Things I Wish I Knew about Sustainable Development Before Becoming A Practitioner
We all have our own biases and stereotypes that fundamentally can impact the social landscape around us. Whilst I believe that justice and equality are important elements for a better and peaceful world, the deeper question to ask is if our approach encroaches other people’s culture, norms and worse still, dignity. Since middle school, I’ve participated in countless youth development trips, church and school abroad exposure trips as well as individual internships in what people call ‘third world’ nations. However, only in my adulthood when I moved permanently away from home to Cambodia and Borneo, did I realise I have a lot to unlearn and re-learn, despite seemingly ‘having experience’.
After reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Brown, 2017) — I must admit that it got me revisiting my purpose and inner motivation on my reasons of doing what I do. More importantly, it is to check-in if what I am doing still gives me joy and delight. A reminder to myself is what the Zapatistas often quote — that we need to try to build a world in which many worlds fit. To do that, we need to constantly reflect individually and on an organisational level not just our goals and mission, but more importantly, our approaches.
Some of the things that I wish knew earlier before I came to the field ‘full time’ are:
#1 To see people as people, not as problems that need a solution
The task of development is often times viewed as ‘helping’, ‘making the world a better place’ or ‘growth’ — which sounds noble, but is that the sole end result? Brown suggests that the idea of helping oneself to break free from my/their own imagination and to create the “greatest equity, resilience and ecological restoration possible” (p. 79) for people. It is also the idea of fixing small interactions within a community and culture to grow a better future. It certainly isn’t to bring white men’s idealogy and impose it as growth. This idea of development forms a superiority complex and creates borders between one group and another thuscreate a trap of imagination (Brown, 2017).
#2 To collaborate well and collaborate early
I was intrigued by how an oak tree would reach for one another under the earth, as to have their roots grow to intertwined and create a system of strength and resilience (Brown, 2017). Instead of growing roots deep into the ground, the oak tree grows them wide to interlock with other oak trees. In seasons of rain, shine or hurricane, the oak tree will always stay strong because they have one another. The oak tree cannot be brought down because they have one another.
Collaboration should not be an after thought, but it should be a common thought. We should not reinvent the wheel or work within spaces that groups are already there. Collaboration also means that you leave fingerprints at more areas or in more communities — which gives strength to evidence and proof of that particular work. We tend to fear collaboration because we fear that we ‘lose’ our name or identity — thus brings us back to the motivation and purpose of why we do what we do. Brown (2017) puts it aptly, that “the more people that collaborate on that ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world” (p. 21)
#3 My language determines my perspective
‘Third world’, ‘Global South’, ‘Marginalised’ — were some words I used to desribe the folks that I was working with. Your language frames your worldview and I wish that I never would have utter those words in front of communities. As my work revolves with rural or indigenous communities mostly, being quiet or polite does not equate to lazy or un-motivated. What and how other people act are their social norms that has been there for years and we have to learn to adapt and not get them to adopt a new approach.
“Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free. All of this imagining, in the poverty of our current system, is heightened because of scarcity economics. There isn’t enough, so we need to hoard, enclose, divide, fence up, and prioritize resources and people. We have to imagine beyond those fears. We have to ideate — imagine and conceive — together.” (Brown, 2017, p. 20–21)
Here’s my little effort in trying to build a collaborative platform of social issues in Malaysia: Wiki Impact
Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.