The first and most challenging exercise of the day required me to fill in the following blanks and share with the group:
Hello, my name is_____________.
I am an expert in______________.
I am expert because____________.
I delivered specific and clear answers to these questions. But when praised by the facilitators, as a typically socialized woman, I minimized my success by stating to everyone that I would surely “suck” in another exercise later in the day.
I wasn’t the only one in the room who struggled.
Many of us have trouble claiming our “expertise” in any one area, let alone claiming our voice, our space, or our rights.
But do you know who doesn’t? It shouldn’t surprise you. Most of the “expert” voices we hear are from an extremely narrow group—mostly western, white, privileged, Christian, and overwhelmingly male.
The OpEd Project attempts to change this. It is an initiative started by Catherine Orenstein to expand the range of voices we hear from in the world, with an immediate focus on increasing the volume of women thought leaders in the public sphere.
Ms. Orenstein shared with us that 80-90% of OpEd pages are written by men, 84% of guests on U.S. Sunday morning political talk shows are men, and 85% of Hollywood producers and directors are men. In short, despite advances in the women’s movement, public conversations exclude many people in this society. Clearly as a result of the lack of women and minorities in key forums, the public and our leaders are not getting the best information to make the best decisions.
This is certainly happening in the field of international development as well.
An estimated 20,000 participants from more than 185 countries are currently assembled in Vienna for the XVIII International AIDS Conference. I wonder of those 20,000 experts, how many have actual “on-the-ground” expertise? A mapping exercise sponsored by UNICEF identified over 1,800 community-based organizations focused on orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics or were independent groups that assist children by extending support and services into areas that are not reached by government or international agencies. Clearly these are folks whose knowledge and expertise could be invaluable to the multi-billion dollar fight against HIV and AIDS.
Thus, we have to ask—what is the cost to all of us when so many of the best minds and perspectives from the community-level are left out of navigating the paradox of development? This is where we clearly need all the help we can get.
Robert Chambers talks about the strong centripetal forces that draw resources and educated people into the ‘core’ where there is mutual attraction and reinforcement of power, prestige, resources, professionals, and the training to generate and disseminate information.
What happens to the periphery then, especially when it’s those in the periphery that the development industry is trying to serve? When a privileged few frame the conversation about fighting AIDS or reducing poverty, remedies from above are imposed on the excluded. Yet it’s those on the ground who have the most important knowledge, ideas, and resources to deal with the immense and complex problems of this century.
Certainly the International AIDS Conference organizers have made great strides in recent years to include more participants from marginalized communities and developing nations, but how these participants’ voices are actually heard among the cacophony of such an event remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, much of our day-to-day practice in development doesn’t include these voices either, let alone assume or utilize local expertise. Corporate development agencies use token “community participation” to implement projects and so the myth of no capacity persists. Communities and grassroots groups are considered the lowest common denominator, rather than being recognized and regarded as having the fundamental know-how and resources needed for social change.
I wish the community leaders of the over 1,000,000 community-based organizations around the world (Source: WiserEarth) could finish the statements above that I had to. We’d quickly see demonstrated before us the disbursed nature of knowledge. We’d quickly see that the ideas to create the choices, actions, and solutions that can confront the suffering and degradation of humanity and the earth are yet to be shared. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “There is an answer from every corner of the globe…the enslaved, the sick, the disappointed, the poor, the unfortunate, the dying, the surviving crying out, it is here.”