I have had some interesting exchanges in various mediums following my posting on The Power of Listening a few days ago. One of them was an email conversation with someone for whom I have enormous love and respect, and I have shared some of this discussion below. I am left, as so often in my life, with a heart full of gratitude for each person that provides me with fresh perspectives, and the opportunity to explore, expand and better express my own thinking. Thank you to each one of you.
DH: “You put it well, Laurel. If only all people who worked in development began their work listening and learning from the people they aim to “help”, development might be a lot more productive. I’m constantly appalled by the belief that this relationship is one way: from me the provider to you the beneficiary. And your observations are definitely the correction needed.
But in a few cases, I’ve also seen some organisations and frameworks for intervention (e.g. livelihoods approaches that don’t ask why the livelihoods are the way they are) that neglect the power of the material, the direct help that is not complicated by long processes of consultation. When children are dying of malnutrition, they need food not consultation. The processes, in other words, that are slower than a flood or an earthquake but are equally devastating for the poor. I went in the early years of rural work where I saw kwashiorkor and children thin and sick, to when child grants kicked in and suddenly it was difficult to find such ill children. Amazing. So, I suppose like all complicated relationships, there’s learning from both sides about how provide the care really needed.”
Me: “Well, yes; I didn’t mean to imply that the first step in every project, or at every point, is beneficiary consultation. It is far more complex than that. In our Respite Unit, for example, where rapid medical assessments are often needed, there are basic unilateral decisions that need to be made. On the other hand, caring for our patients better on the psychological side, finding out their talents and desires, has led to some great up-skilling projects because what we heard from patients is that they are bored – bored of being bed-bound and ill and weak, and having nothing to do. And they also need the hope of income and employment when they regain their health and strength. So there are nuances.
I also don’t think consultation always needs to be long or in-depth. I’m often amazed at what can come out of quite brief and relatively informal conversation. In one presentation I saw at the SA AIDS conference, the greatest indicator they found for what reduces the risk of a young woman contracting HIV, was a child grant coming into the family. Amazing. Just one grant providing enough for some food on the table, and girls are more likely to remain in school, and less likely to engage in transactional sex – and therefore contract HIV. So one of the questions becomes: while we have projects helping our patient’s access grants, are we supporting the families of our orphaned and vulnerable children enough in this regard? We don’t need to speak to the girls to hear the importance of this research and start to think of ways to respond – but I’m sure if we’d had conversations with some of these children a few years ago, instead of rolling out a pre-planned model designed in Europe, we might have figured that our for ourselves a whole lot earlier, and been more innovative in addressing it.
I guess I just really miss having more people around to have these conversations with. There is SO MUCH MORE I want to learn… so many innovative people with different perspectives I want to talk to and learn from.
I miss mom. Feeling so sad and lonely tonight.”
DH: “Exactly Laur. Sometimes in trying to assert the importance of one aspect of an issue, the nuances you reflect here get lost. I miss Tess too around these things (amongst others 🙂 ) – her ability to push things further. But you have those qualities too so work with and on them.”