The Consistency of Stories, Dialogue and Reflection for Healing
Message from Denise Gray-Felder
In this letter and in this issue of Mazi, CFSC Consortium President Denise Gray-Felder and staff reflect on how storytelling and collective dialogue contribute to development progress. But such progress may require expanded ways of looking at how communication interventions are delivered.
If you have worked in development as long as I have, you are likely optimistic and upbeat most of the time. You have to be in order to survive. It is often hard to witness critical life challenges day in and day out without a bit of Pollyanna and Scarlett O’Hara (the always surviving central character in Gone with the Wind) rolled up into your persona. But lest we think our jobs are tough, just stop for a second and remember the women, men and children who live in extremely challenging circumstances daily. People who manage despite limited water supplies, inadequate sewage, constant hunger, rape and abuse, war and other forms of violence, or substandard housing. They are the true heroines and heroes. This issue of Mazi gives you a glimpse into the lives of a few people like this including women surviving in Rwanda refugee camps, fistula patients in Uganda and families reconstructing their lives after the January earthquake in Haiti.
As I reflect on my own personal stories of trying to make a difference in a number of development issues, it is notable how often the word consistent pops up. I want evidence that social change is underway consistently, we ask members of communities how they will consistently support community dialogues, or we inquire if organisations are using our processes consistently. Applications, approaches and learning are expected to be applied consistently across diverse segments of societies.
Yet what is consistent about development, as Jude Fernando writes in this issue, or as Lourdes Caballero observes? In both Haiti (Fernando article) and Rwanda (Caballero piece), pain and suffering seem consistent. Hunger and illness seem to be a consistent, and persistent, factor in the lives of families living in poverty. Violent conflict and war – if not consistent – are certainly constant in areas of the world that can least afford the resulting devastation.
Perhaps our western obsession with consistency – as if doing something the same way over and over makes it better – often leads us to make silly decisions. And it limits the chances for local input and influence. Perhaps better standards for development processes are the quality of care, whether the intervention is appropriate for local conditions, and how the local people will be systematically able to give input and share the learning. We at the Consortium were recently rejected for a grant application because we would not say at the start of a five-year process what the project results would be, and how we would measure change. Where is room for local input, knowledge, control and management if we must commit to outcomes before the work even begins?
In May I travelled with a group from Massachusetts Institute for Technology to Haiti as part of a scoping trip to help the university decide how it can best help reconstruct Haiti post-earthquake, working with a number of constituents in the country. One of our colleagues is a survivor of the earthquake himself. We found many systems and processes non-existent or still broken – including housing and construction policies and guidelines -- and generally more questions than answers. Yet, despite this, families and individuals keep going. Their lives go on despite the type of unbalanced media coverage that Jude writes about in this issue and despite political inertia. While international aid is much needed and appreciated, Haitians continue to do as they always have: to find local solutions and fixes when nothing else is available. At the time of our trip, more than one million people were still living in tents – some located on concrete strips in the middle of busy streets. Toddlers playing outside these makeshift homes are at constant risk of speeding cars.
This experience, more than many others I’ve had working in poor countries, really made me pause and reflect on what we are doing, why and how? What do the stories we heard and continue to hear reveal of the fabric of Haiti and its likelihood of becoming stronger post-earthquake? How do well-meaning specialists like those on our MIT team provide help without taking over? How do Haitians throughout the Diaspora, including in North America and in the Caribbean, who send billions of dollars back home each year through foreign remittances, have their voices heard? Or can they reasonably expect to be listened to by those in power when they no longer live and vote in Haiti? Is there room for Haitians of means living outside the country to help lead reconstruction efforts and participate in domestic policy dialogue along with those Haitians still living in the country?
If we adhere to the prevailing pattern of international aid – wherein large funders have both voice and vote in a recipient’s operations (as well as the ability to influence political leadership) – then, yes, Haitian ex-patriots should also rally their ideas and money to help rebuild their country. Yet surely the ideas and voices of Haitians who are poor and who still live in decaying sections of Port au Prince or Carrefour will be drowned out. However, using communication technology such as social networking or internet-based surveys or telephone polling we can conceivably host global dialogues with Haitians wherever they may live – and get Haitian policymakers and technocrats to listen and respond. The challenge is to maintain a balance so that dominant power is retained by those living in Haiti, not by outsiders.
Elsewhere in this issue of Mazi you will read Amy Hill’s accounts of the stories of Ugandan women whose lives have been saved by fistula surgery and a report on how virtual dialogues on social networking and youth identities is progressing. These are just two examples of current ways we at the Communication for Social Change Consortium are sharing learning about dialogue-based development interventions. In the future we will be reporting on evaluating a 2-year-plus community conversation process in South Africa (sponsored by the Nelson Mandela Foundation) and how diverse constituents are coming together to plan and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a green revolution for Africa. In the United States, we are thrilled to be working with the Urban League of Essex County (New Jersey) to catalyse local ownership of a neighborhood revitalization process. And to help parents and community leaders in the southern United States become effective advocates for educational policy change for children who come from poor or disadvantaged neighborhoods.
With each of these initiatives we are learning, and sharing, more and more about the essentiality of trust and reputation of governments and institutions. If people – whether they be rich, poor or in-between – do not trust their governments and institutions that provide crucial life services – the abilities of these groups to be successful is severely hampered.
What is consistent about all of this? Our commitment to storytelling, dialogue and reflection – both at individual and community levels – as a means of bringing about long-term social change.
To learn more about the work of the Communication for Social Change Consortium or to make a contribution please visit our website: www.cfsc.org