Reading the Pluriverse – Post Development Dictionary

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‘Progress has turned out to be regress’

I ordered this book recently after it popped up on FB or Twitter. I have in the last couple of years sensed that, when reading about systems thinking and how we can create systemic change in the Global North, there is a lot to learn from ‘development’ work in the Global South. I am sure I’m not the first person to make this connection…

The seed was probably planted when I first connected to Cormac Russell’s asset based community development approaches. It took me to read Cormac’s thoughts on how a deficit approach to ‘development’ work in parts of Africa reproduces the same issues over and over again – and perversely prioritises the needs of the NGO’s/aid agencies over those of the communities they are working with (I’m paraphrasing hugely here).

Actually, as I wrote that last paragraph, I connected back to my student self, late twenties, hearing for the first time in a sociology lecture, how aid organisations use very narrowly defined images of black and brown people ‘in need’ to attract donations and how damaging that is to the people and communities who are supposed to be benefitting.

David Lammy said as much about Comic Relief this year and I was so shocked to see how many people had never even considered this before and who roundly rejected this as even a possibility, and called Lammy the racist!

So, this knowledge has resided in me for a long time – around 20 years.

Today I read the Foreword to Pluriverse and decided I wanted to capture my reflections systematically so that I can refer back to them easily.

I bought this book so I could improve my understanding of the impact of colonialism and racism on all of us and could better identify and call it out in own thinking and practice. The Foreword places the book in an historical context, which I found extremely useful. What was unexpected was that throughout the Foreword, I found myself reflecting on community development in the UK – based on my experience working for Big Lottery Fund and watching it take place in my hometown of Carrickfergus.

In the section ‘Flashback’, the term ‘underdevelopment’ is discussed and its usage in this sphere dated to 1949. I was reminded of my recent jaunt to the Stir to Action Festival. The Festival was amazing, buzzing with progressive ideas and practical action that made me feel optimistic about the future. However, with so many progressive people around me, I still heard the terms ‘deprived communities’ and ‘areas of deprivation’ being deployed – and they jarred. How are we still using that term as if it is an objective truth?

Crucially, Wolfgang Sachs connects the use of ‘underdevelopment’ with how power relationships between the ‘developed’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ are enacted – just as power is the key factor in the relationship between the ‘deprived’ and the, I don’t know, ‘ undeprived’??! But who is talking about this power relationship. Certainly not the people funding community development in Carrickfergus, as far as I can see.

I must acknowledge here the people I am aware of who are doing the work.

  • Lankelly Chase, who are opening themselves to a different way of being and making efforts to genuinely share power with the people they fund and the communities affected by their decisions.
  • MayDay Trust also appear to be scrutinising their own work closely and doing the work within to effect real change without.

I would love to hear about others.

On page xii I was struck by the statement ‘societies that have just emerged from colonial rule are required to place themselves in the custody of ‘the economy’ and I felt a pang of fear. As SEUPB pilot a programme in NI that aims to build peace through social enterprise, I could see how communities have, until now, refused to become significantly less deprived are being offered a solution by placing ‘themselves in the custody of the economy’. Initially, upon reading this section, I was concerned about community wealth building approaches (CWB) that also offer this way out for communities but, actually, this a useful reminder that the focus must be on worker-owned businesses and cooperatives as CWB is rolled out in more and more localities. CWB solutions must deploy mechanisms that distribute power in order to create systemic changes in how our communities and societies are organised.

‘The dictatorship of quantitative comparison’

Sachs goes on to discuss GDP and the introduction of social indicators to map performance. This story is reflected in the use of the index of multiple deprivation or, should we say, the hierarchy of multiple deprivation, in order to identify ‘areas’ and ‘pockets’ of deprivation. Of course there has also been a move from outputs to outcomes as a way of measuring performance of community development organisations – or maybe it’s really about the performance of communities? But the lure of quantitative measures has proved too strong and measuring outcomes is built on a foundation of indicators and targets that are all about numbers.

‘The expansive modern age has got stuck and it is time to exit’

Omg! Yes! Stuck is the main word that comes to mind when I think of the community development system in Carrickfergus. That is absolutely not to negate the work that grassroots community organisations with very little power in the wider system are doing on the ground. It is specifically to bring attention to the way that organisations with power are operating in this system. There is still too much top down, we know that answer, practice going on. Way too much. And far far too little reflection and getting out of the way. The recent report on Tackling Paramilitarism, while being extremely well meaning ( I hope), jumps to recommendations far too quickly. Now, despite a stated desire to develop responses with the affected communities in Carrick, those recommendations are already taking shape in people’s minds and budgets, and at least some of them will be implemented as solutions because we are so focused on solutions rather than admitting we don’t know what to do and exploring.

In my view, is a long period of enquiry led by people from Carrick, with support from people outside, that helps to surface all the stuff we don’t know cos we haven’t asked the questions is a more appropriate response. It would require people to acknowledge that more than 20 years of trying to ‘fix’ Carrick haven’t created much change – and may have caused harm. Does that humility exist in the system?

I must declare an interest in doing that work so of course that is my solution.

Oh yeah, back to the Pluriverse. Now, I am optimistic that this book may provide me with some of the language that means I can start exploring that jarring feeling when someone uses the phrase ‘deprived communities’ and perhaps articulating a response. I am eager to find a much better way to describe communities that have been most negatively impacted by capitalism – but are also full of whole people who should not be defined by the scarcity that our capitalist system has imposed on them.



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