The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Doing Good, Changing Worlds

Here are two quick questions:
  • Why do community groups and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) get involved in community development?
  • Why do people work for or volunteer for community groups and NGOs?
When I have asked these questions of community development workers, volunteers, NGO board members and others I get a variety of answers.  On the whole the responses boil down to two very simple one-line answers:
  • to do good, and
  • to change things.
These two answers can either enhance each other or they can hinder.  It’s all in the motivation of the responder.

Let’s look at things simply.  I know that it’s not quite as simple as I’m about to make out, but it does give us a starting point.

When we want to get involved in community work “to do some good” we need to do so aware that there is a danger that our primary motivation is the personal satisfaction we get from helping someone.  When our motivation is too much determined by our own need for approval then the danger is that we lose sight of the real needs of the person or people we are espousing to do good for.

Some developmental work can also display this form of acting.  Communities and neighbourhoods have something done to them or for them with the decision as to what that is made by an external agency without regard to the thoughts, ideas or even the wish of the community.

These actions are easily spotted in newspaper photographs and stories all over the world.  A high ranking official, a politician or a celebrity is seen in front of some new, often costly, development.  They are seen smiling and beaming, perhaps with scissors at the ready or spade in hand.  Off to the side of the photograph may be a representative of the community that is to be “helped” by the project.

Yes, it smacks a little of chauvinism doesn’t it?

On the other hand, if our primary motivation is to change the world then we can be in danger of doing so with little regard to the means by which we do so.  In doing this we again lose sight of the needs of those for whom we are seeking the change.  Decisions can easily be taken in terms of the goals we seek or the resolution of the problem.  The cliché is of course, that the ends justify the means.

Both motivations, unfortunately, can help to further entrench the very issues or situations we are attempting to solve or help overcome.  When a person is given a hand-out instead of a hand-up then we set up situations of dependence, co-dependence, disempowerment and ultimately nothing changes.

In other words, the very thing we seek can in fact be made less attainable.

Unthinking passion can be just as damaging as unfeeling rationality.  What we need is passionate thinking and rational emotionality.

Centuries of Western philosophy attempting to separate mind from body and rationality from feeling has made this a difficult path to discover.  For, like the fish trying to describe water, our cultural backgrounds and belief systems are so pervasive that we often don’t recognise them, let alone understand them.

So, how do we find a way in which our head and heart can work in tandem?  Can we find a way in which our desire to do good can be assisted by our understanding of how our actions affect the world and those we work with?

Here are some ideas for us all to consider in our reflections on why and how we work:
  • Recognise that there is no external issue or problem or person.  Everything is inter-connected.
  • As much as we can act to resolve an issue or solve a problem we need to also work on our own feelings, perceptions and understandings.
  • Start with an open mind.  Beginning with a fixed idea as to what the solution is leads to error.
  • Accept that none of us have all the pieces to the puzzle, that we don’t need to work on the whole puzzle, but that there will be others working on other bits of it.
  • Learn as you go, pick up techniques, tools and methods.  Be like the carpenter with a bag of tools.  The more tools the carpenter has the better placed he or she is to help fix a situation.  The key is to be able to know which tool to use in which situation and how to use the tool wisely.
  • Realise also that failure is an excellent opportunity for learning.  Consciously search for the learning in the experience. 
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Even though you may have a full toolkit there will always be a situation in which none of the tools work. 
  • Understand that whatever we do there will be consequences.  Some of those we may be able to foretell, others we will have no prior knowledge of in which case we need to master forbearance and tolerance.
  • Further understand that no matter what we do, there will always be someone else or something else that also has an effect upon what we are trying to do.
  • Constantly question our motivation.  Are we doing this because of our own wants and needs?  Have we fully considered the needs of those we want to assists and have we included them in the decision-making?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Community Development, Empowerment and Voting

Martin Pettitt.  Creative Commons
I once had a fairly senior local authority officer tell me that “empowerment is all about voting … and nothing to do with community development.”  Really?  Empowerment has everything to do with community development and precious little to do with voting.

