The power of seeing our world through new lenses

Last year, I was sitting in a small village near Butembo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was part of my work of evaluating a peacebuilding project run by a local NGO based in Beni, with funding from a UK foundation. I introduced myself and explained why I was there. I wanted to learn about the small health centre that the women had built, which now made it possible for villagers to get basic health care in their village.
There was a pause after I spoke, as if no one was sure who should speak. Then one of the women began to talk. She explained that their leader, a strong woman who had spearheaded the project, had been killed in a traffic accident not long before. She explained that over the past few years, the villagers had been forced to flee into the bush several times, and each time, they lost more of what they had built. To mark their decision that this time, they would stay put, they had built the small health centre and the community building in which we were sitting. (The NGO had provided the metal for the building’s roof; everything else they had done themselves.)
I saw many similar examples of peoples’ courage and determination to make life better for their communities during that trip. It would be a very long list if I tried to tell you about all of them here.

A different picture
Suffice it to say that meeting all those people gave me an entirely different picture of that area of eastern DRC. The media stories often portrayed a dangerous place and people as victims of violence, but that is only part of the picture. Those media stories generally did not suggest a place where people had dignity, determination to build a better life, innovative solutions, and a commitment to help those who had less than they did. But that is what I saw.
These are not the stories that most North Americans hear in the mainstream media. I learned this when I was asked to talk about Hopebuilding wiki by a dynamic group in Wenatchee, in Washington State, a few years ago. They said they found it difficult to find any stories except the ones about how things were not working – stories of deficits, rather than stories of assets. (This group has gone on to apply an asset-based appreciative inquiry approach to their own work and it is having profound effects in their community.)
Finding these stories, whether in North America or in the rest of the world, involves changing the lenses through which we look at the world. In the 1980s, two Americans helped create new lenses. David Cooperrider developed the ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach, which looked for what is strong and alive in an organization and builds on that rather than looking for what is not working. John McKnight realized that the key to community development was helping communities see what they had, knew and could do, rather than what they didn’t have, didn’t know and couldn’t do. Both ‘asset-based community development’ and ‘appreciative inquiry’ offer us new lenses to see our world, whatever part of that world we live in.
The deficit-based approach does not bring hope or dignity to anyone. Seeing what people can’t do creates the idea that they need someone to guide them and do it for them, and that they need resources from outside before they can start anything. But ‘experts’, no matter how knowledgeable about their subject, cannot be ‘experts’ on a particular community and its people. It is the people of the community who are the experts on their place.

The power of ‘horizontal development’
The Community Development Resource Association calls this process of working with local knowledge ‘horizontal development’ – neighbours helping neighbours. It is a different process than ‘vertical development’, where experts come into a community to ‘fix’ it. Horizontal development is a universal process. In communities around the world, what inspires us to do something is seeing our neighbours do it and learning from what they do. Often this does not require money.
The first story I ever put on Hopebuilding wiki was the story of a principal in a small village in Lesotho. Her teachers were telling her that students couldn’t concentrate because they were hungry. How she addressed this challenge ended up changing life in the whole region.
She saw that around her school, there was vacant land that could be cultivated. Over time, she helped the parents see that possibility, too. Then she brought in a small South African NGO that helped the farmers see that they could grow several crops a year – which was not how they had farmed up until then.
The parents planted crops in that vacant land around the school, the home economics class used those crops to prepare meals, and the students’ academic work improved because their stomachs were full. The community’s food security improved as well, because the parents also applied that same knowledge to their own farming.
As neighbours from other villages heard the story, they came to see it for themselves. Then they began to do the same thing in their villages, and soon, there was a network of such programs all over the region – and the only outside resources involved had been the expertise of that small NGO, whose approach was to build on what the parents already knew about farming.
This is the power of horizontal development – it changes people’s lenses about their own community and by doing so, it opens up new possibilities for what they can do for themselves. Often they can see possibilities for doing something that addresses a number of problems at once (see, for example, the Kibera community cooker).

Sharing encourages replication
Such stories can be found in every place in the world, including those places that are experiencing conflict. What we need to do is to share these stories with each other, and that is the delight of the internet – it is becoming easier for people to access, and share, these stories, and thus replicate their neighbours’ achievements in their own community. And that is happening in North America as much as in the rest of the world.
Sometimes neighbours need some money to carry out a project – and in that area, too, new kinds of organizations have grown from these new lenses. Organizations such as Kiva.org make it possible for neighbours in North America and Europe to support the activities of their neighbours in other parts of the world. This is an investment in human capacity, and ingenuity, and determination – and thus, dignity. And this is what is changing our world, even if it doesn’t always make the headlines.

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  1. Pingback: A Day Without Dignity 2012 – Local Champions | Good Intentions Are Not Enough

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