Community development: are we seeing what the people see?

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“See what the people see”. This philosophy from Rabindranath Tagore is one of the greatest contributions to development practice, and a central message that guests took away from Dr. Westoby’s conversation on Soul, Dialogue and Solidarity through Hospitality which formed part of the Soil, Soul & Society Series.  This event took place at the Sustainability Institute on Wednesday, 8 March 2017.

Seeing what the people see, according to Dr. Westoby, is about being aware of one’s own position and attempting to see the world as it is through the eyes of the people we seek to empower. To any trained Anthropologist who spend their days studying humans, this philosophy can remind one of cultural relativism – the practice of not judging another culture according to your cultural values and beliefs but rather by its values and beliefs. In community development the same applies, because if one fails to view a community’s problems through the lens of the community or fails to get in dialogue with that community, then there is the very real risk of recommending solutions that could create new problems. As Dr. Westoby shared through his numerous experiences, inherently the act of coming into another’s community with the assumption that you as the practitioner know better about the local context, can be perceived as arrogant.

In his conversation Dr. Westoby gave the audience a number of practical examples of ‘seeing what the people see’. The most captivating one was about a village in Cambodia. The village had a HIV/AIDS epidemic, and in response a team of Australian volunteers rushed in and built clinics that provided necessary medicine. Weeks after the beginning of this effort, one of the volunteers asked one of the village woman how they could help curb the disease, and the woman responded by saying “rebuild our bridge”. This of course caught the practitioner by surprise but eventually after some dialogue it was explained by the village woman that a flood had washed away the bridge that connected the markets with the village. This forced the men to take an alternative route to the market which took three days as compared to a few hours with the help of the bridge. The result is that these men stayed overnight in the town where the markets were located, and by spending more time away from home many of the men got infected with the virus through relations out of marriage. If the bridge had been operational then these men would not have an excuse to sleep in the towns and would have to come back home on the same day; potentially decreasing the risk of HIV.

The context of soul is in terms of one’s story, encompassing where one comes from and the sum total of experiences. If practitioners use soul then it would mean understanding the history, experiences and dreams of the communities they seek to help. This process can only happen through dialogue, which Dr. Westoby articulates as “turning towards the people”. According to Dr. Westoby, Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko both believed that constant engagement with the people is necessary for real social change. Fanon specifically, who inspired Biko greatly, was concerned with how intellectuals could work with the peasantry and working class better. Fanon believed that intellectuals, the peasantry and the working class should work together as this would be most effective in fighting oppression.  It was his belief that the peasantry and working class without the intellectuals would act with haste and no direction. And likewise the intellectuals without the peasantry and working class would ultimately not act or not quick enough. In understanding solidarity we can thus start to understand hospitality; as the two are connected.

Hospitality, as articulated by Gustavo Esteva, is a process of co-motion and co-learning. In the context of community development power must be shared as it is impossible for co-learning to take place when power is unequal. This means corporations and practitioners should be in solidarity with the people they seek to empower.  Engaging in community development means turning towards the people and being present with the people. Only by being present and in solidarity can corporations and practitioners be involved in real change that will transform the lives of many.

In ending the conversation, Dr. Westoby reminded the audience that community development is about power and poverty. It is the unequal distribution of power that has caused poverty and thus in eradicating poverty it is only logical that current power structures are challenged. This means that instead of dictating community development to the people, corporations and the state must work in solidarity with the people, in a hospitable manner where soul is truly understood. The aim is not to teach the man or woman how to fish, they already know how to fish, rather help them rediscover their resourcefulness. The aim is to make sure the pond is accessible to everyone, and it can only be accessible when power is shared and more equitable.


Dr. Westoby is a Senior Lecturer in Community Development at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia. He is also a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State in South Africa, and a Director of Community Praxis Cooperative. Dr. Westoby’s research interests include community, development, dialogue theory and practice, and forced migration studies.