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A Process to Guide Decision Making for Development Activities in Language Programs

by Larry Yost and Hugh Tracy

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 26:1-17
© 1997 Summer Institute of Linguistics


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Principles for intercultural community work

Should SIL participate in development activities as part of a language program? Local communities have many needs and sometimes local leaders ask SIL teams for help. How should we respond? This article offers ten principles to follow in the process.

Principle 1: Start where the people are.

To "start where the people are" requires an understanding of the existing interests, the ideology, and the perceived needs of the people. If the agent of change starts facilitating change on the basis of his/her perception of the people's needs and interests, the change may not occur or it may create a greater problem than it solves--especially from the perspective of the people. Thus resources are wasted; the agent of change may have alienated himself from the community; and the community may be worse off than before the change was introduced.

In applying this principle, it is crucial that we not assume we know the interest of the people. We may observe that a village does not have any latrines and feel this is certainly something they would want. But when the project is complete, we find the people do not use them at all (or only use them when we are there). Latrines were not something they were interested in having.

When Andy Gallman went to work among the Kalagan people in southeast Mindanao, Philippines, he immediately noticed the difficulty the Kalagans had in getting water. As he discussed this with the people, they agreed that a lack of water was a hardship and expressed an interest in having a well. As soon as he could, Andy started a well-digging project. The community was supposed to help, but only two men came to work. As time passed, Andy began to listen to what the people discussed when they talked with each other. The Number 1 concern seemed to be to secure proper title to their land. When he began to show an interest in land titles, many people were ready and willing to work on the issue with Andy.

Principle 2: Introduce new ideas only after relationships and confidence have been established, and show how these new ideas contribute to the solving of problems the group already recognizes (Green 1976).

It takes a long time to establish good solid trust bonds with people, and one must take risks all along the way to establish these bonds. However, if the people in the community know you and know you are trustworthy in small matters, they will be much more likely to trust you when you introduce a new idea.

Barry Irwin describes an experience he observed in Papua New Guinea: "The Agricultural Department of Papua New Guinea decided to introduce the growing of a variety of daisy from which pyrethrin could be extracted. Pyrethrin is the 'knock down' chemical in most fly sprays. After impressing on the people the economic gains from growing the daisies and planting three crops in the village, the agricultural officer left. The flowers grew, and it was found that 1,300 flowers produced only thirty-five cents of income. The story about the toxic value in flowers got around and developed into a story that the flowers caused infertility. The result was that the flower beds were destroyed and the agricultural officer discredited. The new ideas did not solve any local problem."

Principle 3: Keep the program simple and uncomplicated with only one or two major thrusts at a time. it is better to teach one new idea to 100 farmers than to teach 100 new ideas to one farmer (Green 1976).

It is usually difficult to bring about group or community action even on simple, well-defined issues. With complicated issues, it is much more difficult and may be impossible. Most people can effectively assimilate only a limited number of new skills, attitudes, or information bits at one time. To overload a person with changes may result in discouragement, frustration, and even outright rejection of all or part of the changes.

The medical training program in the Manobo (Philippines) area closely followed the keep-it-simple principle. The doctor had a list of several major health problems in the area. In his lessons, he would only cover one problem at a time with much repetition. It was presented very simply with diagrams and pictures where possible. Then after two days the language team reviewed this same lesson. The training was effective in that the trainees demonstrated that they could use and apply the information and skills they had learned as they dealt with health problems in the community.

Principle 4: Involve as many community people as possible in all activities from the start. Do not plan to do it yourself first, then turn it over to the people later because they may refuse to become involved or to take over the project.

If people in a community are involved in all phases of an activity--especially if they are involved in the decision making of each phase, the activity is theirs. They have invested their time, talents, and other resources; thus, they have ownership of the activity. They, therefore, are responsible for its outcome. If, however, an outside change agent takes control of (makes major decisions concerning) the activity at any point, the activity becomes the change agent's, and he is responsible for its outcome. In this situation, the community people can continue to be partially involved or dissociate themselves from the activity. In some situations they may fight against the activity.

In the SIL context, if the language team totally controls the language program in the community, the program belongs to the team. This means the community has no ownership and, thus, no commitment or responsibility to or for the program. The language team bears total responsibility for success or failure of the program. More specifically, if the language team translates a book and gives it to the community, the community people can take it and use it or ignore it. If the community people do more and more of the translation as they are prepared to do so, they have invested time and effort. Therefore, they have a degree of responsibility for it. It is likely they will be motivated and feel responsibility for using it and seeing that others use it also. This basic concept has been proven true many times in SIL history.

