually transmitted viruses for from men to women, for example, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as in case of Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea. That is why we have seen it is a waste of time and financial endeavours to propagate safe sex messages and other sexual and reproductive health measures without men's consensus. Thus, while there are different gender interests, there are shared and common interests for improved sexual and reproductive health - having healthy babies.
A more nuanced and accurate descriptions of human behaviour, through ethnographic analysis, would guide more appropriate and effective interventions. It is important to state here that culture should not be regarded as a barrier, but that is it enabling, and is probably the only way transformation is possible, because human beings are always in culture.
Q: You mention Ethnographic analysis - what do you mean by that?
The Ethnographic method is scientific, integrating both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Field work is fundamental to "the doing of ethnography" by anthropologists of all descriptions. Traditionally, anthropologists have identified with peoples amongst whom they reside, and, inevitably, this identification is reflected in ethnographic methods which primarily seek to privilege the world views of people and their life experiences. It involves an in-depth study of human behaviour, the choices and values that guide people's everyday lives in their natural settings, how they interact within economic, religious, political, geographic worlds that are expressed through their cultural repertoires, in their own words.
Q: How would you describe participant observation?
Participant observation is not so much a method, but an approach to collecting information by means of the presence and the participation of the researcher. There are many degrees of participant observation - the fundamental approach that informed this ethnographic research was the method of immersion. The process of 'immersion' in the field by the researchers indicates committed long-term residence and polite engagement with the local communities -- forming sets of relationships and activities, which are connected to the wider society. Participation is seen as an apprenticeship, as a learning process through which the researchers and their personal relationships serve as primary vehicles for eliciting findings and thoughts; relationships of intimacy and familiarity, between researcher and subject, are envisioned as a fundamental medium of investigation, rather than as an extraneous by-product, or even as an impediment. Most of the time, it is the people who tell the ethnographer what is to be done, rather than being told what they should do. Thus, one gets to grips with what people really need, whether it is clean water, or seeds for crops and so forth.