The power of participatory hope

Listening to Australian agronomist Tony Rinaudo speaking on Future Crunch’s new podcast, Hope is a Verb, reminded me of some things I learned while working on a community development project in Serbia two decades ago.

Tony told a story about a visit to Niger with a visiting Canadian delegation. When they sat down under a tree to chat and villagers gathered, Tony asked what intervention had made the most impact. And a villager said, none of them. 

What had made the difference, he said, was that before, all they saw of the chief was the tail lights of his jeep churning up the dust as he drove away. Now, after the farmers had claimed the trees for themselves,  the chief now came to them for counsel. Before, no one had known who they were and how they lived.

The attention paid to how the farmers in Niger had restored their forests through farmer managed natural regeneration had recognized their dignity, and brought hope, Tony said.

It reminded me of evaluation work that The Broker wrote about some years back in west Africa. Using participatory process, over three days, community people rated developmental interventions in the region in terms of how useful those interventions had been and why.

“On the third day, the subgroups formed at the start of the second day select the five ‘best’ and five ‘worst’ initiatives from the long list they compiled the previous day. For each of the five best initiatives they decide which wealth class benefited the most and which the least. They do this for each of the projects by distributing ten stones among the five wealth classes distinguished on day one. In the most recent workshops, the participants also tried to attach values to the distribution of benefits immediately after a ‘project’ had ended.”

In Serbia, I was part of an international project that worked with local communities on community revitalization that included infrastructure and community and economic development. I had come to the project late, after all the plans had been drawn up, but there was no guidance for the community social service projects our team had to develop.

When we asked communities, they told us that in the past, experts developed projects in education, health and social services. But the experts had little contact with the wider community in terms of planning their work, as far as we could see.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Then a local member of our team invited teachers, social workers and doctors and nurses to come and talk about what was needed. That give us a list of ideas to take back to communities to ask what they thought was needed.

It was so successful that community social planning meetings became part of our work. We invited the professionals to join us for lunch or dinner and meetings to talk about needs and opportunities. We asked them what they thought was needed in their community, and what could usefully be done with the funding we had available.

Then we went back to the community committee and asked them which of the projects would be most useful to them. Once they decided, then we worked with them to plan the project.

Not only were we developing practical social projects that communities wanted, but we were encouraging the professionals to meet together – which I was told wasn’t common in earlier days. And, as I learned much later, the fact that we provided lunch or dinner was vitally important because much poverty in communities was hidden.

Towards the end of my time with the project, we also held a Participatory Rural Appraisal weekend in one of the small communities in our region. It was, as I look back on it now, the first time all three of our project teams had worked together on an activity, and it mattered that we spent three days living in the small community. This was not the kind of planning that took place in expensive resort hotels.

It allowed for many discussions, and much brainstorming. We learned from the community about their capacities. They got to ask our experts about some of their ideas, to learn which were practical and which were not. And in the end, they developed three specific activities that they could do as a community to improve their economic situation.

“Open Space 2 Innovate” was a Goddard wide forum where employees were encouraged to think innovatively and collaborate across boundaries to address our mission, business and technical challenges. Wednesday, March 17th, 2010. NASA/GSFC/Debbie McCallum, Wikimedia

Some time earlier, we had hosted an Open Space Technology conference with Harrison Owen, who ‘developed’ and has used OST around the world. It brought people from communities all around our region to think about what kind of western Serbia they would love to live in five years in the future.

Such questions provide a focus for bringing together a diverse group to focus on a particular issue. People propose topics; others sign up for them; and people head off to discuss them in groups. Each evening and morning, the ‘news’ is shared. The level of energy is amazing.

As the OST conference came to an end, people got a fixed number of sticky dots that they could post on the issues written up on flip chart paper and posted on the walls. They could post all their dots on one issue, if they thought it was the most important, or share them among several issues. It gave us, in effect, a participatory agenda for regional action.

So I learned that it is possible to plan for the future in participatory ways that engage people in making the decisions themselves, rather than imposing outside ideas from the top down. Some people think participatory process is slow. But in fact, it may be one of the fastest ways to address complicated issues at a national level, as Ireland has shown with its citizen assemblies.

And, as Tony Rinaudo so memorably says in the podcast, it confers dignity on people who for so long have not experienced it.

Renew The Land – FMNR in Timor-Leste. FMNR Hub, Apr. 4, 2014

Reforestation Solution: Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration. GBH Forum Network, Sep. 23, 2022

Subjective truths – Participatory development assessment. The Broker Online, Aug. 4, 2009

Cover image: Ireland, citizens assembly on drug use