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Mapping Dialogue
Zaid Hassan, 3 Jun 06

dialogueThose of us working for social change should have one key idea flash-burned into our consciousness. If the communities we wish to benefit have not participated or been involved in decision making processes then there will be a lack of ownership and the initiative will most likely fail (if not sooner then certainly later). This key idea is forgotten again and again and the results are sadly predictable. Dialogue is a key tool in ensuring that this particular trap is avoided. Given the frequency with which this particular trap appears on the landscape of social change and development projects, a map to the terrain is no bad thing to be carrying.

Produced by Pioneers of Change (whom I have worked for in the past), "Mapping Dialogue" is a research project profiling dialogue tools and processes for social change. It was written and published out of Johannesburg, South Africa and commissioned by GTZ (the German development co-operation agency) as part of their support for the Nelson Mandela Foundation's dialogue programme. This means that it is not only cognizant of African realities but also richly draws upon them.

The rationale behind the project is twofold, firstly that "we live in a world of increasing complexity, where answers have a short life-span," and secondly that "...people have an inherent desire to want to solve their own problems." The authors argue that for these reasons it is critical that "we need to be adept at asking questions, and at talking and listening to each other."

The report profiles ten dialogue methods in depth, and then another fifteen more briefly. Some of the dialogue methods covered in depth include Deep Democracy, Open Space Technology, Scenario Planning, World Cafe and the Israeli-Palestinian School for Peace. "Mapping Dialogue" also includes a dictionary of dialogue terms, traditional African approaches to dialogue, a piece on the foundations that need to be in place for a good dialogue and as well as some guidelines for assessing what tools to use in what situation.

"Mapping Dialogue" is very simply, a damn good map. It can be downloaded here.

From "Mapping Dialogue":

"Human beings have a living, deep impetus for freedom and self-determination, and given appropriate circumstances, people are usually more resourceful than expected in terms of finding their own answers. They buy in to, and own, solutions they have been a part of creating. The success of implementing interventions on social issues often depends more on ownership and motivation of those involved than on the cleverness of the idea."

"Each of the profiled approaches has a life story behind it. Many of these stories begin with a
person who posed a question. “How do the questions we ask shape our reality?” “Given that
the coffee breaks seem to be the most useful part of the conference anyway, what if the
whole conference was designed similar to a coffee break?” “What is being lost when we just
take majority decisions and don’t hear what the minority has to say?” “How do we create a
networked conversation, modeled on how people naturally communicate?” “Why are we recreating
the same conference rituals when they are passifying us and limiting our creativity?”
“Why are we not managing to bring in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but
rather choosing over and over to just listen to a few expert voices?”

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Human beings have a living, deep impetus for freedom and self-determination, and given appropriate circumstances, people are usually more resourceful than expected in terms of finding their own answers. They buy in to, and own, solutions they have been a part of creating. The success of implementing interventions on social issues often depends more on ownership and motivation of those involved than on the cleverness of the idea.

A very Anglosaxon discourse, so I really have to disagree here. From all the anthropology and sociology that I've had to read, there's only one conclusion: human beings do not like, want or desire self-determination and "freedom" - especially not in our increasingly complex world.

And there are obvious reasons for this: individuals and small groups are not good at solving problems, individuals are not keen to make decisions.
Individuals prefer to have someone else take care of their problems, and are willing to subject themselves to authorities. This is one of the few anthropological universals. You see it in all cultures, throughout time, and up until today.

(Even in modern wealthy democracies this is extremely apparent: just look at the U.S. and you see that people are not interested in politics, not engaged at all in finding 'their own answers' to pressing problems and that they all massively outsource decision making to authorities; even when these authorities objectively act against these citizens' interests, the latter are not even interested in addressing the issue. They do not want ownership of decisionmaking.)

Very concretely, in the development sector, people should learn more fundamental anthropology.

Instead of reading fashionable books about "empowerment" (what a horrible paternalistic concept) and "participatory" strategies, which are all top-down (protestant) bourgeois ideas, they should read real anthropological books.

They should read for instance Achille Mbembe's famous De la Postcolonie (English version: On the Postcolony), in which the "convivialité" of 'subjects' with those in power is described brilliantly. Subjects ('subiecta') gladly outsource their entire lives to the postcolonial 'father' figure and his experts. This is so because subjection implies freedom.

