Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pragmatism and social change

Is there a Weight Watchers of development?

Ok, that came out all wrong. I didn’t mean to suggest that what the developing world needs right now is a diet plan! It’s just a thought I had when I stumbled onto an article in the NY Times about body image and dieting.

In it, the woman being interviewed berates programs like Weight Watchers saying that we should “give up dieting and learn to recognize hunger and appetite and respond to them. Dieting…cause[s] compulsive eating and destabilizes our relationship to food.”

I think most people would agree with this, what she’s saying is self-evident. But if it were as easy to change people’s eating habits as she suggests, then problems like obesity and eating disorders wouldn’t be as pervasive as they currently are.

I often think about what it takes to get people to change. The goal is usually a simple one: To eat less and healthier. Or for rural villages in Zambia, to buy soap and wash hands after using the latrine, or to plan out farming activities in advance of the season. Now, how do you get there?

I think it’s pretty complicated. These things are influenced by a bajillion different factors including touchy ones like politics, emotions, and culture. I think people usually get why they need to fundamentally change, but if simply getting it isn’t enough to change behaviours, what is?

Bam! Pow! Bang! Pop! Jenga! (Jenga?) Yes we can!

Holy social change Batman!

If you ever find yourself working in a field that is focused on creating social change*, you’ll come across a variety of approaches.

(* There is no universal definition for ‘international development’ but if nothing else, it is about change, about people changing and changing people…which is where it gets confusing, but I digress.)

Like the woman in the article, there are those who espouse the importance of “changing the paradigm”. These people can be down right militant about it; from their perspective, everything needs to change before anything can start to change. “Blow it up!” they say, then build it back up from a place that is grounded.

There are others who champion a more strategic approach. If you focus your efforts on the right “leverage points”, you can make even the most rigid system change in time. Like a game of Jenga, you have to be patient and have steady hands, but eventually, the blocks tumble down.

Many prefer a more inclusive approach based on the principles of awareness, participation, freedom, choice, and democracy. This approach sees a groundswell of people making a bunch of individual choices to create a better end. Yes, we certainly can.

There are many more approaches to creating social change and while I don’t disagree with many of them, I wonder what the best approach is. Is blowing up the system a realistic strategy? Provocative but not very practical. Is incremental change from within the way to go? Patience is definitely a virtue. Is it really just about getting people together? Sounds like fun, but it could also be like herding cats.

People are people are people.

People are not like cats. People are people. But though we like to think ourselves rational, it’s important to recognize what we are is beautifully and fallibly human. I’m finding that if I approach things from this perspective, they get a bit, though not entirely, easier to deal with.

The article about dieting started off a chain of thoughts in my head about what works, what gets the change process started in the short term. I’m not promoting Weight Watchers, but I think programs like it are onto something.

What they do is help people navigate the difficult process of personal change. It gives them simple tools (like a point system), a safe environment (like group meetings), and incentives (like avoiding shame during public weigh-ins) that allow people to not only take the first step but to take ownership over the change process.

Some would argue that programs like this address symptoms of the problem and not the root causes. Some would say that they’re just money makers that prey on and even exacerbate unfounded insecurities. I’m not in denial of these things, but I do see value in this as a practical approach. What’s more is that people seem to like it and are willing to pay for it. That says something, something important about people.

Maybe I’m stretching things here, but I wonder what a Weight Watchers-esque behaviour change program would look like for rural farmers in Zambia? Certainly numerous things need to be happening in concert, but it’s the pragmatist in me that wants to know what it would take for them to really own the change.

I don't know much, but I do know some things.

Hey, maybe I'm just on crack. But it doesn't stop me from thinking.

And in all this thinking, I’m constantly searching for truths that help me make sense of the complexities involved with creating change, that anchor me to the ground and help guide me through what is a very foggy process. I’ve landed on a few:

People are people.
Good things happen through hard work.
Change takes time.
Change happens within first.

So the question I should really be asking myself is what would it take for me to change?

Yup, that’s likely the first step. Now, if only I had something to help me take it…

t ;)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where I've been lately

Body: Sunrise on Easter Island.

In a cold, dark moment before the sun rose over the Pacific, I had them all to myself. All fifteen Moai, basking in the white light of a nearly full moon that was high in the sky directly behind me. We were early, my travel companions were out of sight, out of mind. I was alone.

How on earth did I end up here?

Was I supposed to revere these ancient statues, full of mana and the sweat of thousands of Rapa Nui that toiled to carve and drag them to the coast? Was this supposed to be a spiritual moment? I wasn’t so sure.

I stopped thinking about it. The sun rose, just like it does everyday.

But this time, I was watching.

Head: “But why, in Africa, has it come to this?”

Even to begin to answer that question you need time, so much time, dead time. Time has to hang heavy on you. You need to be stuck, bored, and to watch: to watch not attentively, eager to prove or disprove a lively hypothesis, but listlessly, with your eyes roving and your mind empty, and nothing to do. Only then do truths begin to swim into vision.

- Matthew Parris on Ethiopia

This is not the type of work you can simply think your way out of. In fact, thinking too much might lead you astray. This, in part, is the problem with a lot of development efforts: It’s simply too easy to get disconnected, to theorize and strategize and intellectualize everything until it is almost completely irrelevant.

As the Parris quote suggests, this work takes time. It’s hard and frustrating and thankless and complicated and challenging beyond belief. But it’s also incredibly important. It’s definitely worth trying, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But if I’m going to continue to do this, I want to do right by it. Think BIG but start small, stay connected, and try as best as possible to keep it real. This is my commitment.

Heart: She’s gone.

In the early stages the disease, she reverted back to what I think was the happiest time in her life, her days as a young girl studying to be a teacher at Ramanathan College in Sri Lanka. She’d chatter away about her friends, smiling, laughing. Though there was never a flicker of recognition, I’d laugh with her and take solace in the fact that at least now she was wholly happy.

She wasn’t always happy. She was quiet; she kept what was more than her fair share of tragedy locked up inside. She bore heartache that is completely beyond my comprehension. She suffered a great deal of loss…she suffered so that I would never have to. For this, I will always be grateful.

I’m writing this post from Toronto. I’m happy to just BE with everyone, to go through the ceremonial motions, the crying and the laughing. She would be glad we laughed together.

I've also been forced to stop and think about what tradition really means to me. This is the hardest kind of thing to articulate, so I will just say this: I love, hate, and respect it all at once, but I don’t really understand it, and that might be ok.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition if a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.

- Excerpt from White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

On balance.

I am trying with difficulty to make sense of the cumulative effect of all my recent experiences, to balance the various forces pulling at me and try as best I can to, well, do the right thing.

I was lucky to meet and receive some words of wisdom from James Orbinksi in January. I think he would be loathe to call what he gave us that day “advice”, but it stuck in my brain regardless of his intention.

He said that your success always depends on the success of others, that it’s important to genuinely understand the people around you, to be attentive to the people you are with.

Meaning is in the living, not simply in the thinking or the feeling. And it seems to me that living well is mostly about loving well.

– Brother Benedict quoted in An Imperfect Offering, by James Orbinksi

And so, this just might be the stuff life is made of. Life isn’t something that’s going to happen sometime in the future, it’s happening right now. Self-evident, I know, but it’s easy to forget this simple truth when you are busy busy busy. There is a lot to balance and it might never make sense and fit into a nice little box you can point an arrow to. But this is it – and I’m thankful for every little bit.