There has been significant interest shown in the last two postings of the Sustainability Now Blog that focused upon religion’s impact on the culture of indigenous peoples and their communities. The short story is that these postings describe how present day Mayan populations and other historic peoples have lost their cultural beliefs and heritage by the obligation of religions of all nature being imposed upon them as the only way for them to prosper in a new world.
This conflict of religion and cultural heritage in the developing world is just one small example of how I believe there is a real breakdown between prosperous countries and countries, regions, and communities they are trying to assist in the developing world. The development agencies and NGOs come to a development situation in another country and already have a plan (template) that they will use to assist the developing country or community in improving its welfare. This template for “new development” is generally implemented with little input from the stakeholders in the developing venue. Richard Register of Eco City Builders commented to me personally on this dilemma, which I would like to share with you here. I just ask that you substitute the phrase “development path” wherever the word “religion” is used and I think you will obtain the gist of the meaning intended here by modern, often unsuccessful approaches to assisting the developing world.
“I’ve always felt, shall we say, creeped out when someone representing one religion or another knocks on my door and tells me my religion sucks and if I don’t agree with them pretty soon, or at least before I die, I’m going to writhe in unspeakable torture in Hell for an eternity, no vacations or even coffee breaks. You are screwed without OUR superior wisdom. This wisdom is at the heart of hundreds of belief systems called messianic, each the only true religion in the eyes of its believers. The attitude that we are better than you are and have the exclusive keys to the secrets of the universe is, I guess for many millions of people, necessary for them to feel good about themselves; they are not measuring themselves as to their aliveness, understanding and agency in a healthy, happy universe, in a world full of wonderful other creatures and humans who have created amazingly diverse and colorful cultures but in relation to belittling other people and their beliefs. They constitute a curse upon human openness to experience, creativity and healthy history and even evolution as destructive forces are released to try to make uniform, predictable and safe a world that is none of that yet that non-messianic people have enjoyed to live in for many centuries with all their unique, peculiar, wise in their own environment and undoubtedly fanciful notions only partially coherent with any real condition of the world or ‘reality,’ but also with a semi-flexible profundity for living in such a complex world.”
The whole idea of this narrative is to take note of the fact that whether you are talking about religion, which the previous two postings of this blog did, or whether you are discussing some larger community issue related to the way a group of people decide to develop, it truly comes down to the individuals within the community or region (the stakeholders), what they believe, and what they can do about taking charge of their own destiny. In most instances this kind of circumstance does not occur when a development agency or NGO comes into a community with its template or model of how things should be carried out.
I can share with you a story about an experience I had several years ago that perfectly illustrates what is being said here. I was on an airplane traveling back to the US from Nigeria. I happen to be sitting next to a man that was affiliated with a Canadian NGO and was collaborating with a Canadian development agency to do work in a small mountain village in Tanzania. The NGO and development agency plan had been to present a strategy of community improvement to the village elders that included the building of a new school and a vastly improved water supply system, both of which were very much needed. The village people balked at this plan. What they wanted was the building of a new football (soccer) stadium. The NGO representative told me that discussions and negotiations went on for quite a period of time over this difference of opinion. He then said that the NGO and development agency finally gave in and designated the funds available for development to be put toward the building of a football stadium for the community. He then went on to tell me that the esteem and pride the village people gained from having their own football stadium provided them a few years later with the will and momentum to take on the tasks of building their own school and improving their water supply system without the help of the NGO and development agency.
Today’s practitioner must be able to draw people in and assist them in taking charge of their own destiny and achieving sustainability goals that they themselves identify. Efforts must be focused upon how best to engage people and use their knowledge most effectively to develop action strategies specifically directed toward community resilience and sustainability. Implementation of appropriate action strategies should be founded upon plans initiated, driven, and completed by the target community or population – not by outside organizations.
So, more times than not, an organization with good intentions will come to a country, region, or community with resources and a “plan” for using those resources to improve the country, region, or community. Unfortunately this plan may have very little to do with where the people targeted really are in their lives and belief systems – similar to the formalized religion and cultural heritage issues of the last two postings. Not only may the intended plan and its associated resources not be a fit for a particular community but economic globalization may have tended to strip out local cultural differences and nuances as if hierarchical uniformity were an end in itself. The organization and/or community development practitioner must therefore contend with certain despair in many communities that have given in to lockstep dependency on “the system.” Restoring a sense of identity to the community instead of posing confusion and mistrust from a pre-planned template to solve the community’s problems, may be an unexpected but necessary adjunct to a sustainable community development project. A community’s identity may have been lost over some time as knowledge of, kinship with, and pride in its particular assets have atrophied. So perceived problems need to be looked at seriously, in the context of who the community is, to truly assess which problems the community should really spend its time on, not those that an outside organization or development agency thinks they should target.
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