Community development through indigenous leadership
by Dennis Olson
from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 18:30-37
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics
Aguaruna leadership at work with the ICW specialist
In my work with the Aguaruna, it was not my job to motivate or work at introducing new things into the culture; I generally responded to what they wanted to do. The Aguaruna were energetic and eager to try new things. My job was to try to keep up with them and to help them think through new ideas and scale the projects to the point where there was a good chance of their being successful.
The following scenario is presented as an example of the way I, as the CD worker, would relate to the leadership. Picture a community wanting to cultivate rice as a cash crop but having no way to get it to market. The community has a meeting where plans are discussed. The people are able to clear land, plant the rice, and harvest it without any problem, but they do not have sacks or a boat and motor to transport the rice. One of the leaders says, "Let's check with Dennis about our plans and see if he can help us."
Later, I get a letter from an individual telling about the community's plans and asking for help. At that point, I ask myself a series of questions:
- Who wrote the letter?
- What has been my past experience with the individual?
- Whom does he represent?
- How does he fit into the community structure?
- What are the community factions?
- What has been my past experience with the community?
- Will only a select part of the community benefit?
- What expertise is available in the community that will help the project succeed?
- Is the community attempting to do too much at one time?
After considering the factors I am aware of and if the project is feasible, I will need to visit the community. When I arrive at the community, the leadership gathers and we meet for one to two days. They
- bring me up to date on general events that have taken place since our last meeting
- explain how the project evolved
- list the community resources and the needs, and
- discuss problems relating to the project.
During that time, I raise questions and make comments regarding the plans and we also work to reach consensus as to how responsibility will be divided among the Aguaruna leadership, the community, and SIL. After these discussions are finished, the entire community meets together so everyone will be included in making the final arrangements regarding the project.
In a case like this, the community leader we would choose would be the liaison between the community and SIL. It is a tremendous responsibility to make sure we are working with the right people.
The following is an example of what happens when the ICW worker does not have all of the pertinent information together before choosing to work with a person. The bilingual school system had supervisors trained to visit schools with a head supervisor overseeing the entire system. The man chosen to be the head supervisor was one of the sharpest, best educated Aguaruna and had a thorough understanding of bilingual education. He did a competent job but was not as effective as it seemed he should be. What we were not aware of at the time was that this man had married the wrong woman; in terms of Aguaruna culture, he had married into an incestuous relationship. As head supervisor, this man was put into a position of prestige and responsibility that he did not merit.
One community leader came to me to ask about a list of equipment which included a boat, an outboard motor, and an electric generator so that the community could have lights, a saw mill, and a rice huller. We talked for several hours about the skills needed to operate these various pieces of equipment, ownership, maintenance, and so forth. Then, we talked about the cost of the equipment and whether it would generate enough income to pay the loans. At the end of this discussion, the leader's response was, "I thought you were here to help us. Well, if you can't help us, you won't need to worry about me; I won't bother you any more." I found out later that this community was competing with a mestizocommunity and wanted the things as a matter of prestige. They were not willing to think through what was needed for these things to be successful.
In another instance, a teacher came to me with similar requests. We went through a similar discussion process. This time, the outcome of the discussion was that the community should start with a small loan to purchase a 9 horsepower motor to power a community boat as an initial project to see what the response would be. The next year, when I talked to the teacher, he reported that the project had gone well. When we started to talk about future projects, I mentioned a sawmill which had been one of the requests in the prior year. I was surprised by the response. "Oh no," he said, "we are not ready for that yet. Nobody is trained to operate a sawmill, and if someone were injured, the community would place the blame on me."
At this point, I felt that this leader really understood about development. The year before, he had come asking for all sorts of equipment. Now, he was thinking through all of the elements that would be necessary for a project to be successful. He was now working with the community, asking them the kinds of questions I had asked him. He was now trying to lay the groundwork for a successful project.