This post is part of the series Rural Development From the Ground Up. Read the full series here.
I fell in love with the idea of grassroots development in the 1990s, when I was young and tired of grand academic theories that ignored people. Having grown up in a poor region, I wasn’t interested in the theoretical indulgences of famous men. I wanted to understand the practical side of economic and social change. I wanted to learn how to actually create change.
That, I learned at university, was called development. It was hard to get a straight definition, but development seemed to be about making poor places and poor people better-off. That sounded practical, so I was willing to put up with a little vagueness. At last I had a word I could use.
And it was an exciting word: a big, shiny, promising word. Big organisations did development; governments and bilateral and multilateral Development Organisations. They knew all about change and how to create it. For my part, I knew nothing about those kinds of organisations – they were a world away from my region, they did not go there. I had never met a real development person on the ground.
But suddenly, I thought I might like to become one.
Development is like that. It’s a big shiny, powerful idea. It’s also a conveniently vague idea, so it can work for you whether you are interested in feeding starving children or building high-rise buildings. For me, it was the one word that explained why I would leave my region and what I might become next. At university, I studied economics and anthropology and waited to learn the stuff about creating change. I did, but not the way I wanted to.
I learned that whenever big, powerful organisations try to create positive change, it seldom works. Whether the speaker was my economics professor in his dark suit or my anthropology professor in jeans sipping mate; whether the topic was economic policy or hydro-electric dams; I kept hearing a similar story: ideas for change that sound good on paper often work badly in practice. When these ideas hit the ground, real people get hurt. They lose their jobs. They lose their villages. They end up worse off, not better off.
A critical liberal arts education can quickly take the shine off anything. Development started to tarnish, but I wasn’t done with it. I only had one word to explain what I wanted. Nobody was offering another that would be of any use to me. I had seen plenty of families in shacks, people without choices, doing whatever they could to survive. And I had to go back to that world. Development might be dangerous; like the coal companies buying the mineral rights on your farm, it might come back to bite. But what was the alternative?
That’s when I picked up a book on grassroots development. It was a slim little volume out of the Inter-American Foundation, very basic, no theory at all. But its message was very clear: people, on the ground, at the grassroots, can create development. This was a proper Development Organisation in Washington, DC, and they were saying that local communities can create positive change for themselves.
This had actually never occurred to me. Communities create change? In the region I was from, everyone just waited for the next big company to come to town and chop the tops off our mountains in exchange for jobs. Nobody thought they had any power at all to change things. But the book on grassroots development told me stories about people in other rural communities that had gotten together and done just that.
And they had succeeded, as far as I could work out, because they understood their situation on the ground. They understood their local obstacles, resources, and possibilities, in a way that no outside Development Organisation could. And so this Development Organisation stopped trying to create change, and started working with communities to grow development from the ground up.
Suddenly, I had another word, the word I needed. Grassroots development.
This wasn’t a big shiny powerful idea. It was a small, glimmery, hopeful idea, and it wasn’t getting me a job directing change in a big Development Organisation. It was a hard idea to explain to Development Experts with big, shiny ideas about development; and it was even hard to explain it to rural communities themselves.
Sometime, because they didn’t think change was possible.
But more often, because they were already doing change. They just didn’t call it development.
They called it volunteering, or fund-raising, or starting a business. They called it helping out, or doing a project, or trying something new. The more I worked on the ground with rural communities, the more I saw practical actions for change: positive ones and negative ones; ones that worked – and ones that didn’t.
So I stood in the grass, watching practical action for change. Grassroots development was a useful idea, but it still needed unpacking.