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Humans · Economy

Good listening for root solutions

January 23rd, 2016
in:Humans, Economy
by:Elizabeth Wainwright
located in:Kenya
tags:development policy, Ebola, Participatory Development process

Listen first, then get started – that could be the lesson for often-criticised international development policy, and for NGOs. Fairplanet looked at the changes that might help transform communities for the better.

A 1930s report on British colonial rule in Africa outlined technical solutions for “…the betterment of the backwards peoples of the world”. Self-determination and autonomy were to be avoided. Many of the technical solutions that were promoted – vitamin pills, water boreholes – are still used by NGOs today. 

But faceless technical solutions don’t always bring “betterment”. For example, when multiple boreholes were drilled over a tribal, drought-prone area in Kenya’s Rift Valley, but none of them were used because of local ‘bad spirits’. “We had the meeting and told the agency that we won’t use them in that area, but they drilled them anyway because of their own research,” said one community health worker that fairplanet spoke to. “We don’t use them.” 

Development has happened, of course; even the poorest countries like Burundi and Somalia are improved when it comes to, for example, literacy or child health. But what is the impact when a programme doesn’t respect the views of the people it intends to help? Can we do things better? 

“What I’ve learned [through Ebola] is that every community has its own solution. If you work with them you get the right results.” – Tarlo Kerkula, Unicef county mobilisation coordinator, Liberia

Buzzwords 

The Participatory Development (PD) process allows ‘stakeholders’ to influence and share control over decisions and resources that affect them.  

PD was a move away from top-down ‘interventions’; beneficiaries lead change, which challenged the idea that experts know best. Words like ‘participation’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘local ownership’ became mainstream. 

But incorporating local people into projects does not always make the process fair. Experience shows that communities can have powerful leadership structures. Token PD doesn’t necessarily challenge undercurrents and structures that don’t respect the poorest; or the women. PD has and is happening symbolically, with actual decisions made by local leaders and outside ‘experts’. With NGOs generally seeing themselves as apolitical, it becomes difficult to challenge social structures. 

PD began politically; aiming to address unequal balance of decision-making. Being de-personalised and mainstreamed in institutions, is PD now another technical add-on; a tick-box to make donors and communities feel better? 

There are of course good examples of PD, like Practical Action’s work in Urban Planning, which looks for sustainable results and local residents’ empowerment in local planning and governance. 

But looking beyond PD to deep, meaningful exchange can strengthen an individual’s, community’s and state’s sense of self-led transformation, as well as bond between the three. 

“We started doing cinema screenings in communities about Ebola, but I thought there was more we could do. I would always inform the leaders. We reached more than 400 communities. If Liberians start to put Liberia first, all the wishes we have will come true. Development doesn’t come from a country, it comes from the people within the country.”  – Pandora Hodge, student, Liberia

Developing ‘Participation’ 

Mathews works in a District Health Office in Southern Zambia. Echoing sustainable development practitioner Ernesto Sirolli’s view on listening to people before acting, Mathews says: “We are used to giving the outsiders the answers they want. The communities do what is needed to access the interventions on offer. We fill in the surveys, but it is not as easy as that. Communities are complex. It starts with communities wanting to change. And we need to listen to how they want to do it. The external groups need to forget any other agenda.” 

Juliet works on Ebola response at the World Health Organisation is looking at how the institution needs to evolve around a ‘socialised response’; highlighting meaningful conversation, not token participatory focus groups and one-way information flow. 

PD aimed to bring real people into decision-making. But meaningful listening is messier. A community’s strengths, ideas and solutions should be the starting point. 

There are groups who have evolved PD beyond focus groups and surveys. Affirm Facilitators aim to stimulate community conversation, and facilitate transformative responses led by the community. And Community Health Global Network  works to bring together changemakers in various communities for connection, collaboration and community-led transformation on the issues most important to them. Both groups encourage a strengths-focused starting point, and step back to let collaborative communities steer the agenda. 

Good technical solutions exist. But we need to be aware of invasions (or in development-speak, ‘interventions’) on freedom of ideas and response, whether by foreign policy, or even by our own NGOs. People everywhere deserve to have their voice heard in local and global conversations, and lead their own transformation. 

Read more related
Sustainable Development Goals: What’s really in it for the developing world?

There you go! Development and indigenous peoples

Article written by:
Elizabeth Wainwright
Author
Current Map: Our coverage
“What I’ve learned [through Ebola] is that every community has its own solution. If you work with them you get the right results.” – Tarlo Kerkula, Unicef county mobilisation coordinator, Liberia
Incorporating local people into projects does not always make the process fair. Experience shows that communities can have powerful leadership structures.
“We started doing cinema screenings in communities about Ebola, but I thought there was more we could do. I would always inform the leaders. We reached more than 400 communities. If Liberians start to put Liberia first, all the wishes we have will come true. Development doesn’t come from a country, it comes from the people within the country.” – Pandora Hodge, student, Liberia

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