The opportunities for ‘government as platform’

Recently I have been reading an increasing number of comments about institutional and governance failure – about how our governance systems don’t work any longer. The comments seem to fall into two categories – despair, and hope. Some people look at the failure of governance to deal with changing circumstances, and think the answer is to institute ever more control. Others look at such failure and see hope for creating something new.

It reminds me that when I first began studying ‘failed states’ earlier this decade, I discovered – amid the many ideas for teaching improved governance  to ‘failing’ governments – a wonderful nugget of new possibility. This was the idea that state failure provided an opportunity to create something entirely new, and that such failure was – as in nature – a natural part of life. It was not something to be addressed by trying to restore systems that no longer worked – as in Somalia.

Today’s governance institutions are in some ways the last remnant of 19th century industrial structure. Government structures haven’t really changed that much in a century – they still organize themselves within ‘silos’, as if a health department is solely responsible for health and an employment department is solely responsible for work. At best, they seem to tinker with the names, so that ‘unemployment insurance’ becomes ‘employment insurance’ but the complex rules don’t change.

Similarly, at the international level, governments often behave as if they are the only ones who can solve a problem, even as it becomes clear to everyone that our problems are interconnected and so the solutions must also be interconnected. Municipalities, as the level of governance closest to people locally, have known this for quite some time and have been on the leading edge of changing structures to more effectively serve people.

But this change from the bottom doesn’t seem to percolate upwards. Governments seem to be the prisoners of bureaucratic structures that change slowly and creakily, if at all. I think this is because governments have seen their role as ‘controlling’ rather than ‘co-creating’, even as factories and stores and schools changed how they operated. Deep down, this is because governments don’t seem to trust their citizens or don’t believe they can find solutions to challenging problems – even as citizens are doing so.

Food is one key example. Local solutions see how interconnected the challenges of farmers finding markets, children and hospital patients having better nutrition, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are. So we have farmers using the internet to find customers locally and thus having a guaranteed market; schools and hospitals sourcing food locally, improving food quality and supporting local farmers; and people realizing that buying food locally means that food doesn’t have to be trucked, or flown in, from destinations far away.

Several years ago, a couple in BC began blogging about the question of where their food came from, and decided to live on food that was grown or raised only within a 100 mile radius. Their diet was quite sparse at first. For one thing, people no longer grew grain within that 100 miles as they had once done. Their experiment led to a book. That book created awareness, and awareness created change. People began to grow grain, to be aware of local food sources, and to begin supporting them. No one at the top decided to create a changed system – this change grew from the bottom up . And it has spread around the world, complementing the Slow Food Movement.

These self-organizing innovations come from the power of knowledge. Governments should work with them, rather than trying to co-opt them. I read yesterday that the Canadian food inspection agency has just changed the definition of ‘local’ to cover a much larger area than just the area around a community, and on the same day, food stores began to label as ‘local’ foods that are not grown as locally as local people understand the term.

Would it not be more sensible for government to collect these stories of innovation, share them, and also examine how their policies can support this kind of change? This is the idea of ‘government as platform’, rather than the idea of government as ‘regulator’.

In some ways, it seems that governments are contributing to the collapse of this idea of their role as manager, and regulator. Austerity, imposed from the top of the system downwards, has led many people to return to the communities they left, long ago, to seek opportunity in the city. This return to villages offers government an opportunity to support a more sustainable economy, but it requires governments to change how they think about what they do, and how they organize themselves. People who return to villages bring skills they learned in cities, and in turn must learn older skills from those who stayed, and this blend can rejuvenate local village economies – and this is true whether it is people returning as a result of governmental austerity policies, or refugees returning home after conflict.

Many of the most sustainable answers to drought-ravaged land come from local people who have learned how interconnected their problems are – water management, crop selection, land management, markets – and have been able to restore natural systems that once worked well. When others see these systems in action, and learn the principles behind them, they too adapt them for their villages. The result is a better life for everyone, as well as a healthier ecosystem.

