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Venilale, Timor-Leste, 2009

Community-sensitive development is a term that I have coined to describe ways of working that put communities at the centre of development. I guess what I’ve tried to do is to capture in a single phrase the work that I’ve been doing over the past decade or so, first in the Aboriginal Australian context and then in the Timor-Leste context. Partly, this is because it seems like an easier answer when the inevitable question ‘so, what do you do?’ arises at dinner parties. Certainly it’s more informative than ‘that weird thing that Deb researches’, which is often how my work has been described. But it’s also, I think, important to attempt to quantify it. To give it a name.

Over the years, what was originally a professional interest has become my life, my mission. My love. The people I once lived with as I was conducting research, high up in the mountains of Timor-Leste, have become my family. I care deeply about what happens in this village. I want to see things work out for them.

Being connected to this family and community has taught me so much. I have had the privilege of watching as people experienced first hand the introduction of capitalism and of liberal democratic systems of governance—both of which form the (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) baggage of development. I’ve been part of the discussions that they have about what’s working for them, and what’s not working.

And what I have learned, as I have watched how development projects have been implemented in the communities I’ve lived in, is that so much is missed. Without a doubt, change has come. But not always the ‘right’ change. So much has been lost, so much thrown away by people and organisations wanting to ‘improve’ the community. I’ve spoken to elders who told me of their great sadness, seeing the old, communal decision-making processes of their culture being ignored, and now slipping away. I’ve spoken to younger people who want all the benefits that the new systems bring, who move to the capital city, and now spend their days being unemployed and poor—sometimes happier and sometimes sadder about their new circumstances. I’ve seen first-hand the divisiveness that money can bring to a community, when projects are implemented by people who do not understand the context—witnessing the irony of development projects ultimately making things worse.

I’ve also seen the great beauty of people who choose to come together in their community to make positive change. I’ve seen people who have experienced great violence, choose to work things out, to figure out how they are going to live together. I’ve seen very poor people who always give what they can to help each other out, using whatever resources are at hand, including their cultural and spiritual beliefs, to make their lives better.

What I’ve noticed is that most of the time, these things work because they emerge from the community themselves. From their context, their reality and worldview.

As I have learned more about village life, one thing has become crystal clear to me: the approach of the ‘development industry’ needs updating. This doesn’t mean giving up on the idea altogether. Quite the opposite. There is inherent human good in alleviating poverty, and in promoting human rights (including the whole spectrum of social, economic, cultural and political rights.) What I mean is that the basic idea which underpins the development industry needs to be put to rest, once and for all. This is the idea that a society, or a community, should ‘develop’ by moving from ‘traditional’ ways of being to more ‘modern’ ways of being. The inbuilt presumption is that this is what we’re all working towards.

But is it really? I mean, stop and think about it. What does the word modernity actually mean? What does traditional mean? The images that spring to mind are actually pretty flimsy. Perhaps you think about a particular dress code, or different types of housing, or access to technology. But as concepts, they’re actually pretty hard to define. And if they’re hard to define, this indicates that there’s something

What I have learned is that the lived experience of villagers living in a postcolonial setting is not one of artificially choosing between state-based (modern) and customary (traditional) ways of being. The reality is that people need both: they are simultaneously members of their culture as well as citizens of the state. They cross daily between cultural systems of governance and state-based systems of governance, and these systems bleed into each other, they inform each other. This basic fact has very practical implications for the development process.

What I have termed community-sensitive development is all about moving away from this unhelpful baggage of modernity and tradition, and instead finding ways to embrace and work with the cultural diversity that exists in communities. The emphasis is on process as much as it is on outcome. It borrows significantly from community development, but it’s different in that its scope is often much larger than a single community. But while its scope is similar to international development, it is qualitatively quite different to these larger-scale development approaches that tend to follow a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s about putting community realities and needs at the heart of everything that we do. It’s about taking local politics – and culture and customary governance – seriously enough to include it in all the development work that we do.