Individual versus national aspirations

In this brief commentary, I reflect on what seems to have been a bane of  progress in post-colonial African countries: the tension between individual and national (state) aspirations. Here, national aspirations are seen as the vision of the elite, perhaps even narrower, the political elite, of a country about the expected future of the country. These aspirations, could be progress in science and technology, social services, infrastructure, political development or grandiose white elephants – including some attempts at industrialisation. These national aspirations were formed in many countries immediately post-independence and in others even later – through the intervention of development finance institutions, and bilateral and multilateral agencies. In any case, national aspirations changed, in some cases, with changes in the ruling political elite (examples include ideological flip-flops in countries during the cold war era based on change of guard).

National aspirations are framed or designed in different forms in different countries, as reflected in constitutions, policies or programs. What is common across them however is that the anticipated outcomes are, as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory would put it, framed as being essentially about the common good for the greatest number. Thus, in a sense, these outcomes, are viewed as being about the collective good or progress. However, these aspirations may not reflect the individual or collective aspirations of the citizens. In fact, if anything, they may be at loggerheads with individual and collective aspirations of citizens.

Here, collective aspirations (sometimes analysed as group aspirations – see Shapiro and Zander and Medow) are outcomes which the greater numbers of members of a society agree as constituting the common good rather than those dictated by the political elite. Besides the broad national group, smaller portions of a country could have their separate, collective aspirations. These groups are linked by their gender, age, disability, ethnicity, class, race, or being part of an indigenous community. Often, rather than being ‘national’ in scope, the aspirations of these groups are collective at lower levels and they are co-joined by their collective circumstances. On the other hand, individual aspirations are desired (present and future) states that individuals have. Sometimes, the aspirations of the state could be an impediment to the achievement of individual aspirations (as may be reflected in education or other policies in a country).

The key proposition in this note is that there is often a tension between national aspirations and those of individuals, and in places, this leads to clashes and sometimes to outright conflict. Seen in this way, it is argued, that national aspirations do not always reflect the common good or the collective aspirations of individual citizens.

A case in point is Eritrea. Although the national service in that country was designed by the state and cast as being about the common good – to support self-sufficiency thereby ensuring food security and to defend its territorial integrity in case its aggressors attack – its operationalisation, has essentially conflicted with the individual aspirations of citizens. This has contributed to the mass migration of its citizens – many of whom cite the national service as their main reason (a claim the government disclaims). Another example is Nigeria, where a national policy that is essentially about equal distribution of education opportunities, the education quota system in higher education, seems to be contributing to a sense of disillusionment among youth, who feel disadvantaged by the policy.

History is replete with instances in which national aspirations clash with those of individuals. Sometimes this leads to resistance, at other times, it results in an overpowering and oppressive state that browbeats citizens into conformity. For example, the apartheid regime in South Africa had a suite of segregative laws, among them the group areas act (1950) and the Afrikaans medium decree (1974), which had the effect of separating residential areas by race and promoted Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. These laws were essentially cast as being about the national interest, but did not reflect the desires of the majority of citizens in that country. This explains the resistance of the black community throughout the country to the application of these laws, and the strong condemnation of the international community. In particular, the Soweto uprisings and the death of Hector Pieterson, resonates to this day as a symbol of resistance to the aspirations of the state.

In the face of growing recent periodic uprisings in countries affected by the tension between national and individual aspirations (the Arab spring uprising and resistance to urban renewal programs elsewhere in the world exemplify this), this tension is a question worth further analysis. This is particularly relevant where, national policies and plans as envisaged by the political elite, result in more harm than good – for example natural resource exploration projects that pose threats to agricultural activities, aquatic life and the environment in general. In the context of current concerns about the fate of democracy and development, understanding the tensions between national and individual aspirations could offer a pathway to understanding the true place, responsiveness and sensitivities of public policies in enabling the achievement of individual (and collective) aspirations in societies.


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