One of the things about ‘government as platform’ is that platforms make possible widespread sharing of information. And once people have information, they use it locally in a way that fits their circumstances. So information platforms create diverse solutions that address problems as big as building peace, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, restoring degraded land – from a local perspective.

Underneath the radar, people around the world are reinventing governance as they find ways to manage land communally. To grow food for themselves and their community. To create work while protecting local resources and people. All of this offers an invitation to governments to change their approach, and thus their structure – not to try and strengthen structures developed in a bygone era that no longer work.


The importance of learning to distinguish anger from violence

Anger makes me uncomfortable, I must admit. And last month, I finally realized exactly why that is. It is because for me anger has often seemed indistinguishable from violence, whether it is direct or indirect. Anger seems dangerous, uncontrolled, and frightening, and so I have often had difficulty expressing anger or hearing others express anger to me.

I have discovered I am not alone in that. I attended the Anger, Boundaries and Safety workshop at The Haven, on the west coast of Canada. The Haven is a place where I have gone several times over the past 15 years to learn about myself – why I think and behave the way I do, how it affects my relationships with those around me, and how I can change what I don’t like and celebrate what I do like.

This workshop is based on the pioneering work on anger done by the late Dr. Joann Peterson, a world authority on this topic. She ran these workshops at Haven for many years, based on her book of the same name, and is featured in a video called The Anger Toolbox – A Blueprint for Responsible Anger, Boundaries and Safety, to which I have just been listening.

A courageous choice?

One profound realization for me is how few of us learn, as children or as adults, to feel and express anger responsibly and safely. We don’t often think of anger as being a courageous choice or a constructive choice, because too often in our own experience, anger and rage may have been intertwined. Unexpressed anger doesn’t go away, however, Joann said. We carry it in our body, which has health consequences for us and thus costs for society as a whole; or we express it in socially sanctioned ways, from violent video games through addictions through sporting riots, that often can be damaging to ourselves and our relationships with others.

There are ways to express anger responsibly and safely, and the workshop helps participants understand how to do this. It involves being clear about our own intentions, getting permission from the other person, being determined to express anger in a way that is ‘personal, relational and constructive’, and doing it in a way that is boundaried and safe. There are tools, and strategies, that we can learn and apply.

Violence, whether it is socially sanctioned or indirect or direct attacks on others, sees others as objects, not as people; does not care about what they think or what their personal boundaries may be; and is impulsive and reactive. It is about exercising control, about getting one’s own way no matter what others may think or wish. It harms others emotionally and often physically as well, and it damages our relationships with each other. Put simply, violence is crossing a person’s boundaries with intent to hurt that person or to exercise power over that person.

Lessons for peacebuilding?

While I went to the workshop because I wanted to learn about anger and boundaries for myself, I cannot help but reflect on how sharing such knowledge widely could affect peacebuilding and governance around the world.

How many of us as peacebuilders understand and are comfortable with expressing anger responsibly and are able to walk with others as they do the same thing? How many of us might be more likely to shut down, rather than to facilitate, responsible expressions of anger within a group or community that is recovering from conflict? How many of us are able to clearly distinguish anger and violence?

Fear of anger, or internalization of anger because it cannot be expressed outwardly, can cause great harm, I think. I remember meeting some young boys in Africa who had joined armed groups because they feared their parents would be angry because they had lost the family cow while herding. I remember hearing people in various parts of Eastern Europe apologize in case they had said something incorrectly, if they had said something that could be construed as being mildly critical of others.

Then there are the examples of how governments and police forces have chosen to respond to citizens’ honest anger (individual protests against injustice and inequality which effectively say “I matter; listen to me”, like the one that set off the Arab Spring) by preparing to meet anticipated violence with violence, thus setting off an escalating cycle of violence that causes injuries and death and damages property.

How different might the outcomes be, both individually and societally, if we distinguished clearly between anger and violence; learned, and taught others, how to express anger responsibly and safely; and were absolutely clear about the nature, characteristics and impacts of violence in all its forms, both indirect and direct.

