Thursday, September 12, 2013

Development Verses Tradition

One of the sessions I went along to last month for the Melbourne Writers Festival was hosted by One Just World, and was a discussion about international development, and it's role in supporting or harming a community's culture and language. A panel discussion, the members were drawn from Timor-Leste (Abel Guterres, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, to Australia, New Zealand and Republic of Fiji), Indonesia (Butet Manurung, co-founder of SOKOLA and author of The Jungle School), and Australian academia, in linguistics (Simon Musgrave, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash Uni) and economics (Stephen Pollard, formerly of the Asian Development Bank).

The discussion centered around the difficult balance between helping and harming; between good intentions and wanting to go into Developing communities to help, and the impact of that action on the community's unique culture, customs and language.

The notion of swooping in, meeting a donor's or NGO's own agenda, can have such ripple effects on a community. The English language was identified as a dominant language in Development, associated with power and success; but can encourage a dilution of culture and a dying of unique languages.

Abel pointed out that in fact, those of us who are monolingual with just English are in fact the world's minority, with most of the world's population having more than one language. Simon talked about Rwanda as an example of the fact that homogeneity of language does not actually lead to peace. Betut reminded us that if a language dies out for a community, than much of their culture and customs die with it. Preserving cultures and languages is so crucial to Development, and working with communities in a mindful, respectful and sustainable manner.

Participation, education and informed choice were highlighted as the keys to sustainable and meaningful Development for the very people such work is aimed to help. Abel talked about how without having villagers being part of a project being delivered, by them being part of the digging of the trenches needed, when the Aid organisation has moved on, the village is not personally invested in what remains to keep the project functional, to repair it and build on from it. Ensuring people are part of the growth, the change, and the development, is crucial.

The Economist in Stephen reminded us all that 'Development is all about people'. Abel talked about how communities already know their own needs; they know what they need to move forward. Agencies need to ensure that they are involved and empowered to be part of any development, to ensure the community's culture and customs are maintained, whilst making sure the intervention done is what is wanted, needed, and will be an ongoing help to the people.

These discussions really made me reflect on International Development, and how such movement and "assistance" may impact the communities I visited in Burma. Walking through the hillside villages towards Kalaw the reality of the isolation and self-sufficiency was all encompassing. Apart from groups of trekkers like myself, and a couple of trips into town to get supplies across the month, these communities have very little contact with the wider world. As I walked through, it struck me whether they would want intervention to change their ways of life. Yes, they work the fields for their families, and have so very little in comparison to the Western world. But they were also so friendly, content, welcoming and good-natured. They have no electricity at night, but they all come in together to prepare and share the evening meal. The children do their chores before walking to school, and live a pretty safe existence.

Walking through these villages, we went through at least three areas of different tribal languages. What impact would a roll-in of Development have on such communities – the dominance of English, introduction of Western customs, potentially the religious affiliations of NGOs...

It also brought back the mixed feelings I had when I was in Phnom Penh earlier this year, after my time there 10 years ago. So much has changed there for the Khmers, and yet so much of the undercurrent of poverty, oppression and fear is still there. Has International Development really done what it set out to do for Cambodia?

This session has reignited my want to be more involved in International Development, in meaningful, collaborative, capacity building, participatory discourse – in work, in conversations, in thoughts and current issue awareness.

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