How do you navigate the boundary between participation and manipulation in community-led development? Cobra, an EU-funded project, has been working on just this problem.
Perhaps the most well-worn cliché in the field of development is the saying "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
While it's difficult to disagree with the sentiment that building community capacity in order to be self-sufficient is better than providing a quick fix to a temporary crisis, the implication is always that experts must come in and 'teach' the community how to find solutions to their problems. This would be perfectly acceptable if these ideas were then appropriated by the community, adapted to their aims and aspirations, institutions and customs, to become community owned solutions. However, these expert-led, top-down approaches often leave very little opportunity for local communities to speak up and demonstrate that the best solutions often come from within the communities themselves.
If we were to re-write the cliché along the lines of this 'community-owned solutions' approach, it might read something like this: "show a community how to catch fish, and you feed them for as long as they have the support to buy the equipment. You'd also better hope that this method won't eradicate the local fish population. Promote locally-owned solutions and skills to produce local food and they will be able to survive sustainably with minimal external support". These solutions can then be a source of inspiration for neighbouring communities, as well as providing a platform for communities to demonstrate their self-sufficiency to policy makers and governments.
But how can this happen in our world? How can local communities really be given a voice and, in the end, what difference does it really make?
Cobra, an EU-funded project led by Dr Jay Mistry of Royal Holloway, University of London, has been working with indigenous people in the Guiana Shield region of South America for the past two years, facilitating a process in which Makushi and Wapishana communities can identify, through participatory and visual methods, the most effective practices they have for surviving and thriving in an increasingly challenging environment. The ultimate aim of the project is to scale-up the practices to the national and international level, so that indigenous voices and perspectives are integrated in global environmental policies (such as the United Nation's REDD+ scheme).
For those of us working on the project, the boundary between participation and manipulation can be a difficult one to judge. Our role is to guide the participants, through community forums and the use of visual methods, to arrive at a position where they have clear ideas about what constitutes their own best practices. This is obviously a delicate process, particularly when the participants may feel that their communities have been excluded and their practices marginalised over a long period of time.
On several occasions, participants have expressed the view "Why on earth would anybody want to know about this 'backward' practice that we undertake in lieu of having public services or the financial backing to maintain our recreational and social facilities?"
Well, in the face of ever increasing financial cuts in our welfare states, hopefully there is a global audience that would be very interested to know how people can manage to bring people together for the environmental and social well-being of the community. As a local participant recently mentioned: "When we stop doing things for ourselves and expect others to dance around us we are not achieving greatness". Point made. In many places across the world, not least the UK, grass-roots solutions to building community networks in the face of economic crises are becoming more and more prevalent.
In the Guiana Shield, we have found that many of these solutions were already being put into practice, but were not necessarily valued in the same way that we might treat grass-roots solutions in the UK. It therefore becomes our responsibility to encourage and support the communities we work with in consolidating their methods. There is a thin line between manipulation and empowerment, but it is definitely a worthwhile endeavour if we, as facilitators, remain transparent about how our presence influences what is happening.
And then, how do you communicate these local solutions? To funders, to academics, to international NGOs, to other local communities? Admittedly, for maximum international impact, messages have to be formulated in a certain way. Giving free rein to participants might undermine the potential of the community owned solutions and again, partners may have to be prescriptive to a certain extent. We encourage communities to consider questions such as: What's the wider context? Why is this practice relevant? Why do you think it is a best solution? What should I do to apply it to another community? By doing so, are we changing their traditional way of communicating their knowledge (e.g. storytelling)? Are we forcing communities to provide explanations and answers so that we just stop pestering them with endless questions? Sometimes, maybe, yes. However, this addresses the complexity of our globalised world, where institutions, stakeholders, citizens around the world increasingly interact and interplay.
And if one thing brings us together right now, it's definitely this overarching theme of environmental sustainability. Finding ways to give a voice to indigenous communities who have managed to survive in an extremely challenging social and natural environment, as well as finding ways to make this voice heard, is definitely a challenge that must be addressed.