I voluntarily subject myself to the power of abstract systems (the State) and authorities, so that I can get on with my life and do what I want.

This is not at all a call to authoritarianism or an attempt to undermine the virtues of grassroots democracy and decision making, it is merely an objective anthropological fact that should be taken into account when devising development strategies.

Very often top-down approaches work much better than participatory bottom-up strategies (which are often top-down approaches merely disguised as being bottom-up). People do not want to think about decision making, because it's boring, uninteresting, it comes with dull responsabilities, and the time invested in it is often not worth it.

People want to do their thing, that is: having sex, founding a family, eating and watching TV, being happy. That's why they are glad to hand some of their everyday power to people who are as crazy as to be willing to make decisions-that-matter all day long.


Maybe an anecdote: Mobutu once created a new constitutional article, the infamous "Article 15". It read: "débrouillez-vous!" ("make your own decision" - "don't count on the state"). The reaction: Mobutu's popularity skyrocketed, not because he allowed more freedom, but because people craved to be "guided" by him - they thought their new freedom was something horrible, a betrayal.
When you leave people to make their own decisions, they immediately look to someone else who's willing to make those for them.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 3 Jun 06

Zaid says:

Human beings have a living, deep impetus for freedom and self-determination, and given appropriate circumstances, people are usually more resourceful than expected in terms of finding their own answers. They buy in to, and own, solutions they have been a part of creating. The success of implementing interventions on social issues often depends more on ownership and motivation of those involved than on the cleverness of the idea.

Lorenzo says:

Individuals prefer to have someone else take care of their problems, and are willing to subject themselves to authorities. This is one of the few anthropological universals. [...] When you leave people to make their own decisions, they immediately look to someone else who's willing to make those for them.


Why can't both be true?

Looking at the world, it is clear that the mode of behavior Lorenzo describes exists widely. And yet, within each of us is a longing to be happy (even Lorenzo says this: "People want to do their thing, that is: having sex, founding a family, eating and watching TV, being happy")

Zaid reaches for this deeper truth, and takes it to a level beyond the mundane happiness of material comfort.

Far from an "Anglosaxon" idea, the concept of realizing deep freedom through personal and communal striving toward truth is largely Asian: Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, etc, although it can be traced to some mystical Christian traditions too.

People do indeed give up their freedom in exchange for needs and comforts like food, sex, shelter, and perceived security. But they also yearn, underneath it all, to be more deeply happy and free. Both are true, and the tension between them fuels much of the human drama.


Posted by: Kim on 3 Jun 06

Thanks for the comments, they are very interesting.

Lorenzo writes "...it is merely an objective anthropological fact that should be taken into account when devising development strategies."

Which begs the question, pray tell, what is "an objective anthropological fact"?

I couldn't help but think of James C. Scott's work, which argues that "the everyday resistance of subalterns shows that they have not consented to dominance." His ideas, as far as I understand them, are based on sound anthropolgical work.

Scott's books "Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance" (1985) and "Domination and the Arts of Resistance: The Hidden Transcript of Subordinate Groups (1990) seem to point to at least the existance of a different truth than the "objective anthropological fact" that Lorenzo is arguing we must build into our development strategies.

From what I have personally seen, particularly in India, there are communities who absolutely reject the dominance of any external, abstract authority. This is true of forms ranging from the State to public health systems. Then there are communities whose "will to resist" has been broken down to the point where they are entirely dependent on external systems for their "well-being".

A particularly interesting case from India is that of the Meos. "For nearly a millennium, the Meos of north India—one of the largest Muslim populations in South Asia—endured a succession of brutally oppressive regimes, from the Arab conquest in the eighth century through to the establishment of the Turkish sultanate, the Mughal empire, the regional Rajput kingdoms, and the era of British imperialism. Unwilling to abandon their ethnic and religious identity, the Meos developed an independent oral tradition that enabled them to challenge state formation for centuries." (see "Against History, Against State: Counterperspectives From The Margins" by Shail Mayaram)

I agree with Kim, it would seem to me that both positions are true. Context, however, determines everything.


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 3 Jun 06

Okay, I wanted to add something about the difference between the a-political form of "resistance" you're describing, and the radical "resistance" as for instance Zizek describes it.

