The Power of Listening

I have been meandering my way through “The City of Joy”, a remarkable book written by Dominique Lapierre and first published in Great Britain in 1986. Some of you may be more familiar with the 1992 film adaptation starring Patrick Swayze, which whilst having a powerful influence on me as a teenager, doesn’t begin to capture the complexity and subtlety of the book.

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Within its pages, in beautifully flowing and descriptive text, we are introduced to some of the characters the author met and interviewed during three years of extensive research in India.

Tonight, as I read the passages I have quoted below, I was struck by how many profoundly simple lessons need to be constantly gone over, decade after decade, as we continue to struggle to uplift those living on poverty – or, rather, as we could rather conceptualise the issue, to support and enable those living in poverty to uplift themselves. This simple shift in phrasing highlights two of the main recurring errors I have observed in much aid and development work:

  1. To think that we are indispensible in ‘rescuing’ the victims of poverty. This view tends to lead to solutions that require the continuing presence of such saviours.
  1. We – as development practitioners – think that our education, research, experience and knowledge make us the sole experts, and that we can use these alone to develop the best solutions for others.

(I would at this point like to add a caveat: I am not talking here about situations of crisis such as those facing countries in the grips of war, or with the daunting task of recovering from natural disasters. In such cases immediate external aid intervention to address short-term needs is unequivocally critical.)

“To build something together! In this ‘gulag’ where seventy thousand men fought each day for their survival, in this ants’ nest which at times looked more like a death camp where hundreds of people died each year of tuberculosis, leprosy, dysentery, and all the diseases caused by malnutrition in this environment so polluted that thousands never reached the age of forty, there was everything to build. You needed a dispensary and a leprosy clinic, a home for rickety children, emergency milk rations for babies and pregnant women, drinking water fountains, more latrines and sewers. The urgent tasks were countless.

‘I suggest we all make an individual survey,’ said Kovalski, ‘to find out what are the most immediate problems our brothers want to see given priority.’ The results came in three days later. They were all identical. The most pressing desires of the inhabitants of the City of Joy were not the ones that the priest had anticipated. It was not their living conditions that people wanted to change. The sustenance they sought was not directed at their children’s frail bodies, but at their minds. The six surveys revealed that the primary demand was for the creation of a night school so that children employed in the workshops, stores and tea shops in the alley could learn to read and write.”

These few sentences capture a profound experience, the like of which most of us have experienced as some point in our lives: with all the best intentions in the world, we sometimes fundamentally fail to understand the desires and needs of those we wish to assist. Moreover, the solution to avoiding this situation is, at its essence, supremely simple: ask.

I do not intend to alienate or belittle those who dedicate large portions of their time to helping others in ways that may not be community-led. On the contrary, I am reflecting to a large degree on my own capacity for oversight, and merely inviting others to the same self-reflection. Yesterday, I sat in a board room at work chairing an exciting, creative management meeting in a room full of experienced, passionate, dynamic programme managers, many of whom come from or live in the communities we serve. I fed back from my attendance the previous day at the 7th South African AIDS Conference, where – after our CEO had fallen very ill earlier in the day – I had given a presentation on the work we do at the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust, and been fortunate enough to sit in on some panel discussions around reducing the risk of HIV infection for young girls.

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There is much powerful and useful research being done, great programmes being developed and new national strategies about to be rolled out, and we enthusiastically discussed the many ways in which our existing programmes already effectively address many of the most pertinent issues, where the gaps in our work potentially lie, and some ideas about moving forward to find solutions to those gaps.

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Professor Lucie Cluver presenting at the 7th SA AIDS Conference on reducing risk for our most vulnerable girls

Part of our discussion certainly involved the need to set up more community dialogue, and engage a wider variety of community members (and indeed our own wide range of projects) within the conversation. I also raised the need for girls to have some female-only space in which to confidentially share ideas and personal challenges, as much of our work with both schools and orphaned and vulnerable children takes place in co-educational spaces in which girls are often uncomfortable raising their concerns and solutions. We also talked of the power of self-facilitated groups of young women supporting each other without relying on external input.

I am certain that many of our ideas will take root and bear powerful fruit, but on reflection I see again that it can be more transformational to simply begin our thinking on all such topics by saying, “Okay, wow, how interesting to see what is emerging Nationally! Before we even begin to conceptualise our own strategies, however, let’s go and hear what our girls are actually experiencing, and what their solutions are.”

“A new rumour soon spread: ‘There are actually people willing to listen to the poor.’ The idea was so revolutionary that the Pole christened his little team the Listening Committee for Mutual Aid. …

‘I had achieved my main objective,’ he was to say, ‘that of encouraging my brothers … to take charge of themselves.’

That first step was the beginning of an enterprise based on solidarity and sharing that would one day completely revolutionize living conditions in the slum.”

Sometimes, we all need a gentle reminder that we don’t (and don’t need to) hold all the answers, and that we are at our best when we allows ourselves the humility to ask, listen, and be catalysts for transformation rather than believing we need to drive change.

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