It will not be possible for persons in the village to know the technical skills of linguistics and translation from the start, but they do not have to know linguistics to be meaningfully involved in the program. House building, locating language associates, language learning, and many decisions in the linguistics and translation processes can involve the community people. This very likely will take more time initially. However, the extra time spent in community involvement will probably make a significant contribution toward SIL goals--namely, for people to write original materials as well as to read and understand translated materials.

Principle 5: Conduct training in the village, or as close to home as possible, rather than bring persons out of their home communities for long periods of time (Yost 1977).

Trainees, who spend extended periods of time in training away from their home area, potentially may find that the community rejects them on their return. The people may also reject new ideas learned in the outside world. The trainees, on the other hand, may reject the community people as being backward.

A long period of time for one group or person may not be long for another. For example, a person from community X may go to a foreign country for two or three years of graduate work and yet experience limited difficulty upon return to his home community or country to live and work. A person from community Y may go out to a training program in a nearby town for a week and experience severe problems upon returning home. We need to consider this principle and examine this aspect of the culture before we make a decision as to the location of training programs.

In many of the countries where SIL works, it has been difficult to bring people out of their communities to centers or other locations for training programs. They may not be accustomed to traveling and changes of diet Some trainees become discouraged and bored if they are not occupied most of the time. They miss their families and friends and become moody. Also, moral problems sometimes develop.

In the Manobo health project, the medical class was held in the village, Mambago, in the language of the people. The doctor in charge flew out to this village every week and worked through translators for each class. The lectures were translated into Manobo by the language team. Thus, the problems identified in the above paragraphs did not occur.

It is recognized that at times it is desirable for people to be exposed to new situations and things as a part of their awareness expansion. We need to weigh potential costs and benefits when such action is under consideration.

Principle 6: Train in locally acceptable facilities and formats, using locally acceptable methodologies (Yost 1978).

Training facilities, formats, and methods can encourage or inhibit learning. If a facility, format, or method is culturally unacceptable, a training program will at best have limited success. If, at times, it is necessary to train in nontraditional ways, first, help the people understand the need for the change in methods. This may increase the possibility of success.

Road building and road preservation in some parts of Papua New Guinea were originally in the hands of the local village people. The government supplied picks and shovels. The people virtually dug the roads out of the mountains. Village elders decided that each family would be responsible for the upkeep of a section of the road. This worked extremely well for a number of years. Then the government decided to introduce road building machinery. The people abdicated their responsibility and left it to the bulldozers that invariably broke down and were too expensive to repair. Consequently, the roads deteriorated beyond repair. The people never again accepted responsibility for the roads.

Principle 7: Train trainers who can train others. It is the only way to multiply your own efforts. "Give a man a fish and you are helping him a little for a very short while; teach him the act of fishing and he can help himself for life; and if he teaches others, many are helped" (Green 1976).

Training to train is a process that must go on constantly if skills, attitudes, and knowledge are to be passed on from generation to generation and culture to culture. The same is true if new skills, information, and attitudes are to be transferred within and across cultures over time. Since intercultural community workers are a scarce resource, it is wise to train others to train so that communities can most effectively utilize this resource. Also, if a change agent goes into a community to do the work rather than training others to do the work, he is depriving the community of important learning that could be critical in the future. In some countries, expatriate workers are not granted visas to work unless they agree to train nationals. These governments recognize the value of this principle.

A good example of the application of this principle is in the life and ministry of Jesus. For three years, He worked with 12 apostles and then left them in charge to train others who trained others, who trained others, and so forth.

Bob Walker saw an analogy to this principle in the parable of the leaven (Matthew 13:33): "Trained trainers, who can perform the role of agents of change instead of outsiders, become like yeast in bread dough, in that they naturally and effectively create change which benefits the community. I would compare community development solely in the hands of the outsiders who initiated it to trying to make bread rise by using a bicycle pump. Yeast will naturally reproduce itself, whereas, other means may be only temporarily successful."

Principle 8: Identify and involve local leadership, both existing and emerging. To have indigenous institutions, it is necessary to have local leadership. The identification, encouragement, and training of local leadership is a central feature of community development since the ultimate responsibility for continuing development rests with the local citizen (Yost 1979).

Local leaders have the responsibility for ongoing activities in a community. They represent and understand the people and culture and are probably aware of community needs. In many cases, they will be the persons who request help from an outside change agent or authorize him to work in the community. Working with local leadership is usually essential if one is to provide effective help. If the leadership is ignored, there may be conflict and failure.

