I taught English in El Salvador when I was 24. A few of the students liked to talk with me about music. One day they wanted me to hear ‘this great song by Sepultura’, and I was like ‘Cool! That’s Orgasmatron!‘ and mentioned that I knew the Motorhead version. I don’t know what shocked them more: that I knew that particular song, or that their Sepultura version wasn’t the original.
I find myself having my fair share of those moments these days. I’m happy when good ideas in development and aid work are taken up, and especially happy when they are improved on (though I have to say that I like Motorhead’s version better than Sepultura’s). But it kinda bugs me when people talk about those ideas as if they are brand spanking new when they’ve actually been around for awhile. It seems like people should do some research, to at least know what came before.
What are some examples of 2010 re-makes?
Bottom up development
I find it weird that we are still discussing ‘bottom up’ development as a new or innovative thing in the year 2010 when it’s clearly been around for a really long time.
I started in development in 1994 in El Salvador. Most of the work that local NGOs were doing at that time was focused on helping grassroots groups and communities organize and manage their own development. A lot of time was spent in communities with community organizations. But this concept wasn’t born in the 1990s. It was grounded in Liberation Theology and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Liberation Theology emerged in the 1960s ‘as a result of a systematic, disciplined reflection on Christian faith and its implications’ as the Catholic church in Latin America was reflecting on itself and its relationship with the poor. Those who formulated the concept worked closely in communities with the poor and saw the social and economic injustice begun by colonization and continued through those in power both in governments and within the church. Liberation theology re-interpreted the scripture in a way that affirmed the dignity and self worth of the poor and their right to struggle for a dignified life. ‘Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy.’ Check here and here for good links on Liberation Theology.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Brazilian Paolo Freire, based on his experiences working on literacy with poor communities developed his Pedagogy of the Oppressed all the way back in 1968, around the same time that Liberation Theology was emerging. Freire’s philosophy has been heavily drawn from and applied to development. Especially pertinent is the concept of dialogics ‘an instrument to free the colonized, through the use of cooperation, unity, organization and cultural synthesis (overcoming problems in society to liberate human beings). This is in contrast to antidialogics which use conquest, manipulation, cultural invasion, and the concept of divide and rule’. Freire’s ‘emphasis on dialogue struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education…. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. For more on Freire (I certainly did not do him justice) check here and here.
These 2 philosophies closely mirrored ideas that arose during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. There’s a brilliant book called “We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change” where Paulo Freire and Myles Horton (who started the Highlander Folk School in 1932 and influenced Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) discuss the similarities between their philosophies.
Public policy and advocacy
Fast forward to 1996, where we get a new director at the organization where I’m working, a Brazilian. He simply won’t stop talking about ‘civil society’ and ‘public policies’. ‘There will be no sustainable changes if we don’t have an impact on the level of policies and their implementation. How does this program idea impact on public policies? How is civil society involved in holding the government accountable? Where is the budget for Peace Accords implementation going?’ Changing systems, transparency, political participation by those formerly excluded, and moving away from hand outs and emergency type programs were key in the vision of how the country would improve.
Working with local partners
To that aim, we funded different local organizations that raised awareness in rights holders on their rights and that advocated for the implementation of the 1992 Peace Accords. We worked with an association of women who were demanding that the alimony laws be operationalized, ex-combatants groups from both sides of the conflict who were not getting the benefits promised them in the Peace Accords, sex workers who were being harassed and abused by police, civic education, environmental organizations who worked with local communities on issues such as deforestation, water and land rights, etc. We also met and discussed a lot with other international organizations, and many of them were doing similar kinds of work.
Local management of the development process
I was pretty much ineligible for any advancement in the organization because the director’s mandate was to nationalize and hand over the program, now that the civil war and the ‘state of emergency’ were over. Local organizations now had more political space to work without the protection of international organizations. The idea was to strengthen capacities of all local staff, to move over to a national board of directors and to nationalize the organization. At the same time, the thought was to build the administrative capacity of local organizations so that they could function transparently with full accountability.
Participatory design/participatory development
I moved to a different organization in 1998, and one of my first tasks was to help write the organization’s strategic plan. The first step in developing that plan was community consultation. Staff (all of them local by the way) facilitated a consultation process with people in the 400+ communities where we worked. In addition, they met and consulted with community based organizations, local NGOs, local governments, national level ministries as well as other international organizations, to learn of their plans and to avoid duplication of efforts.
The community consultations were done using PRA (aka ‘participation, reflection, action’) methodologies. Many of the tools staff used were developed and written about by Robert Chambers. Check here for a great overview of PRA or these 2003 notes on PRA since 1998. PRA traces many of its roots back to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and looks to make communities the real owners of the development process. Any externals involved act as facilitators of a process (not drivers of the discussion) who ‘hand over the stick’ to local people as often as possible so that they fully manage their own processes. Chambers warns against ‘fascipulation’ – facilitation + manipulation, and surface PRA, saying the main ingredient in PRA is having real respect for local knowledge and local people. Some reading suggestions here.
(Side note to get an idea of how awesome Chambers is. I went to a workshop with him once and he walked in barefoot, pants rolled up, hair askew. He stood in front of us holding a map. It was upside down. Someone raised their hand to tell him it was upside down. He looked down at it and said ‘it looks fine from my perspective’. Then he went into a whole discussion about perspective. As part of that discussion, he started talking about computers and network thinking and how birds fly in flocks. This guy is some kind of genius.)
Community managed projects
Following the strategic consultations, staff worked with communities to design, plan and carry out their own projects, which were also administered by the community once they had gone through project administration training and had opened their community bank account to receive deposits.
Thinking about sustainability and working with local communities is really not a new concept, nor is the idea of working yourself out of a job if you work in development. The buzz words of transparency and accountability have also been around for awhile. Participatory design is not new either.
I don’t know. Maybe the organizations I’ve worked with in the 1990s and up to now are just amazingly progressive. Or maybe I’m missing something and when people use the terms above they are talking about something different and much more advanced and innovative than what I’m talking about. I mean, the White Stripes first album was a total Doors/Zeppelin rip off, but they did go on to develop their own sound as they matured, and their third album was brilliant. Snoop’s Upside Ya Head is obviously drawing on the Gap Band’s Ooops Upside Ya Head, but both versions are excellent. I do actually like a lot of the re-makes that are out there and there are also some really good new concepts and ideas and some great people and organizations that I learn from on a regular basis.
However, Green Day are not the ‘godfathers of punk rock’ (sign the petition here and help settle that issue once and for all) – How could they be if they came out in the late 80s and punk started in the early 70s? And I keep having Orgasmatron Moments when I see people gushing over an NGO that hires local staff (no brainer) or has a child protection policy (implementing ours since 2003) or consults with communities (why wouldn’t you consult with local communities?).
I suppose, like with my students in El Salvador, it kind of sucks when you realize your idea or your version isn’t the original. But you can be annoyed or bummed out or remain in denial, or you can go back and do some research, and see what you can learn from the original and try to improve on it. With music, knowing about the original song (even if it’s horrible and the new version is much much better), usually scores you some points for legitimacy.
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