Using local knowledge to plan coherent post-conflict rebuilding

‘The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.’ Meas Nee, Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages

This wonderful image captures for me the essence of rebuilding after conflict. It is a slow, gradual process of rebuilding the local structures and governance that has been destroyed or damaged by war. It reflects the idea that rebuilding depends on working with local people to restore and enhance their capacities and abilities, even as they are recovering from the trauma of what they have experienced. And it starts at the bottom of the system, and not the top.

I was thinking about this image as I read about the pleas of people in northern Mali for government officials to return, so that services can return to normality. IRIN News reported on Monday that people living in Gao and Timbukti, in northern Mali, are “calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of ‘complete chaos’. “ While the insurgent groups are mostly gone, thanks to the French, Chadian and Malian armies, only a few administrators have returned.

While they are waiting for the government officials to return, IRIN reported, “town residents – including village elders, chiefs, women and youths – are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.” But while some key officials in Gao and Timbuktu have come back, officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return. Clearly, that limits the amount and extent of rebuilding that can take place.

However, those exiled officials represent an extremely useful resource of local knowledge that could aid military and government in ensuring that the transition from relief to rebuilding is a smooth continuum. Often in such situations, longer term planning (if it is done) is done from a distance by people who don’t know the area well, if at all. Regarding those officials as a ‘think tank’ full of local expertise could allow government and the military to create rebuilding plans that are meaningful and useful for local communities. Quick impact projects thus could be planned so they help form part of the foundation for long-term recovery that can begin once government officials return.

The situation points out, once again, the need for military interventions to be thinking beyond the shorter term aims of restoring law and order in places where conflict has occurred or is occurring.

Even as soldiers are sent in, someone should be planning for the time when peace will return and people will want services to return as well. That is a lesson that has been drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places which have experienced military interventions in the past decade or more. Such an approach is respectful of both local people and of the soldiers who intervene, ensuring that their efforts can have maximum locally-appropriate impact and thus make the best use of any available local resources, diaspora funding, and donor funding.


Plea for return of officials to northern Mali, IRIN News, April 22, 2013
Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages, Meas Nee, 1999 – chapter 5.

Solutions to a ‘wicked’ problem – dealing with Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Our Canadian human security and peacebuilding class visited Gulu in 2005, just after the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony. The community’s leaders were not happy, feeling this would disrupt their efforts to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In fact, they had travelled to the Hague to ask the ICC not to proceed with the warrant.

During our visit, we heard from Betty Bigombe, a former cabinet minister in the Ugandan government, who had been involved in supporting the local peacebuilding process and had met with LRA forces in the bush – difficult and dangerous work. I remember she mentioned that Kony and the LRA kept a close watch on the community, and that this offered possibilities of influencing their activities, but at the time, I didn’t fully realize the significance of this comment.

I have since learned that in many conflict areas, communication channels often remain open between fighters in the bush and their family and friends in the community. Sometimes these channels encourage those in the bush to return home by sharing stories of ex-combatants and how the community is treating them. Armed groups in the bush, in fact, sometimes send small groups back to the community to test the veracity of these stories, offering one potential way to reduce or end the impact of such groups locally.

In the case of Joseph Kony, however, given his appalling brutality and apparent ability to move around the region unchecked, the only solution external eyes can see seems to be a military one. You can see this sense of revulsion about Kony and the LRA in the reaction to the Kony2012 video that went viral, understandably prompting many people to ask why this has been allowed to continue for so long.

The problem is that effectively, the LRA problem is much more complicated than just ‘taking out Kony’ – it could be called a ‘wicked’ problem in more ways than one. And in terms of answers, the voices that have been heard most loudly have not been the voices of the local people who know the most about the problem and who have worked hard to address it over many years.

Military campaigns have actually broadened the scope of the LRA’s depredations, into the remote borderlands areas of Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo where governments are effectively absent. You can see this clearly in a map in Conciliation Resources’ excellent 2011 report, When will this end and what will it take?

