A non-ideal development practitioner?

Blog post by Joanne Coysh and is shared generously by The Ideal Practitioner.

It is interesting to consider a non-ideal development practitioner.

Someone who sees their knowledge and skills as the most important aspect, who is interested in developing processes and programmes through one-way consultations rather than collaboration and always see projects involving tables, tools, and frameworks –rather than a social process.

Someone who spends most of their time in offices away from the context, talks to donors and other ‘experts’ rather than the people affected; who does not value the knowledge, resources and capacity of the people in context, but rather arrives with pre-defined programmes/ solutions and adapt them to context.

They see their role to help, advise and inform rather than to facilitate. They produce great reports, tables, project plans but have no connection, empathy or understanding of the issues or the people affected…. Maybe you get the picture!

What challenges does such an “ideal” social change/development practitioner face in trying to live up to that ideal in the real world? 

Unfortunately, the biggest problem is the system and a development sector and/or processes which value technical skills and knowledge rather than the softer social and personal skills. This means that the DP is faced with conflicting forces and often while social change/ development practitioners would like to work in all the ways stated above it is not easy within a system that is organised around entirely different and more bureaucratic principles. Therefore, I think it is difficult to consider the level of individual agency without reference to the system – because they are so interconnected. Are DPs really willing to step out of the system to bring about change – or can we/they challenge it from the inside?

How have you personally navigated these issues?

There are a lot of examples in clinical legal education and justice education in relation to this. If we can and how do we teach the softer skills base, such as critical inquiry, reflection, empathic listening? My experience is one of exposure and giving the students the opportunity to work directly in these situations with good support. However, it is important that there are a number of fundamental principles which inform their practice and that they can be peer reviewed by the actual people they are working with. I also think we need to challenge students to challenge themselves and their view of the world.

  • Skills of deep listening come from the psychotherapy field but have been translated into alternative models of leadership (Theory U) which encourage participants to cultivate these skills over a long period of time.
  • Some pilots and research have often been done with law students and teacherswhich show how little they often talk about how things make them ‘feel’.Where does our emotional and physical connection come into all this? How can we navigate the relationship between the self, our interconnection with others and the world–systemic thinking could also help.
  • There are ideas and models of leadership, personal development and spiritual ideas which have been used in various fields including law, peacebuilding, education, psychotherapy and others, which I feel could be drawn upon more often in development. Rather than looking at it as something singular, I wonder whether it should be approached much more from an interdisciplinary perspective – do we do this? I am not so sure. Development practitioners/ academics often ‘teach’ development practitioners – should it be like this or should we be looking further afield?
Joanne Coysh

Joanne Coysh