By Scott Breslin former Operation Mercy International Director
The stories of Abdul and Ahmet are from communities in different regions of the same country. I have firsthand knowledge of both community groups and use these stories to illustrate the prevailing thinking patterns and results thereof within these communities.
Abdul purchased an antique oil lamp at the local market. When he brought the lamp home and began to clean it a genie (jinni) came out and said, "Abdul, I have been trapped in this lamp for 1000 years. As a reward for freeing me, I will grant you one wish, whatever you want. However, I must warn you that whatever you wish for, I will give your neighbor double what I give you." Abdul thought for a second and said to the genie "Make me blind in one eye!"
This "joke" is told within a specific community group of which I have firsthand knowledge. For those in the know, this story creates chuckles because it sadly illustrates a known attitude of many within that community. In my opinion, it is also a root reason for the misery, marginalization, conflict, and poverty within this community. On the other hand, every year, Ahmet's garden had the reputation of having the largest pumpkins in the village. A visitor from another town asked Ahmet, "You have the most beautiful pumpkins I have ever seen. What is your secret?" Ahmet replied, "Oh, it's no secret. I give my best pumpkin seeds to my neighbors each year. That increases the chances that the bees who pollinate my plants will do so from the highest quality pumpkins around.”
Although I cannot verify the historic accuracy of this story, it illustrates well the prevailing thinking patterns of many within another community where I have firsthand knowledge. In my opinion, this way of thinking is the root reason for the relative happiness, achievement, and peace within this community.
According to business anthropologist, Joerg Schmitz, culture is what is expected, reinforced, and rewarded within a group. This is the most practical and reasonable definition of culture that I have ever come across.
I had this definition in mind while attending a meeting sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) in Stockholm not long ago. At this meeting I proposed that transformation only happens when there is change in a person’s or groups’ thinking pattern (i.e. what one expects, reinforces and rewards). I insisted that if we are not influencing the way people think, we are not doing anything that will lead to long-term change. I proposed that modeling was one of the best ways to influence people's world view. Modeling and relationship building usually takes a long-time, much longer than the 12-24-month funding cycles of many donors.
I believe community development is PRIMARILY about worldview exchange. It is about influencing the way host communities think, so that in time it influences the way they act. Simultaneously, it is influencing the way development workers think, so that in time it influences the way they act. It is NOT about giving things away nor having a savior or rescuer complex. It is about worldview exchange. Values, purpose, and identity are at the core of our worldview. Beliefs and behaviors follow our worldview. The reality is that my staff (and myself) constantly have our worldview challenged and influenced by interacting with our host communities. Selfishly, it is one big reason I am involved in the international aid sector. I am not an altruist. I expect to grow, mature and change as I work with the marginalized. Certainly, no culture has it all right. Neither does any culture have it all wrong. In my view, all good community development projects should facilitate mutual transformation, i.e. positive change both in the program participants (host community) and in the program staff. At its best, community development is an exchange of worldviews that facilitates transformation in every participant and stakeholder.