Anyone who has been involved with and understands community development will tell you that empowerment has been one of the most enduring and potent themes in the history and practice of community development.  Indeed, aside from the phrase community development itself, empowerment has been perhaps the most often defined term in the community development lexicon.  I’m not going to add another, just quote a couple so that we know what we’re talking about.

The World Bank defines empowerment as
“… the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives.”
Notwithstanding that you may wonder that the World Bank has not lived up to its own definition or that it has not been held accountable by the majority of the World’s poor, the definition is useful.

The next definition comes from the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2).  IAP2 has championed a spectrum of public engagement that passes from the least engaged stage of Inform, through Consult, Involve, Collaborate to Empower as the highest level of engagement.  The definition of Empower that IAP2 gives is:
“To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.”
So what have empowerment and these definitions got to do with my assertion that empowerment has little to do with voting?

A further defining feature of community development has been that it’s focus has always been on community and/or collective actions and programmes as opposed to an individual or family-centred approach.

Voting could be said to more readily exist as an individual rather than a community action.  One of the great rallying calls of electoral democracy has been “one man (sic), one vote".  Certainly there have been community-based campaigns around the right to vote; the suffragette movement most notably.  Nevertheless, once the right to vote has been won, or the community has been rallied to enrol, when the voter enters the polling booth it is very much an individual act.

Regrettably, under electoral democracy, once the voter has placed their mark upon the voting paper that is generally the end of their participation in public decision-making for the next three or four years.

Furthermore, when we look at the outcome of this process who do we see?  A mostly homogeneous group of career politicians drawn largely from the upper deciles of society, highly educated and articulate, confident not only in themselves but also in their opinions and beliefs.

Look at the backgrounds of most Western parliamentarians or local body councillors.  Lawyers, teachers, business owners, wealthy farmers, financiers.  You need to search long and hard to find hairdressers, motor mechanics, truck drivers or – unspeakably – anyone who is unemployed.

No, these parliamentarians and councillors are hardly representative of the communities in which community development seeks to work.  Very few, if any, are representative of the poor people in the World Bank definition above.

Empowered by Random Choice

If empowerment entails communities taking the final decision-making then electoral politics and the voting system are not routes towards it.  Is there an alternative?  What if there were a way to more easily ensure greater representation of the demographics of communities, cities and nations?

When making a decision what could be more simple or more fair than a random throwing of a dice, a flipping of a coin, or a drawing of names out of a hat.

Wait!  Don’t dismiss the idea as absurd or fanciful.  It’s been done.  The birthplace of democracy itself – ancient Athens – used the casting of lots far more often than they did a voting system.  Ahh – but that was over 2000 years ago.  Yes, but recent experiments and research have resurrected the idea and found that it has enormous merit.

The idea even has a name, in fact, it has a couple.  Sortition is used to describe a system whereby randomness is used to select people for some position.  When applied within a political setting often the term demarchy is used.

When we think of empowerment as a community goal then demarchy has much to commend it.  Randomly selected public decision-makers suggest a far more representative possibility than does our present system.  In order to be selected by lot one needn’t be rich enough to be able to campaign, nor does one need to be famous enough to be voted for by name association.  One just needs to have a name!

A further benefit of demarchy that has been found to occur is that once someone has experienced the practice of public decision-making they tend to apply and teach the acquired skills within the community from which they have come.  There is then the possibility of overcoming another of electoral democracies pernicious weaknesses – elitism.

If, as the World Bank declares, empowerment seeks to enable people to participate and negotiate so that they are able to influence and control, then demarchy provides some answers where presently our political institutions do not.

Yes, community development has everything to do with empowerment and it can empower communities using randomness.  Let’s not toss it aside, let’s toss our names into the hat.

