It’s Time to Talk About ‘Unsexy’

There is a famous proverb which says something along the lines of ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will never starve.’ That may be. Or perhaps not. It is a good theory, but does it hold true once all of the practicalities of making it happen are considered?

Have we asked this man if he already knows how to fish? Have we asked this man if he needs to fish to feed himself and his family? Have we asked this man if fishing is practical, is it something that he can do year-round? Have we considered if, once we teach this man to fish, he will take the initiative to continue fishing? Have we considered if, once we teach this man to fish, he will discontinue other income-generating or livelihood activities? And if we are teaching this man to fish, can we assume we are also teaching his wife to fish as well?

There are so many questions we need to ask. So many things that we need to consider when we take an idea and put it into practice. Development workers face this dilemma every day. Someone somewhere has written about how an approach to issue X worked in village Y in country Z. The results of the approach were great – tangible and practical, wholly owned by the community members, lauded by the government. And so someone somewhere else decides this same approach should be applied to issue X, but in village A in country B. Theoretically, it could work. But do you have all of the necessary details to assist you in planning the implementation of this approach in a different village in a different country? What cultural, social and political factors influenced the results of the approach used? Most importantly, does this approach even make sense for this very different village in this very different country?

We have all been there. Trying to replicate ‘best practices’ in governance, for example, which were, if we think about it, ‘best’ only in the context where they originated. They may well be ‘good’, but are they appropriate? And are they necessarily ‘right’? How relevant is the implementation of Western style local government concepts in a country where local government is based on tribal governance – where all decisions are deferred to the tribal leader. What about the focus on democratic elections in communities where ‘term limits’ are a foreign concept – when the village chief dies, the elders meet and decide upon a new chief. Is it inclusive? From our (western) perspective, it’s unlikely. But does it matter? What matters is whether the results are acceptable to the community. This is important not only in the context of governance, but also in economic ‘development.’ A prime example is the introduction of money into remote communities who then come to rely on it to the point of abandoning their traditional livelihoods – losing important skills and creating a cycle of dependence and poverty (deeper inequalities in the community; a transformation to consumerism to the detriment of community cohesion) that no ‘best practices’ are likely to help them escape from.

There are successes and there are failures in the work of development, conflict management and political transition. Theories and ideas grow out of both. What we need is to know the critical factors that fostered those successes, or caused those failures. Was it the (lack of) commitment of an individual figure in government? Were historical factors at play? How did the internal (or even external) politics of the development organization factor into the success or failure? When we talk about ‘best practices’ (which I prefer to call ‘good practices’), we need to be honest about whether or not they can practically be replicated elsewhere, and if so, what needs to be considered, what factors need to be present, before we can ‘test our theories.’

‘Theory in Practice: A Practitioner’s Journal on Development, Conflict Management and Political Transition’ is the result of many conversations amongst friends and colleagues on the need to break out of the development/conflict management/humanitarian theory ‘mold’ and have an independent space in which to talk about our successes AND our failures and why they worked/failed, and why they may or, more likely, may not, work in another context.

For example, we talk about cultural relativism, but do we practice it? What is justice? What are human rights? What is democracy? What do we mean when we say ‘equal’? More importantly, are these concepts and practices as important to the communities we are working with as they are to us? What concepts, traditions and practices do they value above all others? What is acceptable, what is ‘good enough’ – not for us, but for those we are ostensibly working for? Have we considered how our approaches may be perceived – questioning the intelligence of our partners, and the validity of their cultures and cultural practices?

In an upcoming series of articles in this journal, two authors discuss the concept ‘What is justice, really?’ This is an important question, particularly in terms of the objective of Theory in Practice. How can we conceivably replicate concepts of justice from one country to another, from one culture to another, and ‘score’ a justice system based on what we believe to be right or wrong, falling short of arbitrary standards or ‘good enough’. How can we conceivably expect to mesh conflicting views on what is ‘just?’

Theory in Practice is also pleased to publish an upcoming article on the persistent need to ‘link’ ideas, as though development or peace building cannot take place in the absence of certain precursors. We are excited to initiate discussion on whether or not there really is a link between democracy, good governance and human development. We are perhaps even more excited to hear your feedback.

Yes, it’s time to discuss those ‘unsexy’ topics that we are often restrained from raising (publically) as a result of organizational sensitivities and our fear of the implication of pushing too many boundaries. Let’s move past those fears and boundaries and discuss these issues constructively. So many of the ideas which we try to implement are good ones – our role is to help ensure that the gap between the theory (the idea) and practice (its implementation) is reduced by discussing, constructively, how or why they can or cannot work. We want you to tell us about your experiences and what you have learned in concise, straightforward language.

With the aim of turning the traditional approach to journals and academic publishing on its head, we welcome you to join us in this important conversation. Help us make this important discussion, in which we shed our constraints and address those nagging questions that have been hiding in the shadows, become a ‘sexy’ one.


Denika Blacklock

Editor, Theory in Practice

6 January 2013

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