Moving into these areas from northern Uganda, where Kony began several decades ago, has changed the LRA’s ethnic makeup (more than 3,400 people, mostly children, have been abducted since 2008) but not the fact that the LRA is mostly made up of children who fear being beaten or killed if they resist or try to escape. Each military attack leads to more LRA attacks on civilians and more kidnapping of children, thus widening the scale of the problem. As the LRA has moved into these new regions, it has collaborated with some local groups, which in turn disrupts the normal communal conflict resolution strategies that maintain order in the absence of government in such remote regions, and its attacks have caused massive displacements of people.

LRA activities in the borderlands regions of Central African Republic, Southern Sudan and northern Democratic Republic of Congo have severely disrupted livelihoods in the entire region. People stay in towns rather than cultivate their fields and so local prices for staples rise, and land use conflicts increase within the small area where it is safe to cultivate. As displaced people come to towns, humanitarian agencies draw in staff from elsewhere, compounding the pressure on local resources. Local self-defence groups, created to protect local communities, can end up themselves becoming a community problem – although not always.

Communities who aid those who escape from the LRA often are attacked as a result, and the report notes that the LRA has been known to carry out fake surrenders which target both potential escapers and receiving communities. In much of the region, even if they do manage to escape, former LRA members – male and female – often have a difficult time being accepted back into their communities.

What is needed to deal with such a difficult problem, the report concludes, is a multi-pronged and long-term strategy. Dealing with the LRA alone does not recognize that it is a part of a “complex web of violent conflicts and regional political and security rivalries.” Such a comprehensive approach needs to combine political, mediation, security, humanitarian and developmental efforts and should have three main strands, the report suggests.

Strand one: address the regional military and political rivalries through political dialogue that focuses on Khartoum, Kampala and Juba and involves other regional actors. Military actions should focus primarily on protecting civilians rather than pursuing the LRA
Strand two: develop a regional approach to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of former LRA combatants that is set within a context of seriously addressing “governance, social and developmental challenges in these neglected areas.”
Strand three: put the option of dialogue with the LRA back on the table and create space for informal engagement to happen.

A key part of the strategy involves seeing local people as partners, rather than ‘passive beneficiaries”, and investing in their role and their capacity. Local people understand the conflict’s local dynamics and consequences; they can go into affected areas; and they have a long-term commitment to address the effects of the violence. Thus they can “play peacebuilding roles across borders that governments and intergovernmental bodies cannot”. The report provides a list of specific recommendations in this area.

In a blog post entitled What will it take to end the conflict with the LRA?, Kennedy Tumutegyereize puts it this way:

Despite enormous odds, support for a strategy based on protection and engagement is widespread among those who bear the brunt of the conflict, civil society and communities across the region. They recognise that building a just and lasting peace takes time. This is a job that requires support for local approaches and peacebuilding initiatives rather than imposing more external firepower.

In 2005, when we asked people in Gulu what we could do to help, they said: “tell people about us.” Over the years, many of us have done that – but our voices did not have the impact of that one viral video, Kony2012. I am grateful to Invisible Children for making the problem known worldwide. Now I hope that everyone who has seen the video and wondered “what can we do” will listen to the voices of the local people who have lived with this terrible problem all these years.

More reading:

For more information about local perspectives, see #StopKony: efforts to end the LRA conflict must listen to local people (Conciliation Resources)

When will this end and what will it take? Peoples perspectives on addressing the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict. Conciliation Resources, November 2011 report.

** “Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)

The peacebuilding power of learning where we come from

Family history or genealogical research may seem a long way from peacebuilding, at first glance. But anyone who has been watching the television programs, Who do you think you are?, which helps famous people trace their ancestry, may have noticed that often the result is to link people in different parts of the world.