But first, I agree, context is everything, and the subaltern studies which you point to refer to resistance against colonialism. They're highly contextual and stem from Indian marxist historiography. For the opposite, see Mbembe's notion of postcolonial conviviality.

But let's not forget one thing: the entire agenda of 'participation', 'negotiation', 'dialogue',... as it is fashionable in the dev world nowadays, has already been entirely accaparated by the enemy (the neoliberal enemy - hell even the Worldbank has become one of its fetishists).

As both Gayatry Spivak and Zizek and Arundhati Roy and many other say: the neoliberals will allow and even encourage you to negotiate, to dialogate, to grassroot-whatever you want, as long as you don't ask the real questions, and as long as you don't change the basic conditions within which we allow you to grassroot-whatever.

Real resistance has nothing to do with the mellow Worldbankish discourse about 'empowerment' and 'participation'. Real resistance is anti-democratic, collectivist, fundamentalist, absolutist, totalitarian.


Even in our own world it's the difference between the status-quo promoted by Habermas (negotiated rationalist dialogist a-political conformity), and Zizek, who metaphorically calls on the reapproriation of Leninist intolerance.

>>See Zizek's many texts on this subject, he even refers to the fake, a-political, neoliberal mania of NGOs and Worldbankers who promote dialogism and empowerment:
Can Lenin tell us about freedom today?
and especially his infamous:
A plea for Leninist intolerance, from which the following quotes:

If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space; it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates: those who "really want to do something to help people" get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, feminist and antiracist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly enter economic territory (say, denouncing and boycotting companies that do not respect ecological conditions or that use child labor). They are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit. Let us take two predominant topics from today's American radical academia, postcolonial and queer studies. The problem of postcolonialism is undoubtedly crucial; however, postcolonial studies tends to translate it into the multiculturalist problematic of the colonized minorities' right to narrate their victimizing experience, of the power mechanisms that repress otherness, so that, at the end of the day, we learn that the root of postcolonial exploitation is our intolerance toward the Other and, furthermore, that this intolerance itself is rooted in our intolerance toward the "Stranger in Ourselves," in our inability to confront what we repressed in and of ourselves. Thus the politico-economic struggle is thus imperceptibly transformed into a pseudopsychoanalytic drama of the subject unable to confront its inner traumas. The true corruption of American academia is not primarily financial, it is not only that they are able to buy many European critical intellectuals (myself included, up to a point), but conceptual: notions of European critical theory are imperceptibly translated into the benign universe of cultural studies chic. With regard to this radical chic, the first gesture toward Third Way ideologists and practitioners should be that of praise; they, at least, play their game in a straight way and are honest in their acceptance of global capitalist coordinates in contrast to the pseudoradical academic leftists who adopt the attitude of utter disdain toward the Third Way, while their own radicality ultimately amounts to an empty gesture that obliges no one to anything determinate.


Anyway, I think we're stuffed between two extremes: the anthropological universal that says that people do not want power, and that they let loonies do this job (so that the normal people can get on with their lives, yes, even if they're a bit oppressed) - and the other one, which is radical resistance.
Zaid, the zone which the people in your article dwell in, is the zone of mellow conformity, of Worldbankish tolerance and political correctness.

We should spot it immediately, expose it, abandon it, and move on.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 3 Jun 06

Lorenzo, I agree in general with your comments.

However my article is about a set of tools for dialogue. I did skew the piece to refer to the problems of development but the report was not written per se for the development sector. I would be curious as to what you would make of the report itself and its usefulness.

I can understand how what I have written sounds "WorldBankish" - however your characterisation of the zone that the article points to as one of "of mellow conformity, of Worldbankish tolerance and political correctness" is one I disgaree with.

I disagree with it because my experience of working in this zone is one of working with "the subject unable to confront its inner traumas." In many cases the "subjects" resist seeing their inner landscape as being directly related to the politico-economic struggle that they are all keen to address. The real struggle is in bringing our attention to the dynamics between us and within us in the present. I for one am playing this struggle out on a daily basis and I live and die by the ability "to be adept at asking questions, and at talking and listening to each other." Am I, in my attempt to address these inner traumas conforming? Being politically correct? I don't think so, but I am open to considering your accusations.

Even if I accepted that this space has been entirely co-opted and subsumed by neoliberal forces - this raises two questions for me.

