Grassroots development, digging deeper: Teacups, tangles, other people’s stuff

This post is part of the series Rural Development From the Ground Up. Read the full series here.

This series is exploring the hands-on, down-to-earth aspects of rural development. Using the practical metaphor of unpacking a crate, we are unpacking the theory and practice of grassroots development layer by layer: from the shiny, hopeful idea of Development – and its dangers – to the compelling idea that rural communities themselves can create change.

The idea that rural communities can create change is important, because around the world, rural people often lack access to things they need. Economic and political power concentrates in urban regions; so do educational opportunities, jobs, and services. Rural voices are frequently missing in the corridors of power, where resourcing decisions are made. Rural disadvantage persists. And rural people end up as the objects of other people’s development efforts.

Recognising rural people as change agents flips the narrative: rural development is no longer about doing things ‘to’ or ‘for’ disadvantaged rural communities, but about change created with and directly by communities, from the ground up. These rural development efforts, informed by community knowledge and energised by community buy-in, have a much higher likelihood of success.

Flipping the narrative from passive rural disadvantage to active rural change-making is a vital first step in successful rural development. But it is not enough.

Practical grassroots development must also recognise that communities are internally diverse. Communities don’t speak or think or act in unison; they are not homogeneous. Community members will, inevitably, have different ideas about what positive change looks like: a new industry, or a new school; a road to bring the city closer, or a morning tea to bring the community together. And of course, some people won’t see a need for change at all.

Because community members are diverse, they will also have different experiences of change. A positive change isn’t necessarily positive for everyone, even in the same local community. A development initiative may look different for women than it does for men; it may mean different things for young people than for old people, and for people who have, or lack, particular kinds of resources: money, land, family support, social networks, and so forth. Even individual personalities and preferences matter.

Development will always look different depending on who you are.

Here is a simple practical example: a rural community creates a music festival. This is a typical rural development initiative from the grassroots, with economic, social, and cultural benefits. But on the ground, the impacts are not so simple. The initiative benefits local music lovers, who get to see great acts on their doorstep, and most local businesses, which profit from the influx of visitors – though other businesses complain of competition from food vans. Some residents are delighted with the increased vibrancy and visibility of their town. Others dislike the late-night noise and the garbage that suddenly appears on the streets. Some enjoy a memorable social outing; others note they cannot afford to go. The volunteer committee puts in a great deal of time for little reward. Meanwhile, some locals argue that the Council’s contribution to the event could more productively be spent on accessible activities that do not change an entry fee.

This story is not unusual; few ideas please everyone. Up close, nearly every rural development initiative has champions and detractors. This isn’t just people being difficult. It is a basic logic of development: even in the same community, some people will benefit and some won’t. Some people will work hard, and others will reap benefits with little work. Some people will think an entire initiative is a mistake, and say so. This is normal and natural, and the debate is healthy – so long as there is space for debate.

In the end, one single rural community may contain many examples of grassroots action for change, driven by different local communities of interest, pursuing different – but usually, broadly compatible – goals. That is what grassroots development is like in practice. It is not neat and manicured; it is vibrant and contested, sometimes messy, peppered with strong personalities and quiet change-makers, with creativity and conflict. And it works. People make good ideas happen. And if they don’t like those ideas, they make different ones.

Except when they can’t.

This is the difficult bit. Not that communities, even tight-knit communities, are diverse and disagree – that is normal. Not that people have different ideas about what positive change looks like – that is inevitable. The dynamic through which people choose to initiate, support, oppose, or keep out of a development process, is a healthy community dynamic. It may frustrate Development Organisations when they try to work with a community and find that everyone doesn’t come on board with their ideas. But it’s not actually a problem.

The problem is that the terrain on which development occurs is not a level field. Not everyone gets to create change.

Not everyone gets to debate, or have a say. Some people have to keep quiet.

This is why poverty and disadvantage persist: Not because change isn’t possible. And not because people don’t try. But because change is blocked.

What blocks change? That’s our next topic.

Published by The Bush Prof

Professor Robyn Eversole is a practical regional development academic based in rural Tasmania.

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