Many families, especially in North America, came from somewhere else – voluntarily or involuntarily. And there is an increasing interest on the part of many people to trace their family history. I know this, because family history is one of my interests. Such research, however, can go beyond just helping a particular person find their roots.

In the 1990s, as a result of my electoral knowledge, I was appointed by the Government of Canada to join the body that was running the voting process on the Gwich’in comprehensive claim settlement, between the Gwich’in people of the Mackenzie Delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the Canadian government. The claim was approved by the Gwich’in voters, and then an enrolment commission was created. I was appointed to that body as well.

Our task was to enroll all eligible Gwich’in people in the claim. To be enrolled, people had to be able to trace their ancestry back to 1921, when Treaty 8 was signed. But over the years, there had been many changes in how the Gwich’in lived. Children had been sent to residential schools far from home and consequently, many of them did not know who their grandparents were. And the Mackenzie River Valley had lost many of its elders during the terrible flu epidemic of 1918.

Researching family history
When we began asking people to complete the application forms, we found that people often could not list their grandparents or great-grandparents, which would take them back to 1921. So the enrollment board began a project to carry out research that would help people identify their ancestors. This project traced the Gwich’in families and used the knowledge of elders, like the late Sarah Simon, who was always known as Jijuu or grandmother, to put together a picture of Gwich’in genealogy. This was a complicated process as in the early days, the Gwich’in did not use surnames. People were known by individual names, that often were derived from a particular characteristic or a particular event.

I served on the enrollment board but I also got involved in this project because the person who had begun writing up the history could not finish that work. As I also was a writer, the board asked if I would complete the writing project. I was quite nervous about doing this as I did not feel I knew enough. But I agreed, as it was such an important project.

Once the writing was complete, the board organized a workshop with the Gwich’in elders to review the text. I still remember it vividly. I sat and listened as Elizabeth Crawford, a Gwich’in-born adult educator, read the text in Gwich’in. Periodically, the elders sitting around the table would laugh. I was so focused on my fear that I had not done a good job on my part of the writing that this laughter at first made me nervous. So during a break, I asked Elizabeth – why are they laughing? Did I make mistakes in the writing?

She smiled at me. They were laughing because it is so funny, the stories of how people got their names, she said. And so I relaxed, and was able to listen fully to the rest of the workshop.

Learning who she was
While there were elders around the table who were knowledgeable about the history and could add information or correct mistakes, one of the biggest impacts was on the younger people who were present. I remember one young woman saying that at last, she understood who her people were. She knew where she fitted into her peoples’ history now. It was something she had never learned.

And that was when I learned that one impact of many of the residential schools run by churches with funding from the Canadian government was to cut young people off from their family history. If they had been at home in their communities and continued to speak their language, their grandparents could have told them their history. But during their school years, many of them were far away from home and being taught in English. One result was that they did not know their own ancestry.

It was not just the enrolment process that helped reconnect people with their history. The Gwich’in people lived in the Yukon territory and in Alaska as well, but over time, these families had grown away from each other. One year, however, there was a major forest fire in the Yukon and many Gwich’in people were brought into Inuvik for safety. That gave people an opportunity to reconnect at the community level.

I saw a similar instance of this power of community connection on one episode of Who do you think you are?, when American actor Blair Underwood was tracing his roots. His ancestors came from Africa, but he had – like so many others – no idea of where in Africa they had come from. Genealogical research and DNA testing linked him with a cousin in a small village in Cameroon, and he and his father then visited that village, reconnecting family that had been separated so long before.

The creation of states, and boundaries, and borders, has often divided people in artificial ways. One of the great impacts of genealogical research, I think, is to show how interconnected our world is. And that changes how we see our world, and creates links that go beyond the states in which we live.

Growing up – freedom or obligation?

Reading the many stories of locally-led development shared through the blog event Day Without Dignity 2012 – Local Champions was fascinating. Some of the posts told stories of local champions; others talked of how their perspectives had been changed when they sought out local knowledge or learned from local people.

