Tuesday 14 October 2008

The human element

Human development is driven by people’s capacity to see and understand reality in different ways, acquire skills and knowledge, find novel solutions and ask new questions to keep the cycle of development going. The UN Development Report defines development as expanding people’s choices: choices only exist when people are aware of choices, and of the potential to find new choices. This capacity to develop is essentially cognitive, i.e. linked to the process of being aware, knowing, thinking, learning and judging. Obviously this applies not only to narrow definitions of “development” as something that happens to the economy but also to conflict transformation and other forms of social change.

Agencies involved in the various forms of development implicitly recognise this, trying to build human capacity so that people can steer their own change processes. Yet, "helping people to help themselves" tends to interpreted as packaging techniques - be it waste disposal, HIV/AIDS prevention or conflict transformation - from rich countries into training modules for people in poor countries. This may save the trouble of reinventing the proverbial wheel, but does it enhance human inventiveness and creativity? Does it encourage people to devise their own solutions to the problems they consider most important?

People who live closest to a problem are best placed to find solutions. Think of the Grameen Bank. It does not necessarily help people when others think on their behalf. But all of us can put our minds to fuller use. How can we better develop our basic, generic human capacity for cognitive development?

I am afraid that many of the instruments devised by development agencies, or the way in which they are applied, work in the opposite sense: instead of fostering human creativity and resourcefulness, they may reduce our ability to take a fresh look at reality and devise new ways of interacting with it.

In recent years, I have carried out research on the role of individual and social cognition in development processes. Encounters with individuals who make a real difference within their societies have inspired me. How can people in the “global North” recognise such talent and contribute constructively, rather than stifling initiative?

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