Barry Irwin has pointed out an example of this in Jethro's advice to Moses. Moses was handling all the judgments himself, both major and minor. Jethro advised Moses, "You should choose some capable men and appoint them as leaders of the people: leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. ... Let them serve as judges for the people on a permanent basis. … They must be God-fearing men who can be trusted and who cannot be bribed" (Exodus 18).

In traditional societies that are experiencing rapid change, it may be quite difficult to identify local leadership. Fran Popovich, who has worked with such a community in Brazil, shared the following:

In a simple society, social groupings are likely to be kinship-based and egalitarian. Tribal or clan elders may be the most influential men, and the basic kin group loyalties provide a loosely-structured unity. In a society that is experiencing accelerated culture change due to the encroachment of the dominating national culture, however, the traditional methods of solving problems may seem no longer relevant. Traditional methods of warfare, alliances, and evasions simply will not work with an expansionist society and its technology. Then the small ethnic group must look for another type of leadership outside of its cultural pattern. These new leaders may be men who have become influential for one reason or another in their own bands; they may have little or no influence outside of their own kin groups.

The emerging leaders would seem to be individuals whose prominence is a result of the competency ascribed to them by the community. They may have demonstrated competence in coping with unprecedented assaults on tribal integrity. The new leader may be a traditional leader, but he is more likely to be a younger man whose abilities have benefit—or promise to benefit—he community. His special ability may be bilingualism or the adaptation of an innovation that benefited the community. Or he may enjoy another kind of prestige.

The new leaders tend to be more visible than the traditional egalitarian leaders. The outside change agent looks for leaders who demonstrate some Western qualities of leadership. He sees these new leaders as more progressive, more innovative. Here is the logical place to begin to train local leadership, thinks the change agent.

The new leaders may be like life guards in a swimming pool. At the moment you feel yourself to be drowning, he becomes the most important person in the world to you. Several months after your rescue, however, he is no more than a very grateful memory; other people are much more important to you. However big he may have loomed on your horizon at that crucial moment, he had no lasting place in your life.

The new leaders tend to be transient. After the crisis has passed, the traditional form of leadership will probably claim the loyalty of the clan again. After all, the only ones who can really be counted on are those of ego's own kin group.

When we train leadership, it is important to recognize that these leaders we are training are probably the more innovative, emerging ones. To gain a community consensus, it may be necessary to do a great deal of research to find the untitled, much-less-visible elders who may blend in with the landscape. They can put the traditional machinery in motion that will make a consensus possible, and without which a development project cannot belong to the community.

Principle 9: Cooperate with the local, regional, and national governments (Yost 1978).

We must assume (even though it is not true in some cases) that the government is the representative of the people and thus probably will be the initial contact for an outside change agent. Most governments have programs at the various levels that will be in progress before the change agent arrives and will be ongoing after the change agent leaves. Ignoring or going against this community institution may mean the change agent cannot work in the community or may cause ongoing conflict. There will be situations and times when the goals, methods or ideals of the community and/or change agent may be divergent and thus conflict will arise and cooperation is impossible. The outside change agent may have to leave if the conflict is too great.

William Cameron Townsend, founder of SIL, and several other leaders in SIL have stressed over and over again the necessity of relating to and working with various officials. In most of the literacy programs in the Philippines, the literacy workers first contacted the government officials in charge of Adult Education in that area to talk with them about their plans. On a few occasions, they not only found encouragement but also saw that official endorsement and funding of the program could multiply their efforts. Since that time, officials have sought the help of SIL in training their teachers for working with preliterates.

Principle 10: Encourage interdependent relationships (among community people and between communities) rather than dependent or totally independent relationships (Yost 1978).

The basic components of a community are the people and the relationships among them. A group of people with totally independent relationships would be difficult to visualize and would probably not really be a community.

A community where most relationships are dependent would provide a situation for manipulation and oppression by those who are in controlling positions. There would be diminished self-worth and lack of dignity on the part of the dependents or controlled. Interdependent relationships imply mutuality in the relationships. In today's world, interdependent relationships are probably necessary because of the interdependency of nations, cities, and individuals within communities, and because of the strong emphasis on the value of human rights and the dignity of all peoples.

Bob Walker saw a description of this principle in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1--8): "Encouraging interdependent relationships can be seen as preparing good soil in which new ideas can take root and flourish. Without mutual support and encouragement among community members, projects are likely to fare as did the seed which fell along the path, on rocky ground and among the weeds; they may be met with no understanding, indifference, shallow interest or be eclipsed by other interests. Projects which encourage interdependent relationships will be like the seed which fell on good ground."

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