Dumbing Down Development

by | Sep 19, 2019

I was in class 9 when we learnt about covalent bonds. At least this was when I paid attention. The chemistry teacher, a slender woman in a stiff sari walked into the classroom and asked, ‘What did you bring for lunch today’. We were not sure if she really was asking the contents of our lunch or commenting on the visible lethargy after lunch hour. ‘A covalent bond is similar to how you share lunch with your friends’, she said. ‘You bring chapati, I bring kurma and we will do covalent bonding. Neither loses nor gains. We share and both of us are satisfied’. It was the first time someone had reduced a concept to a context. There’s a term for this. It is called dumbing down and is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content.

The Status Quo Of Civil Society

If there is anywhere this is employed extensively, it is the civil society. The obvious reason being, civil society organizations work for the underprivileged and the marginalized. And who are the people working in these organizations? Barring a few social workers in some organizations who might belong to the community, most of the field workers, animators and coordinators come from a relatively privileged background and anyone in positions upward from there are mostly not just privileged but also well off.

To simplify, we have a situation in civil society where the rich works for the poor. And you might think this is a given. The challenge when the privileged works for the underprivileged is the bias, the presumptions and the preconceived notions that comes along with it. While there are many aspects into which this manifests, an important manifestation is how the civil society communicates development to the marginalized. This is the crux of any intervention at play. It so happens that in pursuit of achieving targets and producing substantial development in a given time, we often tend to ‘dumb down’ development to the community. We put aside the intellectual aspects of an intervention and only give out what we intend to do for the community on a layered basis.

The Benefactor-Beneficiary Relationship

Working on livelihoods of the Katkari Tribals in Raigad, I’ve experienced this first hand. When we design sustainable livelihood interventions for the tribals we first take into account the shortcomings of the state’s schemes and ensure all those holes are filled. Almost every scheme of the government is not designed to reach the tribals even the ones that are specific to the tribals. Though some schemes are novel (Ex. Van Dhan Vikas Kendra), the government fails in communicating it to the tribals while keeping intact the complexity. This leads to a benefactor-beneficiary situation and hardly evokes real traction among the tribals to shift and lift their lives into a better state. It is also understandable now that the government does not have the bandwidth to do the last mile delivery even though it is its duty. This is where the civil society comes in.

I believe that unlike the government (and also the private sector), the civil society has the license to play the infinite game with one exit policy at the end. But for various reasons, the NGO world is now moving towards a corporate like functioning with targets, deadlines and rigid impact measures. It is hard not to, when the latter is funding the former. While this brings a lot of legitimacy and order into picture, I wish the civil society remains flexible with the timeline of development.

Is the community we work for different from us?

What the rigidity does to civil society is that they do not spend enough time with the community to understand and come up with techniques to communicate. Believe me, this takes time. Designing interventions, implementing them and getting the numbers is easier. I don’t mean to say that the communication is taken for granted. It is perhaps an acquired quality of the privileged because we feel we know how to communicate. Developmental rhetoric might tell us to treat the community the way we treat ourselves. This might as well need a revision now. The key is in knowing that there are two sides to this. One is the bias and the second is the grounded understanding that the community is of course different from you.

We have 4 tribal SHGs actively involved in food processing with a simple business model where 20% of the price of the product is retained by the marketing enterprise and 80% goes to the SHG. Over the past 6 months, the SHGs have been successful in picking up the skill of making products. However, we have failed in making them understand the business model. I realized quite recently that the women were finding the concept of percentages difficult. I tried to reinforce the model by repeating it several times. And when they were not able to understand even then, I simply divided the money for them instead of letting them do it. This is problematic. While this is an obvious example, there are much more finer subconscious aspects in our interventions.

To consider that the community will not understand the business model and only you can because you are a learned is a bias. The other extreme to this is ignorance when you consider that the community will understand the model the same way you got to understand it. Stuck in between these two extremes and the added time factor, the civil society dumbs down development to the community.

Daniel Buckles and Rajeev Khedkar wrote a book titled, ‘Fighting Eviction: Tribal Land Rights and Research-in-Action’. They produced this book by performing action research on the Katkari community, meaning research combined with subsequent on-ground action, leading to some change. In the initial chapters of the book, they say the following.

“While deeply committed to applying the principles of participatory democracy in the sphere of knowledge, at no time did the research team opt to ‘dumb down’ the data collection, analysis and interpretation process under the pretext that the Katkari are by and large non-literate and extremely poor. What challenged us in our attempts to support sound action research with the Katkari was not their limited knowledge about the broader issues or their untrained thinking skills, but rather constraints on our own ability to think creatively when designing each step in the inquiry process. The challenge was to ground inquiry in local concepts and ways of knowing, and to facilitate respectful and reciprocal dialogue.”

The last line in the above excerpt is what the government miserably fails at and what the civil society is made for. We need to form covalent bonds with our community. What this means in practice is, civil society should not take a fully designed intervention into the community. We should leave room for the community to not just provide their insights but also design parts of the intervention and have the freedom to course correct along the way. Most importantly it is the primary role of civil society to communicate through creative and contextual methods, the intellectual aspects of development in its core form. Only then can meaningful interventions be created.

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