Responsive Engagement Clears The Way

If there is a principle one should internalize and keep cultivating as an Asset-Based Community-driven Development (ABCD) practitioner, it’s responsive engagement. A French, feminist comic simply known as Emma illustrated the gender dynamics of household responsibilities. In the comic, Emma illustrates the feminist concept of the ‘mental load’. This concept relates to when a man expects that in order for him to be involved in household chores, his partner has to first ask him. According to the comic, the man is then viewing her [the partner] as the manager of their household chores. This theory also applies to development practitioners and their partners, both those that support or benefit from the work.

Responsive Engagement Clears The Way
Responsive engagement ensures that partners are on the same page and the way is cleared to work. Image: Illustrated by French comic Emma & published in The Guardian

Emma illustrates a number of modern women in relationships. Most of these women are mothers. There is a unilateral dilemma in these women’s relationships – their men expect to be coaxed into performing their share of labour even though it is beneficial to both parties in the relationship. The men will bring work friends home for dinner and expect the wife to handle the cooking for the dinner party, the kids’ supper, handling the kids so they don’t disturb the adults, etc. while she is also handling her own work! This dynamic is not necessarily a gendered assignation of roles, i.e. women in the kitchen with children at their feet and men on the sofa with a beer in hand. According to the men, they would have performed those duties – it’s just that they were simply not asked.

However, the women also have valid reasons from abstaining to ask. The men will go only as far as they are asked. They will clear the table and leave the wet cloth next to the foot of the table which the children might slip on. And so the women must live with the ‘mental load’ – always aware of what needs to be packed for work, who needs to be thanked, what date the meeting is on…

A similar dynamic exists in developmental work. Developmental practitioners and organisations often find themselves swamped or dealing with labour they did not bargain for. We sometimes find ourselves in these dilemmas not due to being requested or demanded to do so, but because of feelings of expectation or helping gestures that are later exploited. Practitioners find themselves doing the work they feel pulled towards by their hearts in addition to uncompensated labour community members and partners can actually do for themselves. One might start by offering to help the Addams’ kid from the Homework Champions Project with mathematics and soon find the Addams family and their whole street expecting to have their taxes filed for free.

At the 2016 ABCD Festival, I learned an illuminating fact. As development practitioners, we actually partner with communities and supporters (these could be funders or our leaders). We are not saviours. We cultivate reciprocal relationships with community partners, not beneficiaries. Our community partners are not called beneficiaries, as they also have a stake in the work beyond what we can do or give to them. We are also not slaves to funders and people dangling money above our heads on the condition that we do things that are not on our agenda or passions list. We then start caring a mental load for things that we did not even think of due to expectations that eventually turn into obligations. This is where responsive engagement comes in.

The ABCD definition of responsive engagement is “you are prepared, awake and deliberately choosing which way you go.” This means that you do not go with the flow and then end up forced to make good of whatever outcome pops up. Yes, one can find good in any situation. However, for us to be more effective and productive as development practitioners, we need to be more direct and deliberate in our decisions, stances and especially the steps we take. This does not mean that we should start turning people away because their requests are not in line with our operations – we need to be more decisive and focused in order to not deplete or starve our passion and for our communities to not grow dependent or comfortable with free labour they do not value.

Responsive engagement also means that we do not act as parents and start deciding for our partners. We lay the ground for discussion and understanding. We assess aspirations, capabilities and expectations. We then set out our responsibilities as both practitioner and community. Afterwards, we ALL do our part to achieve our shared goal.

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