A New Discipline for Development Practitioners

Excerpts from: The Barefoot Collective. (2009). The Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change. Cape Town: Community Development Resource Association.

You never change anything by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. ~R. Buckminster Fuller

There are sovereign organisations and movements on all continents bucking the paradigm of development without local sovereignty, many supported by developmental donors and international NGOs willing to offer and build alternatives to “business as usual” in the sector. There are many initiatives, programmes and projects that hold great promise if practitioners in the sector can seek them out and learn from them.

This requires the time and skill to see what is living in communities that is authentic, that has potential, accompanied by a deep respect for what is local and indigenous and a subtlety of practice to give thoughtful and careful support where it is needed.

In writing the guide, the Barefoot Collective (made up of practitioners from such organisations as CDRA, VSO, ActionAid, and Oxfam among others) were guided by many key principles and ideas, many learnt from others, but all honed and sharpened from experience. We offer four “guides” that we have found to be particularly true and useful in our work.

1) Development (and the will to develop) is a natural, inborn process.

In whichever state we may find organisations, they are already developing. They may or may not be developing healthily or in ways they like or are even conscious of, they may be stuck in some places, but they have been developing long before facilitators came into their lives and will continue to do so long after they have left. We cannot deliver development – it is already happening as a natural process that we need to read, respect and work with.

2) People’s and organisation’s own capacity to learn from experience is the foundation of their development, independence and interdependence.

Learning from experience is as old as the hills, one of the natural, organic processes, though seldom used consciously, by which people develop themselves. We learn by doing, by thinking about what we have done and then doing it a bit better next time. We also learn especially well from peers, horizontally, who share with us their experience, connecting it to our own experience.

Learning how to learn effectively, from own experience, enables people to take pride in their own intelligence and knowledge and to build a healthy independence from outside experts.

3) Development is often complex, unpredictable and characterised by crisis.

What does it take, and how long, to help a woman in crisis to find her courage to deal with an abusive husband or for a community to find the confidence to deal with corrupt councillors? When an organisation seems to be on the verge of imploding is this the end or a chance for renewal? What complex and unanticipated development of forces contributes to a once-flourishing social initiative rolling over and dying?

Development is inherently unpredictable and prone to crisis. Yet almost miraculously, developmental crises are pregnant with opportunities for new movement, for qualitative shifts.

Practitioners or donors often avoid offering support in times of crisis, thinking it signals failure, when the opposite may be possible. Recognising and working with crisis, with all its unpredictabilities, are central to a developmental approach.

4) Power is held and transformed in relationships.

We live, learn and develop within three kinds of relationships: relationship with self, interpersonal relationships with people around us and external relationships with the rest of the world. Power is held in relationships, whether it is the struggle we have with ourselves to claim our inner power, or the power some have over others or the power we hold with others, or the power the State wields in relation to its citizens – without relationship power means little, it has no force, for bad or for good. If we want to shift power, we have to shift relationships.

The Real Challenges of Developmental Practice

It is in encouraging and supporting these qualities and processes that we may find the real challenges of developmental practice for NGOs and donors. They require that development practitioners, including donors, pay more attention to the concept of organisation itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organisation and social movements. There may be a growing body of professional organizational development (OD) facilitators in the sector, but we believe that it is a discipline that needs to be more widely learnt and become more central to the practice of the sector as a whole, not just a small professional enclave.

It also requires facilitators and donors who are working on their own sovereignty, beholden to their own purposes and values, derived from the needs and rights of the people and organisations they seek to support.

Read More

The Barefoot Guide offers a perspective on why organisations exist, the real roles they play, and on the importance of supporting the sovereignty of local organisations and social movements for meaningful social change. You will find here a range of approaches to understanding ourselves and our roles as leaders and facilitators, as we try to understand and facilitate change in organisations.

In addition, the significance of relationships and power dynamics in organisations and organisational change processes are explored. We provide some tools for reading organisations, including how organisations tend to move through various phases of development, how we might facilitate change and the challenges we all face in implementing or sustaining change.

Finally, the guide gives support to processes of building learning organisations, how we can continually learn both from our own experiences and the experiences of others.


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  1. Samuel Maruta

    From the point of view of some community organisations, this makes interesting indeed as it recognises their relevance and seeks to give them their space in community development. However, for some outside development organisations, it might not be very palatable as it seems to urge them to give away some of their power. That change process will be very difficult to take unless it is accompanied by a transformation of that power into a form that can co-exist and actually add value to the community organisations. I would want to read the book to learn more on this.

  2. Mat

    I think the value of organizational ideas is practitioners want to be process-focused. Unfortunately in practice these skills are viewed by funding agencies as “support”, “administration”. It is a necessary evil.

    Until development decision-makers see that the how is more critical than the what, organizational studies will be relegated to “support functions”.

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