Friday, December 30, 2011

"The same song with different words"

So we had an interesting and very productive meeting at the Ripple offices the other day. It was my first time to meet Force and Joyce from Ripple and they were both impressive and capable. I learned a lot about Ripple's conservation work in the nearby Kandoli Hills where they have set up conservation committees and formed local bylaws with efficiency and deft political skill. According to Force, setting up a similar conservation program along the lakeshore would simply be "the same song with different words." He and Alex have a well thought out game plan for its implementation. I have stated my willingness to assist them but at this stage, where getting approvals from various local government officials is paramount, they are certainly more capable than I. Once the committees are established, a process I am very much interested in documenting rather than assisting in, The Maru, our research center, may have a role in developing a sensitization campaign and literature that the committees will disseminate to the local villagers about the importance of using the lake's resources sustainably and the consequences of not doing so. Following that The Maru will be assisting in the development of a community monitoring program so that the efficacy of any bylaws that are developed can be tested.

The meeting was also a fairly long one however. Force is an expressive fellow and could wax rather eloquently about his passion for conservation. Most of the time, however, if you will exuse the pun, it felt like a pretty forced performance. I don't necessarily blame him for that, nor do I wholly doubt his sincerity, but in retrospect I think the presence of three foreigners at the meeting (out of a total of 6 people) was a mistake. It put Force and the other Malawians into the position of feeling like they needed to perform for us their knowledge of, and allegiance to, what they supposed was our Western conservation ethic. Certainly the meeting would have taken a different course had we not been there. So instead of discussions about operational details such as task allocation, budgeting, strategy, and developing an implementation schedule, we spent most of the time wading through Force's conservation rhetoric.

This is a common problem when westerners take part in or instigate development programs in non-western contexts. Locals whom they enroll in these programs feel the need to spend a great deal of time demonstrating to westerners their allegiance to what they suppose to be our goals. Rather than working with westerners to formulate, on an equal-footing, what those goals should be and how they should be implemented, local counterparts adopt western goals with great enthusiasm (Force was taking his shirt off at one point) but with only partial credibility. And I think the we are mostly to blame for this. We are very bad at recognizing our own reflexivity and at creating non-judgmental spaces within which westerners and locals can creatively and cooperatively devise development programs. And unfortunately the local cultures within which we work often don't help us out very much in this regard in that they tend to be more overtly hierarchical than our own. Locals themselves often find it in easier, or at least more natural, to pledge their allegiance than to stand on an equal footing with us. In Malawi I have often felt myself falling into the roll of a "Bwana" (boss) not because I have actively chosen it but because it is frankly hard to create relationships of parity with local Malawians both because their local culture doesn't operate on such terms and because the history of my culture's interaction with theirs has been so appallingly unequal.

No answers here really but I think valid concerns.


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