As it turns out, fruit dryers were unpopular in a coastal village in Nicaragua where a group of engineers were working. Had they known that “yes” in Nicaragua could sometimes mean “we don’t want to offend you,” they could have provided a different service.
In another instance, had development professionals not instantly assumed that walking to a well was a burden, they might have realized that the water faucets installed inside houses in a remote African village were cutting into women’s sacred time. Women in that particular area considered their journeys to collect water as time out of their homes.
I am confident that in both cases, aid workers had the intention of addressing local needs with available technology. Just the same, something got in the way of a successful project and what actually transpired.
Over the course of many years in the field, I took on the task of trying to understand why there appeared to be a gap between the desire to help a community and actually addressing its needs. I was soon introduced to participatory or collaborative methods but was disappointed to find that this only did part of the job of filling the gap. In observing and trying to implement participatory projects, I realized that before we can ask for the community’s input, we need to learn an entirely new way of communicating. I started to explore how cultures in different parts of the world practice a wide range of techniques to ask questions and listen for answers. Once we learn how this is done locally, we can hear what a community really needs or desires. Only then can we start to do participatory development.
Although we have a massive blind spot when it comes to truly communicating, we should not be too critical of ourselves as this has always been hidden from our awareness. In fact, similar to how computers operate within the boundaries of their programming, we, too, are subject to communication boundaries of unconscious cultural programming. Starting at birth, we are continually fed information on how to relate to others, what is “good and bad,” “right and wrong.” On an unconscious level, we amass this hidden reservoir of information that gives birth to our ideas of what is “common sense.”
Unless you have lived for years in another country, you may not know how intensely this cultural programming dictates how you communicate ideas. Furthermore, simply living in another country does not necessarily mean this link becomes clear. In order to carry through with productive participatory projects, we need to revisit this programming and learn a new way to listen. Luckily for us, scientists now tell us that we are not simply computers running a program. Through training, we can create new ways of seeing the world and interacting with it.
There is an inherent issue in international development that feeds into this conversation. The bulk of international development projects are funded by the developed North with the outflow of support headed to the developing South. With some notable exceptions in northern Asia, the cultural mores in these northern countries tend toward competitive individualism. This is a different programming than exists in the southern areas, where people tend to be more community oriented. These two fundamentally different orientations rarely ever seamlessly unite on participatory projects. What flows logically and automatically from these different orientations are dissimilar communication patterns, different ways of asking questions and listening to responses.
Once the recognition of difference exists, we can focus on that intermediary step of refreshing our programming so we can really learn how to collaborate on a project. There are many ways to do this but I am going to recommend one that is extremely simple: pause.
People from individualistic cultures tend to prefer direct, rapid fire let’s-get-this-done communication. This is appropriate to accomplish tasks efficiently and continue to move ahead. In this communication style, there is little tolerance for long breaks in conversations. Those from collectivistic cultures, however, prefer more circular, diffuse, indirect communication patterns. This is appropriate and effective in areas where preserving the reputation of everyone in the group is a priority. In these areas, long breaks in communication are not only expected but also necessary.
I know if I were in a group with people who had a range of roles in my community, it would take me a while to formulate a response that would not offend anyone. It may even take a few days. Therefore, to get the gems of information from people in collectivistic communities, pause. Allow for the process to unfold. Listening for indirect messages could have helped the professionals in that particular village in Africa understand the need of the women there to have an excuse to leave their house. Allowing for a longer pause might have helped the locals in that village in Nicaragua express that they were not interested in fruit dryers. Only when we learn this can we begin to truly serve communities, address real human needs and, honestly, save money we have been wasting for years on dead-end projects.
I would never assert that attuning to differences in communication is the only thing holding us back from successful participatory development. The fact that the community’s needs were never really heard just adds to the list of problems in development work such as time constraints, tight budgets, and limited technology. Just the same, I have learned with over 12 years in the field that this is an oft-ignored element.
The idea of participatory development has been included in international development documents since the 1970s when top-down dam projects were obviously more harmful than helpful to a number of communities in Asia. Now, 40 years later, stressing the importance of grassroots collaborative projects seems to be part of the most basic conversation on development.
We “know” that we need community input to have successful and sustainable projects. So, why is it surprising that the fruit dryer given to that community in Nicaragua is gathering dust in a closet a year later or women in a remote village in Africa are not fond of the water faucets that have been put into their houses? The answer is simple: We decided we should listen but we never learned how.
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