Many times, it seems, the deepest differences in our thinking are not talked about because we each assume that others see the world the same way we do. These are, in effect, our ‘built-in’ lenses, the ones we don’t realize we have. One of those differences, I believe, is the idea about obligations to family when we reach adulthood – about the extent to which we have ‘free will’ to pursue our own destinies as adults.

I remember exactly when this difference became clear to me. I was doing research in Brčko District in northern Bosnia, where local people have created a governance structure that reflects and respects all ethnicities. I was trying to understand how the district’s financing worked initially, and I was talking with a distinguished gentleman who had been involved in that process.

Trying to indicate that I had understood what he had said, I said ‘so it is like what happens when a person becomes an adult and thus independent from their family because they are earning their own money’. I remember the look of profound shock on his face as he explained to me that on reaching adulthood, a person becomes able to contribute to their family’s welfare through their earnings.

A cultural divide
Thus did I encounter what seems to be a fairly large cultural divide between North America and much of the rest of the world. I grew up in North America with the idea that when I became an adult, I might go somewhere else and work and eventually create my own family far away from my original family home. My parents’ obligations to me, in many ways, ended when I became an adult. Similarly, I did not expect my children to support me in old age.

In many other parts of the world, however, reaching adulthood means one is now able to contribute materially to one’s family’s wellbeing. In fact, reaching adulthood means taking on a whole set of responsibilities for one’s family – sometimes in effect becoming, at least economically, a parent to one’s own parents. ‘Free will’ for the individual, in that sense, is a foreign concept.

In many cultures, a young man cannot marry until he is able to support his parents and siblings as well as a wife. In many cultures, a young man’s earnings go into a family ‘pot’ that is allocated by the senior male in the family. But in North America, the idea of getting a job is so that you have your ‘own money’ that you can spend as you wish.

A brilliant book by Patrick Chabal, called Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, explores some of these differences in cultural understandings and their implications as they apply to Africa. He suggests that one of the western challenges in analyzing African politics is that we see through a filter that is created by our own assumptions about how societies, economies and political systems work – that we see individuals as ‘free agents’ and in fact, that we think such ‘free agency’ is a key part of being modern. His book explores what the ‘politics of being’ means in an African context, and as I read it, that picture is much closer to the one held by the aboriginal peoples of North America than to the rest of the continent’s inhabitants. It is a picture that is rooted in place, in family, and in obligation.

Polycropping vs monocropping
Another equally fascinating book, entitled Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott, looks at how the western idea of a state has developed and why so many projects intended to better the human condition have failed. He argues, in essence, that we create a ‘map’ that reduces the complexity of societies and then develop projects and approaches that rely on that artificially simple understanding. He provides a diverse variety of examples.

One involves the story of what happened when colonial agricultural specialists first encountered indigenous farming in West Africa. Local people were planting different crops in the same field simultaneously (now known as ‘polycropping’), which in that environment is exceptionally efficient. But those fields seemed sloppy and disorderly to the specialists, who considered ‘monocropping’  to be ‘modern’ – with often disastrous effects on crop yields and soil conservation. Polyculture, on the other hand, was perfectly suited to the local climate and local cultural and family practices.

This story illustrates why these kinds of assumptions matter so much. Projects often are designed from within our view of how the world works. The story about monocropping and polycropping is not that far removed from what many see when looking at ‘traditional’ societies in conflict. We assume that conflict has wiped the slate clean so that there is no local governance left in villages, and we start out to rebuild governance. In doing so, we are often more focused on the individual as a free agent than we are on the family as the unit around which society is organized.

‘Traditional’ societies may seem as messy and disorderly to western eyes as those West African gardens looked to colonial Britons, Obligation to others, and commitment to one’s family or other social unit, may be seen as inviting corruption, rather than being the normal way in which society works. Better to spend some time in those gardens first, asking people to explain why specific crops are grown and why they are planted together in specific ways, before trying to redesign their farming practices.

More reading:
Chabal, Patrick (2009). Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling. Zed Books: London and New York.

Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

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 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.