Successful development workers know every village has a different story

CoverAn agency offering micro credit came to the village looking for participants in its project. The organisers had the best of intentions; their aim was to help the poorest of the poor.

The three poorest families in the village were among those who received credit for small income-generating enterprises. These were families subsisting on day labour and scavenging. The accountability for repayment depended on mutual guarantees in groups of five families. The village knew well the struggles of these families and most tried to avoid joining their group.

The three remained in the one group. One was a mother alone with young children. She failed in her project of vegetable-selling as the return was not consistent enough to allow her to feed her children. Loan money was eventually spent on rice while she scavenged for 'food' to supplement this. A second began raising chickens, but they succumbed to Newcastle's Disease despite being vaccinated.

The end result for the most destitute in the village was deeper shame and marginalisation than before. The father of one of the families ran away to Thailand. However, those in the project who already had food security were able to use the loan for an additional business enterprise to supplement their income.

The poorest in the villages frequently remain destitute even when the lot of many of the villagers begins to improve. This is ironic considering that most development projects set out to target the poorest.

Every part of the changing system is important: government organisations, religious groups, individual Cambodians, non-government organisations, and local people's groups. Change in any part of the system will affect all other parts of the system.

Change is happening. Not all of it is positive. Positive change is needed. If there is to be justice and equity, change will particularly involve changes to some of the beliefs and attitudes that are held firm by tradition. Unfortunately some see 'development' simply in terms of better project proposals and skills in attracting international donors. Considering the culture of patronage this is not surprising.

Intervention by strangers to the village risks doing harm when only good was intended. Help coming from outside the village may affect the community system in ways that cannot be predicted. Each village has its particular story and its particular set of social relationships. Even though an intervention may meet its own objectives (or satisfy its logical framework) the sum total of the effects on the village system may be the cause of greater suffering for those who benefit from the intervention.

A genuine partnership between a worker from an international aid agency and the poor in the village involves careful and patient listening to the beliefs and perceptions of the local people.

Given the recent history of Cambodia, the notion of setting out to create obligations of co-ordination and cooperation beyond the responsibility of family relationships is daunting. If such relationships are forced it is violent. The Khmer Rouge era was as extreme a form of forced coordination as has happened any time in the history of the planet.  It was social engineering on a grand scale and it rapidly collapsed into tragedy.  The task of re-building community trust is slow, delicate and culturally sensitive.  Trust is a crucial component of the restoration of the values of respect for self and for others.  Those who have been systematically oppressed have little understanding of their own worth and have been shaped, by the tragic circumstances of life, to conform rather than to respond creatively.

Often a development worker from outside the village becomes frustrated with the pace of change, expecting too much too soon.  On the other hand, a relationship with a powerful person who is not exploitative has the potential to be truly developmental.  Such a relationship involves an enduring commitment that is respectful of the one who is recipient.  In such a case the position of power would not lead to unreasonable demands; in a genuine relationship each partner learns.  Enduring commitments gradually shape a fresh cultural expectation.

In our experience, village-level social change that is just and equitable can be fostered only gradually and with the strengthening of relationships of trust and cooperation and mutuality between individuals, families, traditional associations, grass roots organisations, local government representatives within the village and those who come from outside hoping to assist.  Out of this cooperation new local systems evolve and become part of the culture.

Small trusting groups can network with each other.  The effect is cumulative.  Networks enable people to accumulate relationships that were either physically or psychologically disconnected during the conflict.  With such solidarity positive change can be promoted, and exploitation challenged.  This way of working is in marked contrast to the way of international groups establishing projects, or even the way of international groups ‘teaching’ human rights or ‘teaching’ democracy. 

It is not a question of learning about human rights or about democracy.  It is a question of considering life experience in an atmosphere where human dignity is respected, and reflecting on what can make life better.  As Paulo Friere once said, ‘You don’t learn to swim in a room’.

Small acts of courage around issues that are close to daily life can be observed and understood and followed by others. 

The move beyond violent solutions begins with the insight and reflection of women and men capable of imagining that life could be different, and capable of acting together to make a difference to their immediate world.

Based on Chapter 8 ('Thinking It Through') of  Towards Understanding: Cambodia Beyond War  a book by Dr Meas Nee and Sr Joan Healy rsj, published in July, 2003

Mary MacKillop Place, North Sydney

August 7, 2003

LaunchThe latest book from Dr Meas Nee and Sr Joan Healy is a timely reflection on the struggles of Cambodian villagers in the aftermath of conflict.  Where people have been oppressed democracy emerges slowly.   At national level the conflict around the recent election remains unresolved and results have not been announced.  The distrust between the former warring parties continues. 

At village level hope and fear exist side by side.

This book contains the story of the village experience as the villagers themselves tell it. 

Even decades after war the social effects of war remain. In any country that suffers prolonged conflict militarism becomes part of the lifestyle at every level of society.  People who are controlled by military values are disempowered.  A military regime does not respect the value of individuals.  They are not well informed and learn to obey what the leaders tell them.  They become passive and may depend on powerful patrons.  Hope is lost. 

The authors believe that the way forward begins with careful listening to the fears, anxieties, values and beliefs of village men and women.  TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING raises new questions about community recovery beyond war.

The experiences recorded in this book are both distressing and hopeful.  It is about struggle, oppression, initiative and courage. 

The total proceeds from the sales of the book are held in trust for the education of Cambodian children and young people. 

TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING: CAMBODIAN VILLAGES BEYOND WAR  is available from Sisters of St Joseph. PO Box 1508, North Sydney, 2059 at a cost of $10 plus postage.

- received by CathNews 19/8/03