Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Planning the planning for a Community Development Plan

People here don’t plan. Why?- all sorts of good reasons, most of them subconscious. For folklore, Kanaima is a kind of Amerindian demon in mufti that is to blame for pretty much everything that goes wrong. Kanaima plays havoc with cause and consequence. For farming, Wapishanas are used to a pretty abundant nature and a growing season that lasts all year, though of course best in the rainy season. For history, Amerindians are inured to making the best of arbitrary outside powers with absolute control. Theirs is a story of tenacity, avoidance, tracking runaway slaves and handing them over to the Colonists, and disappearing into the forest whenever disappearance was the best option. It’s a history of powerlessness. Someone else writes the story, and the Amerindians get to make decisions only about the fringes of their lives.

How do you plan? Not a question we even ask ourselves- we just get on with it. We make lists, think ahead, and balance our personal priorities with exigencies like work and mortgages and family. We plan in a context of choices. But what if we had never had much choice, and never really expected a future that’s any different from the present?
More interestingly, why do you plan? To take control of your life, of course. To make the most of the time and opportunities you have. Ay, there’s the rub: time here is cheap and plentiful (in the weedlike rather than the bountiful sense), and opportunities rare and intimidating. And even if you do plan, Kanaima or a new government strategy or a big NGO will come and mess it all up for you.
When I told my boss about my hope of running a Community Development Plan with Aishalton Village Council that involved every adult in the village, he sent me an extremely witty reply with the following image attached:

It made me chuckle, but I think he’s got an interesting point. Real community participation sounds like communism to British people, not democracy. Why? Because we are on some deep level actually rather smug about our bastardized, warmongering, unconsultative proto-fascist pseudodemocracy. In fact, we are way past democracy- Britain generally (judging by most of the mass media) is too interested in celebrity, acquisition and getting drunk/ fit/ fat/ slim/ rich (delete according to penchant) to have much time spare to notice how our country is being run. When we do notice, we despair or despise, as if that’s enough. I think I shall call this political system ‘slobmocracy’.

So I go to meet the village council to discuss the proposal. At first I am overwhelmed by the negativity. Gradually over the first hour it dawns on me how dominant and insulting my proposal seems to them. I come from a place where the facilitator designs the process, so I have offered them a whole framework. They come from a world where high-handed outsiders lay down the law and expect them to be grateful. They want control of the framework. Over the second hour, we had some good discussion of what the village might need, and decide to go ahead with a first ‘pre-plan stage’ with a group of key stakeholders.

I had thought I was starting at the beginning, but to people here I seemed to be diving bizarrely into the middle, right into the thick of things. I had started by thinking about what the plan should contain. But no- go back a step. What needs to be planned for the plan? Go back another- who has the right to decide what needs to be planned for the plan? Not me, as the Village Council point out! Go back a third- who needs to be consulted about how to plan for the plan? Go back a fourth step- whose permission needs to be asked to plan for a plan in the first place? And go right back to the beginning, and start properly- should we have a plan at all?

So this is where our first stage begins. We hold a three-hour discussion between 24 of us. We work out what constituencies exist in the village, coming up with 28. I particularly enjoy the questions- do people who own ten sheep prefer to be called ‘ranchers’ or ‘livestock owners’? (The latter). Are ‘traditional knowledge holders’ the same as ‘culture experts’? (No, they’re all different people). Are ‘fishermen and hunters’ a subset of ‘farmers’? (No). Why are there no elders or Wapishana-only speakers here? (Silence). And we write a focus question together with everyone contributing: “What strategy and systems do we need to implement over the next 3-5 years, to turn our vision for Aishalton’s future into a secure and vibrant reality? How can every group contribute to and benefit from Aishalton’s development?”. OK, I admit that it’s two questions. It’s not concise, and it’s not smooth. But we reach a genuine consensus, and that’s remarkable. Perhaps the most potent force in the day is the sense of taking control. This community has a good quotient of clever, distinctive, thoughtful people. They can do a great deal if they put their collective mind to it. But they are also pragmatic realists- why on earth would they if there seems to be no point?

Sitting at home alone, nervously waiting for the first meeting to begin, I suddenly remember a quote from LaoZi that I used at the World Social Forum:

Go to the people.
Live among them;
Love them;
Learn from them;
Start from where they are;
Work with them;
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When the task is accomplished,
The work completed,
The people all remark:
‘We have done it ourselves’.

I tremble at the privilege of being a part of something with such potential in this community. Facilitators so often get in the way. I am fortunate that it was pointed out sharply to me by the Village Council that I was NOT starting where they were. But now I think we are building on what they have. Amen to LaoZi. Do I have a cat’s chance of proceeding with such humility and grace? Death to slobmocracy. We might as well try.


  1. I think you do have a cat's actually. You have had the grace to stop and see where you are coming from in their eyes, and to alter you approach accordingly. Hurrah for Sarah! xx

  2. Good lord, it would kill me. But it's utterly right. If after a couple of years there's a village which wants a plan and has ideas about how to come up with and implement a good one, far more will have been achieved than if you had a plan now. I wish I had any patience and calm to send you (not nearly enough in my house anyway).

    I have now officially adopted slobmocracy as part of my vocabulary.

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