Getting to the bottom of ‘bottom up’: Broken things and hidden treasure

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

These last few weeks, we’ve been unpacking a metaphorical crate to explore, layer by layer, the practical aspects of grassroots development. We’ve examined the shiny hopeful idea that rural communities can create their own positive change from the ground up. We’ve dug down into some of the messy works about what community-led change from the bottom up actually looks like in practice. We learned that communities are diverse, and one person’s change can be another person’s clutter.

Yet the overall story has been positive: we have seen that people can create change. Grassroots development works in practice.

Then we hit something solid, hard. Grassroots development works, yes, but not for everyone. Not everyone gets to create change.

This is the bottom of our metaphorical crate, the bottom of the story. Here we find broken things – and hidden treasure.

Let’s start with what’s broken. We have lots of words to describe it: poverty, disadvantage, and exclusion. We can ramp up those words for seriousness: extreme poverty, entrenched disadvantage, generational exclusion. We can focus on the definition and measurement of economic, social, environmental, cultural, or multidimensional poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.

But at the bottom of the crate, the practical question is, why do people stay poor, disadvantaged, and excluded? If grassroots development really works, why doesn’t it work for them?

The answer is surprisingly simple, and it is not where most people look for it. The reason is not primarily about things that ‘poor people’ lack: like money, or education, or the motivation to better themselves. Lacks and absences on the ground are indicators that something deeper is wrong.

Grassroots development fails when the space for change is taken away.

Generally, people who are ‘poor’ are doing everything they can to improve their situation. Ethnographers who have spent time with poor communities have described how poor people are often very strategic and work very hard. Yet the social context in which they live does not give them much space to make their ideas happen. Instead, it constrains and blocks them, keeping resources and opportunities out of reach.

The more constraints and blocks that are in place, the harder it is for people to formulate and express their ideas, or put them into action. Grassroots change requires room to manoeuvre: to put forward ideas, and to identify and mobilise resources and support. This can only happen when it is allowed; when it is safe; when it is accepted, and not squashed. People need space to create change.

Unfortunately, people are very good at taking away each other’s space. Around the world, communities and societies create hierarchies, institutions, processes and rules that are comfortable and affirming for some people and groups, and foreign and oppressive for others. The world is full of people and organisations that take away other people’s room to manoeuvre: prescribing what they can and cannot do, what resources are off-limits, and what options are not open for them.

Sociologists call these limiting factors ‘structures’, but they are not as impersonal as that language suggests. Structures are always created by people. Whether in rural towns or corporate boardrooms, communities of people make and re-make the rules that say who can do what. Old customs and assumptions persist unquestioned; new rules keep claiming space. As people create and maintain structures that constrain others, space for change disappears. People are silenced before they can speak, and blocked before they can act.

Poverty persists whenever the space for change is taken away. And now, among the litter of broken things, we can see the treasure: the bit we have been missing all along.

The ‘poor’ as others label them at the bottom of the crate, are not a problem to be solved. They are not an intractable social issue or a costly economic load. They are people with ideas and energy, people who can create change.

They just need space to do it.

Published by The Bush Prof

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

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