Ideas we’re not ready for are the ones we need most
Guest Post: Barbara Geary Truan
Some ideas precede and shape reality, the ones that lie behind everything we create. Other ideas lag behind an often hidden reality: they seek then find it. Galileo Galilei observed the skies for years before coming up with the notion that the earth was revolving around the sun. Both kinds of ideas have something essential to offer development professionals today.
The first tells us that if we can envision a world without poverty, we can create it. But it also begs the question of why, in spite of the last 50 years of development work, more than a billion people today live on less than $1.25, putting them below the internationally accepted norm of extreme poverty. This, I think, is where the second kind of idea comes in.
If we gaze at the development skies, we might begin to sense a centre around which both poverty and wealth rotate; we might come to recognise these opposites as distinct faces of the industrial revolution and the mechanistic thinking that underpins it.
With machines (technology, automatic process) as the ground of our systems, the reigning values are: mass production, identical forms, standard measurements. And the requirement is: unlimited consumption, both of raw materials and finished products. An unintentional result is that the system tends to overlook and undervalue a whole set of powerful variables and realities – those which are distinctly human.
What would happen if we allowed development thinking to cut itself loose from the tentacles of a mechanised view of the world? What if, for example, we introduced a quality like humility – the kind of humility Galileo experienced when gazing at the skies – into our thinking? What if we concentrated as much on what we don’t know as on what we do know? What if we threw out the molds and conveyor belts of development initiatives and decided to let it be an exclusively human endeavour?
I think if we had the courage required for such an undertaking, three exciting things would happen:
1. We would shift the order of the “five Ws”: what, where and when would play second fiddle to WHO and WHY. To stop assuming that these last two questions always have the same generic answers (“poor people” and “we want to help”) can be powerful. These assumptions become labels and labels become reductionist. Making them more specific opens wide two windows of possibility we often forget are there. A specific and thus enriched “who” automatically introduces collaboration, partnership and diversity into our work. A deeply specific, clearly articulated “why” has the potential to keep it honest.
2. We would shift our thinking about time: when time becomes human, we notice two things. First, we get to be in charge of it. Paying attention to detail, allowing time for deep thinking while planning, or shifting time frames to accommodate reality during a project, all give us sovereignty over time. Secondly, we would notice that creating wealth and health where poverty and illness have installed themselves takes time. Put simply, development projects that take a long view are the only ones that really work because, as in any relationship, commitment is a game changer.
3. We would see a different picture: when we allow development to be human, we begin to see and understand the human beings who have the most at stake in the process. And when we meet and know them, we look beyond the mere context of their lives to see how they live their lives. When we do this we see vast – seemingly unlimited – amounts of creativity, ingenuity, intelligence, courage, fortitude, to name just a few notable human qualities for which there are no standard measures.
These ideas aren’t theoretical. A few of the finest development initiatives I know of embody the human approach. In northwestern India, in a geographically isolated region with limited resources, an organisation called Shrujan has been quietly creating wealth and helping artisans sustain themselves while nurturing an integral part of their culture for almost fifty years. In South Africa, a project known as Umzi Wethu has come up with an original, dynamic and transferrable model for completely turning around the lives of vulnerable youth.
There are other examples like these. Valuing Voices exists to celebrate them and to encourage development professionals to look at them carefully and imitate what makes them so successful. Such work whispers of an unmoving sun, nudging us to imagine that there just may be another centre somewhere else in the sky: maybe even right in the heart of the enormous potential of what we label “poor”.
When Jindra invited me to write this blog, she mentioned that at a recent conference on development monitoring and evaluation, someone told her that Valuing Voices was an idea for which people were not yet ready. Hurray, I thought. That means she must really be on to something great.
Barbara Geary Truan holds a master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School. She worked for six years at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and for over a decade as an evaluator for a philanthropical initiative that supports original working projects designed to better the world.