Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nurturing progress in marginalized communities

Sometime several years ago, after decades of working in diverse international development contexts, it finally dawned on me that everyone - even the poorest on the planet - must take responsibility for their own progress in life in order for progress to occur.

Don't get me wrong - this is not about assigning blame. Yes, there are often terrible and complex circumstances beyond any individual's control which can mitigate the ability of people to make things happen in their lives. There are certainly things that governments and organizations can and should do to improve those circumstances. In the end, however, it is people themselves who choose to seize opportunities and pull themselves ahead. If they don't choose to, then progress doesn't happen in spite of the best laid development plans.

A key to development, then, lies not just in nurturing opportunities for change to occur, but in encouraging people to act in the interest of their own progress.  In communities of very poor or marginalized people, creating opportunities is never quite enough. People need to feel and believe in their own possibility before they can make sense out of opportunities, and that's a process that can take a little time.

Just this morning I was talking with a friend about a community of Burmese refugees who live at a trash dump in Mae Sot (Thailand). I have been visiting them regularly over the past few months, which has led to the Piglets for Progress campaign (launching at startsomegood later this month). My friend - who has also visited the dump - wondered aloud whether the community actually wants to take responsibility for their own development. While I can't answer for them, of course, what I do know is that people living at the dump have spent the past 10-15 years feeling completely powerless and afraid of being chased away by Thai authorities.

In that kind of restrictive circumstance - with a long living memory of things often going very wrong - taking responsibility for one's own progress does not just come naturally. The fear of what might go wrong for undocumented immigrants is very valid, and serves as a powerfully discouraging force to try anything that might shake up the (intolerable) status quo.

To get beyond that, the people who find themselves in some of the worst human conditions that our planet has to offer need to feel and experience the potential of progress in baby steps in order to begin to believe in their own range of possibility.  For someone who intends to really help, that starts with asking - not telling them - what they can do, and listening for positivity that can be encouraged. Taking the time to listen and believe in people's truth about their own situation and potential is one of the simplest, yet most powerful tools that any development professional has to work with. If we want people to take responsibility for their own progress, we must first help them believe that they can.

Frankly, I never gave much thought to piglets, in a general sense. I will, however, make an impassioned and creative plea for them on the trash dump community's behalf at pigletsforprogress.org. Of course I hope - like they do - that the community will experience improved livelihoods and that the number of children going to school will increase. What I hope for the most, however, is that the piglet project will leave them with the living memory of a time when they identified something they thought they could do to take responsibility for their own progress, and experienced making it happen.

I'm betting that once they have a taste of possibility, they'll be hungry for more.... and maybe less afraid to pursue it.

Please support the Piglets for Progress campaign today at Startsomegood.com/pigletsforprogress