Friday, 12 October 2012

I’m for stimulating the Economy

We must stimulate the economy.  Everyone’s saying so.  From Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, from Julia Gillard to Mario Draghi.

So I may as well add my voice.

Amongst all the rhetoric of politicians, business owners and financiers I hear others saying that these people “don’t know what they’re talking about”.  Now, I don’t want to be accused of that so I thought that before I talk about economy I’d better find out what economy is.

So I checked.

The online etymological dictionary tells me that economy came from the Greeks (οἰκονόμος) and is the “management of the household”.  Ah ha, I thought - I can devise a list of what may constitute the management of a household.  This is what I came up with:
  • providing shelter and safety,
  • maintaining health and well-being,
  • ensuring sanitation and cleanliness,
  • raising children and providing them with education and encouraging them to realise their potential,
  • providing nutritious meals,
  • tending the garden and surrounding land,
  • making sure that communication is honest and transparent,
  • keeping the peace,
  • remembering to celebrate.
Source: koukiks damz, Creative Commons
When the Greeks coined the term οἰκονόμος a couple of millennia ago a household was probably not very large.  Since those times we have come to travel further and quicker.  Our communication has expanded enormously from talking in the streets and councils of Athens to being able to Skype from one side of the planet to the other instantaneously.  Today, then, it could be argued that our household is the whole planet and the people upon it.  With that idea in mind how do we manage this household, how do we stimulate this economy?

The list above gives some clues.  Thus, here is my programme for stimulating the economy:
  • eliminate homelessness and provide adequate shelter for refugees,
  • ensure access to clean water and sanitation for everyone,
  • provide health care for all,
  • give children everywhere access to free education,
  • make sure that pollution is minimised and in most cases eliminated,
  • distribute food so that no-one need go hungry,
  • find ways to resolve conflict without recourse to violence and war,
  • recognise our cultural differences and welcome diversity,
  • open up channels of communication and allow for transparency in public decision-making,
  • clean up our wasteful and dirty industries,
  • celebrate life with festivals, carnivals, concerts and gatherings.
Quite a simple programme isn’t it?  You could almost call it economic in it’s simplicity.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Wave

Walk a mile in another person’s shoes.  A piece of counsel often heard.  It’s origin is uncertain, although there is an old aphorism of the Sioux:
"Oh Great Spirit, grant me the wisdom to walk in another's moccasins before I criticize or pass judgement."
As well as the advice to reflect before passing judgement it can also suggest recognising our differing perspectives.  Another analogy for discovering different perspectives is The Wave.1

The Wave is a useful tool for introducing discussion about differing perspectives and getting us to recognise that where we stand makes a difference on how we perceive issues.  As such it is an handy tool in the toolbox of people working in community education or community development.

In the diagram (Diag 1) below we see four people.  One in a boat, one on shore, one standing on top of a hill overlooking the sea and one on the other side of the hill.  A wave is about to crash over the boat.  What perspective do each of these four people have on this situation?

The Wave

For the person in the boat (1) the situation is critical and immanent.  In order for this person to deal with the situation they must understand a number of factors: the dynamics of waves, where to place their boat in relation to the wave and how the wave is formed in the first place.

The person on the shore (2) is able to look out and see that the person in the boat is shortly going to be in an awkward situation.  If the boat is swamped this person may be able to swim out to rescue the person from the boat or perhaps raise the alarm.  Maybe they even suggested earlier that the person in the boat not attempt to pass through the wave, or gave them advice as to how to do so safely.  However, at this moment, watching from shore, although they can see what is happening, they have little influence upon the situation.

Standing atop the overlooking hill this person (3) gazes out to sea and perhaps thinks to themselves “what a lovely pattern the breaking waves are making” (diag. 2 shows an aerial view).  If they see the boat at all, because of distance they may not understand that the person in the boat is in any danger.  On the other hand, however, because they can see the bigger picture they may be better placed to see the specific location of the reef and maybe even gaps in the reef through which the boat may be able to pass safely.  Equipped with this knowledge though it is of little use if it is not translated to the person in the boat.  At some stage the hilltop sightseer must descend at least as far as the shore.

