One of the biggest challenges: What it takes to be an agent of ‘Change’?

By Iqra Khan, Sudarshan Thakur*

A read for friends from the development sector: ‘It is not suggestive, rather an experiential discourse.’

As change agents why do we need to know how to work with people, does it need any special skill set? These are frequently asked questions to ponder over. Like any other sector, competence in this work can be picked up while you work with people, yet without concerted effort one can go astray in their own loop of community work. Nevertheless, there are academic institutions running courses on community work and development practice. And there are organizations working with people where one can get hands-on experience. Indeed, in recent times, more focus is on building people’s collectives where collectives are supposed to be in the driver’s seat. In spite of all the fuss, the fact is that the people centric approach is still a distant dream. Therefore, the question remains what it takes to be an agent of change. This musing is an attempt to unfurl this, and is based on a period of discussions and dialogues among development professionals from PRADAN.


Don’t be the voice of ‘People’

Often one comes across development professionals, advocates and activists speaking for the community to bring their concerns to the front. It may seem to be important, but in doing so the voice of marginals do not draw attention. In fact, those at margins rarely get the opportunity to speak their mind. Even if they do, they do at the behest of the promoting organization in the form of success stories or struggles. Drawing attention of the relevant stakeholders is necessary but speaking on behalf of community restricts their opportunity to occupy the dialogic space. Most of the development professionals suffer from this, what we have termed as ‘representing syndrome’, i.e., an urge to represent the plight of poor. In this attempt, the community is left behind to remain forever dependent on these representatives. It further restricts community to exercise their citizenship.

What shall development professionals do then?

Stop being the voice, let them speak. Don’t represent, rather pass on the microphone to the people one is representing. Representation always comes with an assumption that the affected community lacks the capacity to voice out their opinion. So, shall we not focus on their capabilities rather than snitching on their voice? The fact of the matter is that the community may not speak in the trained language of the development fraternity but can effectively communicate their concerns. No matter to what extent we adapt ourselves into their culture, we still are not in their place, therefore how can we speak about someone who we are not? The best thing to do is help people to speak for themselves irrespective of outcome as the impact created will be perennial and may set precedent for future. Additionally, it will save us from two things-

  1. Decoding verbose expert explanations often difficult to understand.
  2. Decrypting representative’s personal bias in the explanations.

Don’t set direction for ‘People’

While working with community, knowingly/unknowingly we start directing their life; even if not, we want to give some direction for their benefit. Our compassion and love for people may not be of help; and when community has other views, we generally say, “people don’t understand”. This tendency to make things right in the community and setting direction for them is what we can call, ‘patronizing syndrome’. When we patronize the vulnerable, we draw attention to ourselves as professionals. This generally led to colloquial phrases generally used by development practitioners: our people, our women, our collectives: the fact is that they are ‘they’, not ‘us’. What we forget is that such a behavior is fine for fueling our ego of doing ‘good’, but it takes away the liberty of already sidelined people in exercising their choice. Community is independent of professionals; hence patronizing behavior in any form is unwarranted.

What shall development professionals do then?

Stop directing, start collaborating. We need to realize that our position in the society is not just a matter of diligence or laziness; it is a result of historical inequality. So, our action of directing the poor further dehumanizes their being and leads them to vicious cycle of non belief in self. We need to ask, “shall we direct them to act on professionals’ ideas or help them to devise their ideas?” It is obvious that communities finding and nurturing their ideas may have everlasting impact on their psyche as well as changing their life world rather than depending on short term professional solutions. It does not mean in any way that professional solution is not required but solutions should be brought forth in the spirit of collaboration where exchanges are at mutual footing.

Don’t treat ‘People’ as beneficiaries

Quite often in development sector, we professionals start working with an assumption that people are at margins with no agency of their own. In thinking so, we forget that they had their life before us and will remain so even after us. In the short span of our work in the community we act with the notion of ‘they being helpless’, which we are calling here, ‘sympathizing syndrome’. Professionals with this syndrome will never engage in dialogue, rather will operate in a provider role with community being mere recipients. Fact of the matter is that our enforcement of ideas and practices on them for their good doesn’t command acceptance. Poverty is a complex phenomenon and it’s more structural than being just absence of material resources. In that sense, professionally we are in the business of development, and there lies the distinction from charity. Therefore, we aren’t doing a favor on the vulnerable sections of the society by working with them, if goal of our organization is to address poverty.

What shall development professionals do then?

Stop looking at them as beneficiaries, forge partnership. They understand their life better and finding solution with them for them is something we should look for. The historical injustice has left poorer communities with low to no access over resources, and kept them away from amenities which we privileged access in our daily life: be it education, health, job opportunity, technology or others. Different communities and different set of population within the same community may have different needs. A facilitating environment of information and opportunities is required where people can duly exercise their choice, and demand entitlements and services. We should neither force them to meet project goals designed by us nor plead to make things happen as per our wishes. Does it mean in any way, that agencies should not undertake development projects? No, in fact, development projects are imperative to ensure civil society action towards development of a nation. If our project has been developed keeping the context in mind, execution will be smooth but then we will have to ensure community’s participation from the early design stage.

As development practitioners, we must not treat people as ignorant, never hijack people, be transparent with people, go for people driven research, and support rather than being the savior. Sounds Utopian! Is not it? An arduous task indeed in the present situation of looking at addressing poverty in an assembly line format. It creeps out another set of questions on how projects are being designed; and are we carrying forward donors’ agenda or community’s agenda? For instance, projects on addressing gender inequality are being charted out, funding provided for 2 years and at the end of the project cycle, we start analyzing changes in the community. Is it not too much an ask? Nevertheless, this is one of the biggest challenges as well as an opportunity to start a discourse on how we look at development. Therefore, keep asking questions and keep the dialogic process alive.

Iqra Khan is a development practitioner, working with PRADAN. Currently she works to strengthen local institutions of governance such as gram sabhas and panchayats focusing social security schemes for economically weaker section, women led institutions and livelihoods. She holds a master’s degree in development from Azim Premji University. Iqra in the past has worked with social enterprises, Dhriiti and I Village where she worked on promoting entrepreneurship skills among marginalised women

Sudarshan has more than 13 years of work experience in three endemic poverty regions of India. During his career, he specifically worked with women from tribal and minority communities on the economic rights of women by engaging in women institution building and collaborating with partners- government and non-government. He is presently based at Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh. Sudarshan holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Geography from Gauhati University

2 thoughts on “One of the biggest challenges: What it takes to be an agent of ‘Change’?

  1. Appreciative effort to see professionals reflecting on practices. Would also request to share some concrete examples/ practices for each of these suggested ideas.


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