Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Strange Partners to Development: Writing

This is the second in a series of posts on my interests in the intersection of development with three areas that are often considered marginal to it.

As an undergraduate I majored in anthropology at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in the U.S. When I was applying to Wesleyan, my investigation of the term "liberal arts" told me that it referred to colleges that emphasized an all-round education, and teaching their students transferable skills rather than the absorption of facts. The term "transferable skills" would become all too familiar four years later, when I heard it repeatedly from career counsellors. "Transferable skills" are what enable you to apply for (and successfully get) jobs in fields completely unrelated to what you studied. They are what you should strive to build in your current job to prepare you for the next completely unrelated career move, and what will hold you in good stead when you've been out of the workforce for several years raising your children.

But, I digress. With the exception of a class I took called Making Anthropological Video, my choice of major meant that I was assessed solely on the basis of papers (essays) that I had written. And as Wesleyan, like most North American universities, follows a continuous assessment system, I was writing papers constantly. And yet I never felt at Wesleyan that writing was really a skill I possessed, and certainly not a transferable one.

I've wanted to "yite" since before I could pronounce the letter "r", and I practically haven't stopped since. But although I believe I enjoy writing, and even have a flair for it, neither of these are the same as a skill. A skill is something that can be applied for useful purposes. As undergraduates it was probably too early for us to even think that our papers had any purpose other than to get us grades. But because I had had an academic paper published in The Concord Review when I was in high school, if I stretched my imagination I could think about more such publications as a plausible goal. However at no point were we asked to write papers in anything other than an academic style, or for any audience other than our professors. I'll stop my discussion of anthropology and writing here, but if you want more see this piece by my friend Scott Carney.

My first job in the development sector was with a women's development organization that had been contracted by the state government to write a community manual for one of their projects. My boss's strategic use of our position to advocate for women within the project should have convinced me of the power of the pen. As the Manual was the policy document for communities participating in the project, we used our position to influence, and finally determine, what would become policy. In addition to our official responsibility for the Manual, we volunteered for every single writing job within the project, because nobody else wanted it. Meeting participants remembered what we wanted them to, because we took the minutes and we always made sure they went home with our handouts. The lessons learnt by the project were the ones that we wrote down.

This isn't as sinister as it all sounds. Feminists have often argued that when the world is seen and recorded by men, women are made invisible. What we saw and recorded, by and on behalf of women, was whether women were attending project meetings, whether when they attended they spoke up, and whether when they spoke up they did so on behalf of women's interests.

We worked on the Manual for more than a year, and during that time we spent days, nights, weekends and holidays figuring out what chapters it should have, how they would be ordered, and what information each would contain. Yet I still felt that these activities, which I now recognize as integral to any writing process, were not valued within the organization. There were several attempts to get our staff at the grassroots level to write the Manual, in the belief that their field experience could somehow directly become text that would flow across the page. I got the distinct feeling that it was field experience that was being viewed and valued as central to this endeavour, and not writing skill. I am not implying that writers cannot be found at the grassroots, but rather that they require training and practice, just like anyone else.

We also tried to get feedback on the Manual, as it was being drafted, from the community members participating in the project themselves. However, even where literacy did not seem to be the main problem, there was little interest in reading. We tried reading out portions of the Manual, but that wasn't successful either. Ultimately when I left the project, I felt dissatisfied with what my writing had achieved.

It was around this time that one of my acquaintances through the project asked me about my career plans. This conversation took place around six years ago so you'll forgive me for paraphrasing. I responded with, "I want to work with communities at the grassroots level". "But what will you contribute to them?" he asked. This question haunted me for a long time. As I mentioned, writing did not seem like a plausible answer, and so I set out to look for Master's programs that would give me practical skills. I chose environmental planning.

As I was filling out my applications, I was also working on a research project for another social enterprise. One of my assignments was to study sacred groves. The organization that I was working for wanted the study conducted as a prelude to setting up a nursery that sold plants that had religious value for the local communities. However my study found that the main threat to the groves was the religious festivals that were held there, and I didn't see how setting up a nursery would help. I chose not to make this recommendation.

My aunt thought that I should make a coffee table book on the groves, with large, glossy pictures. I chose instead to write my Master's thesis on the contradiction between groves that were protected for religious reasons, but at the same time being destroyed by religious practices, because I loved the complexity it offered me for analysis.

Probably the least popular, but most useful, class I took as a Master's student was one that taught me the craft of writing. In this class, we went through the painstaking differences between abstracts and executive summaries, and how to write policy recommendations so that they would be taken seriously.

Writing is certainly a craft in that it requires skill and training. But writing is also a craft for me in another sense. In my last job, I completed a lengthy funding proposal for a research project on innovation adoption. Because it was a research project, the proposal involved components like a literature review and theoretical framework that challenged my analytical abilities. When I finished the proposal, I felt a huge sense of satisfaction in (metaphorically speaking), holding the document in my hands, knowing that I had chosen each word in it with the utmost care, and that this was the fruit of my labour. It was then that I realized that I felt an intrinsic sense of satisfaction in writing, that was separate from its outcome (getting the funding - or not), and that this was quite different from most professional occupations that are focused on goals that are more intangible.

This is not to say that writers in the development sector should write for writing's sake alone. Researchers and writers often feel free with the time of their marginalized subjects, ask them intimate questions, and then write up their findings in journals that are only accessible to other academics. However, the question of how to "give back" to your research subjects is easier asked than answered. When asked by the potential funders of the innovation adoption project how we would give back to our research subjects, I hesitated to assume that they would be interested in our findings. When we struggled with the Manual, which was intended solely to be of practical use to rural communities, would they really be interested in the characteristics that make them adopt an innovation?

Perhaps when research discovers certain unknown facts, these can be easily "given back" to communities. Perhaps if I had produced a coffee table book, this would have been satisfying to my interviewees, who often spoke to me with pride at the thought that the places and rituals that were important to them, would be captured in print and pictures for the world to see. However, it was really the contradiction, and its analysis, that I wanted to convey to them, as it was these that I felt had the potential to remedy the environmental deterioration of the groves.

Analysis is much more difficult to convey, but here too, pictures may have a role to play. I've been really inspired by the work of The Honeybee Collective, that makes large, unbelievably complex posters of issues that affect the poor, based on travelling to these communities, and understanding their analysis of the problem. The posters are then taken back to the communities for further analysis and discussion.

I am looking out for future projects in which I can explore these ideas of research and analysis using images with the poor.

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