First, how do we reclaim this space? Or should we, as you seem to suggest, abandon it? Either way, I'm not quite ready to abandon is just yet.

Second, beyond battle there is the possiblity of a negotiated peace - there comes a point where attrition from the battle is too high. This is where we need to send in the diplomats to negotiate a settlement. The tools of dialogue are critical to such settlements. Are we at that place? Or should we continue to wage war? It seems that you have a pretty clear answer to these questions - that we keep fighting. I personally am not as clear as you are.


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 3 Jun 06

Lorenzo, "Mapping Dialogue" is an 86 page report that is written well and with great care and effort. It details a set of effective dialogue methods that can be used by any group of people, big or small. May be it would help if you took the time to read it in its entirety. I am busy doing just that and hope to learn a thing or two about using this comment space as a useful "dialogue" platform.


Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 3 Jun 06

Subbarao, sure, I merely quickly looked at Zaid's article, and it was presented a bit in the context of dev work.

It would be simplistic to deny the usefulness of the tools presented, I was more referring to the discourse that often surrounds them (and what's being done with them, by whom, and who introduces them.)

Sometimes, discourse and tools cannot be separated. Worldchangers know this all too well, as many articles on WC have shown this (see the good pieces on greenwash, redwash, etc...).

Anyway, I've just had too many bad experiences with NGO people coming into the field in their big SUVs, their well paid jobs sponsored by redwashing dev agencies, their brains equipped with cute academic theories about participatory approaches to development, and then dictating to the local elites that the natives must empower themselves (common empower yourselves else our project gets no money - thou shalt empower thyself!). It was from this experience that my spontaneous reaction of revulsion emerged.
----

Zaid, you pose a very difficult question: how to resist today when all spaces of resistance have become accaparated by the enemy. In my opinion you can never, as an outsider, tell or even teach people to resist (which is what many NGOs ultimately do). Resistance is always and essentially a collectively expressed singularity ("we the people, on this very day"). That's why its so difficult to make general statements about it. You can't train people to be resistant. You can offer them tools which you think might help, but that's it. But the entire standardized discourse about "empowerment" is a bit simplistic.


There a million ways to resist and to escape, Scott's book you mentioned earlier contains many examples, from subtle forms of sabotage on the workfloor to music and rumor. I mean, resistance is always an "event", a singularity, a kind of art of escaping, and of bringing forces together into a new weave with unexpected empowering results. You can't create a strategy around resistance, it is always more of a "tactical" nature.

I think we can agree on that. Strategy, routine, planning, and the tools that go with it, are all instruments of the State, of Authority (in all its forms, including the paternalistic NGO) - resistance on the contrary is impressionist, improvisation, tactical, a stroke of genius, an event.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 3 Jun 06

Lorenzo, when have the great acts of resistence in human history ever been accomplished without dialogue, strategy and negotiation? Where does improvisation proceed without flow communication? Without people being intimately in touch with one another? We may stage events to escape but escape to where? To a world designed by whom?

The tools Zaid and others offer are not just shiny new things that have been cobbled together for the benefit of the poor and disempowered. In my experience, they arise very much out of ancient and proven strategies for leveraging the power of groups with meaningful communication. The fact that they have been co-opted by the powers that be is not such a problem for me. The powers that be are notoriously bad at wholeheartedly accepting best practices from the people. The last thing I fear about multinationals is their adoption of dialogue. They have a thousand other ways of wrecking havoc on the world with the tools they actually know how to use well.

Working both with powers that be and active indigenous communities and groups, it has been my experience that the tools and discourse around dialogue ARE much more useful in the hands of community because community is able to commit fully to thier implementation. I have never expected the powers that be to change by adopting dialogue. I have never yet seen an act of successful and sustainable resistence that did not use dialogue, heart, purpose and commitment as the basis for true and effective communication.

Your mileage may vary.


Posted by: Chris Corrigan on 3 Jun 06

Oh, and thanks Zaid, and Marianne and others for writing and releasing this work into the world. There are places I know of that will be using it right away.


Posted by: Chris Corrigan on 3 Jun 06

Yes, many thanks for the hard work and TLC in putting together this excellent book on dialogue tools and techniques. This has become a key resource for me, and I'm sure it will be for others who now know about it.



Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 4 Jun 06



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