Rethinking development

Reconceptualising development is an ongoing debate. One that should take place in a relational space – as a conversation between people – unencumbered by concepts and labels. The international development discourse needs to be where answers are never taken as seriously as questions.

My working journey in development over the years has never been about taking on a role. Quite early on, I realised that I should not avoid bringing my whole person to any role or job, to every conversation, to every encounter I experienced. Why? Because to do less would be to create a bureaucratic protection, for myself and the organisation. An artificial protection against the daily struggle of those communities who were offering their hospitality and openness to joint work. To be involved in development is to ‘live, work and learn’ about one’s daily practice, one’s place and impact within the world.

A narrow managerial or transactional relationship within a developing context is not useful. Hiding behind third person statements and theories that objectify the process is not developing a new paradigm but reaffirming the current state.

What is the context within which development and developing takes place? It is the day-to-day lived, embodied experience of people in relationship, in community across the globe. It is not the sum total of the multi-sectoral approach of much current development practice. Deciding that development responses must be ‘joined up’ or ‘place managed’ is more of the same, and not the answer. Who disaggregated the issues in the first place? As it has been said, the ‘map is not the territory’.

Lived experience is integrated. Development thinking that does not model, reflect and agonise over this reality is flawed.  A more transformative approach lies waiting and can be found if one is willing to set aside the urgency – indeed artificiality and at times lack of respect – in the current bureaucratic call to arms.

Development is not necessarily an upward trajectory. It offers a place for sitting alongside, for people to connect and share in the commonality of their struggles, the joys and pains of daily life in vulnerable and complex environments. It provides a space for working that involves deep listening and shared exploration. It is an approach of ‘being-with’ as well as ‘doing’.  It acknowledges what everyone brings to the table. Action takes place within emergent relationship and the mutual sharing of skills and experience. The word development need never be spoken, and impact becomes a shared journey.

Leadership as a verb and not a noun

Too often I see leadership discussed and taught as a noun rather than a verb.

Knowing leadership as only a noun focuses on a model, a set of steps, a framework that forgets to breath and to grow.

Knowing leadership as the present participle ‘leading’ means being in the present – building and layering the ways and means of your style, how you are known and how you are being experienced as a leader in each moment in time.

Leading is the day by day, moment by moment work of reflecting, creating, listening, moving, understanding, speaking, advising, facilitating, adjudicating, concluding, opening.

To see leadership as co-creation is to lead by navigating the dynamics of psychology within place; is to learn in each moment how it is that you express every value, every principle you have ever known.

Leadership as a verb is brave and courageous.

 

A wandering poet

 

The Korean poet Ko Un writes, everything outside my door/ is my teacher.

The force of poetry is a mystery; allowing words to dance lightly, acting as a poultice drawing out the depth and collision of my life. Everyday I need to make sense of the multitude of experiences and story.  I have been writing poems for years, under-estimating their power and healing quality. Poems come from the deep. Poems always surprise. Poetry breaks up and puts my life back together.

Poetry plays a special role in my writing life. My narrative skims across the surface; my poetry dives deep. It pulls me up and takes me away from the shore. Poetry taught me ontology before I knew it had a name. Poetry, you are my oars, my bark canoe as I lose sight of the shore.

What the poem translates, wrote Philippe Lacou-Labarthe, I propose we call experience, on condition that this word be taken literally … from Latin, experiri: the risky crossing … and this is why one can refer, strictly speaking, to a poetic existence.

 

 

Sometimes it takes me awhile aka I can be a bit slow on the uptake.

I love inspirational quotes. Always have. I sprinkle them freely, widely in speeches, writing, daily life and blogs. And I am always genuinely surprised if people comment on said liberal sprinkling. This is I suspect because I think it is normal, completely unnoticeable (is this a phrase?) or uncommentable (is that a word?). Or maybe, I am shocked that anyone is actually listening. I certainly never countenance the suggestion that I could be overdoing it.

So, when my eldest son, who is of great insight and wit, commented about said sprinkling of quotes throughout my parenting technique and general life advice, I was stopped in my tracks.

So Mum, he said, how many quotes does it take to live a good life?

Brilliant line, I’ll give him that. Called me out and stopped me in my tracks. So there I was, left standing there (does a line from a song count as a quote?) without a good quote or quick witted response at hand. After much laugher, genuine on my behalf I might add, I didn’t know what to say. I can be very literal you see and was trying to work out a number in reply. 10, 100, 1000?

So, a decade later, and I have finally worked out the response – As many as you are open to, honey.

Phew. I can leave the numbers to him (numbers not being my top thing) and I can convey the general ontological underpinnings of my approach. Inspirational quotes from the four corners of the globe and from the past are wisdom bubbling up from our collective consciousness and it is not so much in the speaking of them as the openness to listening.

It is still a very good line of his and I use it now as ‘a quote from my clever son’. It also reminds me gently to be the change I want to see in the world (Gandhi).

Yesterday we went round in circles

During a recent course, we sat and explored circular conversations: a conversation in the round, five minutes each, any topic, no interrupting, no questions – just listening, then onto the next person for their turn. We went round our circle of ten, three times and dug deeper each time. It was no surprise that we found ‘under every deep, a lower deep opens’ (thank you again R.W. Emerson). That night, I wrote this.

Yesterday,  we went round in circles .. deliberately, deeply, intentionally, meaningfully, beautifully. Yesterday, we all gathered closely and together we wandered in thick and thin places.

We spoke of many things and in the speaking we found the willingness to go to the edges of conversation, a confidence to dive into places hitherto unknown. We did the thing we had spoken of, we lived the learning we longed for. Our words dissolved in their inadequacies and then returned as breath. Willingness the thin became willingness the thick, the brave. Became the air that held us together as our viscous, sticky words lingered and dribbled between souls open to listening, waiting and sharing in turn.  Yesterday we teetered on diving pool edges and then went over.

And so we talked. Talked being and doing and head and heart; we mused and raged against such dichotomies; found hope in dragons and acceptance; discovered faith in energy and struggle and a skepticism for power, security and balance. There was space for our background and our foreground and the providence of accidents and truth. We honoured the barefacedness of our learning and named ourselves as conscious and unconscious gardeners, mulching and harvesting words, thoughts, experiences. Then, as soulful archeologists we dug into emerging, blurring layers, giving names, smiles and sighs to the wonders within.

We were delightfully unsure of boundaries as we lay in our net and played with our uncertainties. It no longer mattered whose thoughts, words were whose as we found meaning making meaning and thus gave birth to that which was spawned from the hummus of our communing.