An Idea that Shouldn’t Be Revolutionary

I started writing a post about development effectiveness and it depressed the hell out of me, so let me try again.
I spoke to a human rights activist in Africa this afternoon who told me of her organization’s work in ten countries on the continent. “We do work at the community level,” she told me. “Our facilitators enable all members of the community – men, women, and children – to identify human rights concerns that matter to them. The facilitators enable everyone to express themselves in ways they have never done before, especially the women and children. And the difference is remarkable. Everyone is taking a shared responsibility to improve their lives and claim their rights. So many people think this is revolutionary.”
This is all good stuff; it’s an approach I firmly believe in. Too bad it’s still perceived as “revolutionary.” It shouldn’t be. The approach should be embedded throughout small communities around Africa and elsewhere, because it works: it’s transformative and it improves lives.
To call it revolutionary is to admit that development effectiveness has not progressed at it should have in the past few years. Fourteen years ago I did similar work in Ghana. Back then, the idea of actively engaging rights-holders to learn about and claim their rights was not new. It had been happening for years. To call these ideas revolutionary after a few decades is evidence that something’s wrong.

(Ok dear reader, it was at this point that I started writing about mismanagement of funds, misplaced donor priorities, ineffective structural adjustment programs and poverty reduction strategy papers, also unwillingness to cooperate between NGOs, governments and donors. That’s when I got depressed. So let me change the ending.)
If the notion of asking community members about their needs is revolutionary then I’m all for it. Keep this idea revolutionary for as long as you need to, until everyone is doing it. From one village to the next, I want people to say to themselves, “Do you know what they’re doing in that other village? They’re actually talking about issues that matter to them and doing something about it.” Or, “Do you know that the women in the other village actually speak up and the men listen to them?” Or, “Why can’t we speak up and change our lives the way they did over there?” Or, “Our time is now, we’ve got something to say.” Come to think of it, I suppose that is revolutionary.
To learn more: Participatory learning and action, or PLA, has a long and rich history based on experiential learning. The website PLA Notes ( is a great resource. This is only one of many sources, but for me the ideas expressed here are what got me started in participatory approaches to education.

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