ELEPHANTASTIC ELEVATION

I like angrily hammering words into my laptop until my nail polish chips and my deeply creased forehead starts having tension seizures. If you’ve read more of my blog, you might have figured that out already.

However, I have more things to be grateful for in life than angry. So I thought I’d sprinkle my blog with weekly-or-so #commitmentisnotmythang ELEPHANTASTIC ELEVATION posts.

elephantastic

Let’s start by explaining what elevation is:

Psychology only just ‘discovered’ this emotion #scienceisanidiot. It’s described as a warm, glowing feeling in your chest. You get it when the acts of another person touch you deeply and make you want to become a better person. If you need some further elaboration to empathize, have a go at my post on nose-tickling.

So, I already told you that I feel like that quite often. I come home to my roommate Unicorn digging at our garden with a spoon to plant strawberries and beans- ELEVATION. My thesis supervisor initiates an evidence-based petition for standardizing fair pay systems in humanitarian organizations- ELEVATION. The girl I nanny tells me that she won’t have the chocolate spread ‘Samba’ anymore, even though she loves it, because it has palm oil in it and still calls itself organic- ELEVATION.

So the ELEPHANTASTIC ELEVATION posts are going to be about people and things that inspire me, reconcile me with humanity, and make me hug trees, people, the ground or buildings (to name a few things that I have actually elatedly hugged in the past).

hugs

Sounds a bit American to you? Don’t you worry; I’ll still get out my European history-has-taught-us-that-revolutions-aren’t-started-by-appreciating-stuff attitude. Seriously, where would we be without it? Psychology has known for years that appreciation gets us nowhere at all. It may increase happiness, feelings of connectedness, sympathy, empathy, gets us through trauma, and lets us make more altruistic decisions- but naw, let’s stay negative. If you don’t stare at the things that are going wrong in the world enough, how will they ever start feeling uncomfortable and go away?

badthings

 

badthings2

Give somebody a fish…

… and that person will eat for a day. Give people fishing equipment and they’ll eat a bit longer. But still only until their lake is overfished, the gear breaks, or some capitalists realize that they can make a profit out of exploiting those great fishermen you’ve trained.Give people an opportunity to find their own solutions based on the natural resources of their environment and they might- still just might- be able to live of those solutions even after you went back to your comfy home country.

fishy

Participatory approaches have been implemented in the global West[1] and South[2][3]. One of the guiding principles of participatory community projects is, that action is only initiated after collaborative planning and then continues to alternate with feedback and evaluation. There are many examples for projects in industrialized countries where this principle was respected and lead to an empowering experience for both the community members and the initiators of the project, because the learning process in the project was truly reciprocal, with sometimes surprising outcomes for everybody involved.

In contrast, guarding this principle in marginalized communities with members who have to cope with the harsh restraints of living below the absolute level of poverty (less than 1,25 US $ per day) and where human rights violations are part of everyday life becomes a challenge to a foreign project manager.

I’d like to illustrate this with my personal experience in participatory community work: In 2011, I was involved in a participatory water resource management project in Southwest Madagascar. In this part of Madagascar, women are usually not allowed to take part in meetings; They can’t talk without the permission of a man; Even though they provide most of the family income, they are left with nothing when their husband dies and all his belongings are burned to assure his wealth in the afterlife; Women who gave birth to disabled children are exiled; Once someone claims that a woman is a witch, she can expect to be ostracised by her community and her own family; Girls are sometimes married at the age of 12, which makes them extremely vulnerable to suffer from a vaginal fistula after giving birth. This condition means that they are constantly in pain, incontinent, and smell badly. If that happens, they are usually chased away by their husband to live the poorest of lives in the vicinity of, but not in their village.

All these examples show that the position women hold in the traditional south-western Malagasy community can be hard to understand and accept by a Westerner. Working with Malagasy at eye level meant for me to break with some of my most fundamental beliefs in gender equality. Yet, in my opinion, participation doesn’t just mean compromise; it means full project ownership by the community. For my work, this meant having to accept degrees of gender discrimination that felt very wrong to me.

My example is not as extreme as it may seem: homosexuality, ethnicity, mental illness, age, religion- all these ways of identification have a place in traditional societies that one may or may not agree with. Violence, child abuse and homicide might also be treated in a way that would be unacceptable in Western societies. I’m in no way suggesting that Western societies are morally superior (to name just some of the large-scale moral failures of Western society: colonization, consumerism and environmental degradation). However, I believe that describing community participation without mentioning any of its moral dilemmas is not as “transparent” as we ought to be. Many articles on community participation in Third World countries make it sound as if their non-interference was unambiguous. However, in reality it is the moments where one has to hold back his or her own beliefs that make or break the trust and feeling of self-sufficiency of the community. While I agree with everything that is usually described as ‘community owned solutions’ and ‘participation’, I’m concerned about what is usually left out in those descriptions. Participation will not gain acceptance and become the new standard in development cooperation, if it’s not understood holistically with all its merits and drawbacks.


[1] For many examples of successful participatory projects in countries like the USA, Spain, Sweden, etc. see Stephens, C. (2008). Health Promotion: A Psychosocial Approach (1st ed.). Open University Press.

[2] An example for taking a participatory approach to an extremely marginalized and challenged Third World community can be found in Campbell, C. (2003). Letting them die : why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail. Oxford : International African Institute.

[3] Please excuse the use of these terribly euro-centric terms.