Meanwhile, behind the hill this person (4) has no direct knowledge of the wave and in response to news may even reply with “what wave?”  It may be to our peril to ignore them though - perhaps they are a boat designer or a meteorologist.

This tool is a handy one because it allows us to:
  • recognise that we all see things differently, that we have differing perspectives,
  • that from these differing perspectives we gain differing knowledge,
  • realise that where we stand evokes differing feelings,
  • understand that our feelings may urge us to act in differing ways.
The Sioux were wise when uttering the aphorism that began this post.  All of the people in the wave analogy have differing perspectives and if we wish to understand the perspective of another then we may need to put on their moccasins and walk to where they are standing.  Together, both may then walk to an entirely different spot and view the issue through another perspective.

However, let us not forget that in the analogy above it is the person in the boat who is most at risk of suffering a calamity.

1. I first learnt of “The Wave” analogy in the early 1980s at workshops run by Filip Fanchette from the Paris-based INODEP (Ecumenical Institute for the Development of Peoples).

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Mind Change on Climate Change

Climate change is challenging human ingenuity.  Engineers are enjoying the challenge of coming up with solutions to the effects of climate change.

Geoengineering projects are amongst the biggest, most audacious engineering projects ever.  These are huge manipulations of aspects of the earth designed to reduce or mitigate the effects of climate change.  Several projects are proposed.  One such project suggests spraying the stratosphere with sulphur aerosols in order to change the amount of sunlight reflected from the upper atmosphere.  Another involves increasing phytoplankton blooms by adding iron to the world’s oceans in order to increase carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.

Critics claim that geoengineering is highly risky.  They charge that the technologies have never been used on such large scale with a consequent risk of irreparable damage to ourselves and our descendants.

More recently another group of engineers – human engineers – have propounded some equally highly manipulative options.  One of the high priests of human engineering defines these options as “(involving) the biomedical modification of humans to make us better at mitigating, and adapting to the effects of, climate change.”1

Liao proposes; pharmacologically making us meat intolerant, reducing our height genetically, lowering birth rates through cognitive enhancement and, inducing us towards altruism and empathy via hormone introduction.  Liao does sound a caveat that no-one would be coerced into any of these options.

However it is proposed, no matter what the safeguards are, both sets of engineers – geo and human – are proposing that they take on god-like functions.  One group wish to manipulate the planet, the other wish to manipulate the humans upon it.

Both forms of engineering are branches of the very historical approach over the centuries that has landed us in the mess we are in today: namely, technological intervention in natural processes.  To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot get out of the mess that we are in by applying the same logic that got us into it.

Why don’t we do something a lot easier than huge, costly, highly risky manipulations?

Why don’t we simply change our minds?

Instead of thinking that the environment is outside of us, understand that we are intimately part of the world
Instead of thinking that reality is conditioned by a linear cause-effect sequence, recognise that there is an ever changing system of feedback, reinforcement and emergence happening.

Instead of thinking that we do not impact upon the earth, realise instead that we do and that not all of our impacts have been for the good.

Instead of thinking that we are just a small cog in a big wheel, change our minds to realise that we have options, we have choices, we can act differently.

Instead of thinking that the experts will solve things, realise that it is our collective common sense that we need to tap.

Instead of thinking I can do nothing at home, at work or in my community, change our minds and think what each of us can do at home, at work or in our community.

Instead of thinking that our decision-makers (“leaders” if you prefer) are best suited to making decisions on behalf of all of us, re-frame our thinking so that we re-engage with our collective wisdom.

Instead of continuing uncritically down the technological, inhuman path, change our minds and take the less worn but more human, sustainable pathway.

1. Matthew Liao, The Sun-Herald, 30 September 2012 pp. 82-83