Local market in Maubisse

I’ve been on a steep learning curve recently, trying to get my head around the literature on economic recovery for communities affected by conflict.

It sounds quite different to what Bridging Peoples normally does, but it’s not really. We recently won a grant together with our Turkey-based project partner TCD to conduct some research on the delivery of livelihood aid in Syrian communities. The idea is to look for lessons on what’s working and what’s not in the delivery of livelihood aid, and what that might mean for local markets in the longer term.

It’s truly exciting stuff, and I’m honoured to be a part of the project.

As I’m going down the rabbit-hole of this area of academic enquiry, looking around in the literature on fragile and failed states, checking out what we know about economic recovery in other countries affected by conflict such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Liberia, I keep asking myself the same question: why do we insist on treating communities and cultures as though they’re a blank slate? Like they’re terra nullius, where we can implement whatever we want without regard for local context? It doesn’t matter if it’s development work or humanitarian aid, this failure to fit approach to context seems to be a common theme throughout.

But the thing is, wherever there are people there are communities. And wherever there are communities, there is culture, which carries with it different values and ways of living and understanding the world. Whether we’re talking about communities affected by conflict or communities in a time of peace, this basic fact remains.

So why don’t we begin our work by fitting our approach to the local context? Why do we insist on taking a one-size-fits-all approach?

I used to think that it was because of personal failings—that those with power would simply introduce whatever they wanted, and those without power had to accept it. And perhaps there is some truth to this: I think it’s hard to avoid these problems in the development and humanitarian aid world, where imbalances of power are threaded throughout everything that we do. As a friend of mine likes to say, in this industry we’re a bunch of well-meaning meddlers.

But I no longer believe this. I personally know so many intelligent, kind and compassionate individuals who continue to put their best work in, day after day, in extraordinarily challenging circumstances. It’s not easy, and they pay a high personal price for continuing to do this work.

These days, I tend to think that it’s more about the systems that we work in, which encourage certain ways of thinking over others. In particular, our results-driven focus means we forget issues of process. Of course, we all want to achieve results—that’s what we’re here to do! But this one-eyed focus on outputs and outcomes can mean that we forget that there are many different paths to achieving the same results. We blithely choose the better-known paths, without reflecting on their appropriateness to that context.

And in doing so, we view communities as a bunch of needs, instead of acknowledging the complicated and sometimes messy realities that different communities present. We focus on their weaknesses and forget about their strengths, which if only leveraged as part of our work processes could form a unique foundation for our work.

So let’s get back to basics, and think about process. This doesn’t replace the technical work—that’s essential. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that we consider it an essential counterpoint to the technical work work, opening up different options on how that work gets done.

What processes might you adapt to better fit your work and community context?

 

Our 10-week online course on community engagement, Working With Communities, is now open! Go to www.workingwithcommunities.com for more information. Sign up before 19 September, and receive a 25% discount!