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.

Resourcing Philanthropy Is Guiding SA Development

Ask any development practitioner what the toughest thing to navigate in the sector is and they will mostly likely say funding.  Dig even deeper and you will see that the said issue is not the unavailability of funding. Yes, the sector has seen some significant funding cuts in recent months but there is still a considerable amount of resources going to the sector. The dilemma facing organisations, especially beginners, is finding the right funding partners as this can make all the difference, not just for the reserves of an organisations but its very soul.

Resourcing Philanthropy, a web-based platform profiling humanitarian efforts and developmental initiatives in South Africa, is helping organisations and activists make the most of the wealth of networks and funding partners available to them. The Resourcing Philanthropy website hosts information, experience and insights from grant-makers, non-profit organizations and philanthropists in South Africa.

Resourcing Philanthropy Profiles SA Funding Partners
Resourcing Philanthropy is helping connect development practitioners in SA to the right funding partners. Photo: Resourcing Philanthropy

A great component about Resourcing Philanthropy is that its approaches are based on Asset-Based Community-Driven Development perspectives and practice. When choosing initiatives and funding partners to highlight, Resourcing Philanthropy functions around four approaches namely, 1. Margin to Center, 2. Advocating Change, 3. Risk With Vision and 4. Responsive Collaboration – concepts that ABCD practitioners are familiar with. This means that they put the emphasis on communities and their aspirations and assets rather than put development and communities at the mercy of funders to serve as marketing for them in exchange for cash.

Development is not merely about monetary wealth, shiny facades on infrastructure and technological symbols to replace “the old.” Resourcing Philanthropy understands this. Yes, access to knowledge and things to make life easier might be part of development, but they are not the end goal of the process. A lot of poor communities’ land, resources and even rights have been sold to multi-nationals by their governments in exchange for shiny material symbols that are supposed to equate development. Ecological systems have been disrupted, children and women exploited in factories and heinous abuses against human and animal rights shrugged off by governments and proponents of development in the name of development.

The focus is then on what communities initiate or want to start. Through this perspective, funding partners supplement or partner in equal, fair relationships with communities rather than drive community initiatives.

Resourcing Philanthrophy also prepares organisations on ways to manage not only the funding when they get it, but also their work through a series of In Actions.

ABCD Tackles Ableism

The often ignored issue of ableism is a rarely detected hindrance to development and organisational work. This is owing to the fact that ableism sometimes disguises itself as practicality, but inadvertently promotes exclusion and saviour/helpless-flock tropes amongst other negative and false ideas – dynamics which are detrimental to mobilisation and the work.

People with disabilities often do not attend public events or participate in organisations. This is not due to the fact that they are not many in the world or that they are not interested in public participation. A large part of the problem is that mainstream society, and sometimes organisations that deal with disability, often unconsciously send the message that people with disabilities are an inconvenience.

Defining Ableism

The Northwest Health Foundation (NWHF), an American health organisation, detailed its process of unlearning ableism and how this has benefitted the organisation and the beneficiaries in a three-part article series in Medium. The NWHF defines ableism as “the practices and attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of people with disabilities”. The articles deal with how organisations and mainstream society use isolating practices to keep people with disabilities “in”, “out” and “down”. These three have to do with how able-bodied people treat or react around people with disabilities in a way that negates their humanity which essentially isolates them from the wider world.

Participatory Ableism

For the most part, people with disabilities are kept out of participation by lack of accommodations, most of which are provided to able-bodied people without thought. These include access to buildings, seats, informational material, catering or language(s) (interpretation or translated material). People with disabilities often have to make extra arrangements on their own, even as guests or participants.

The NWHF states that they discovered that “accommodations for people with disabilities are usually left out unless specifically required by law or a funding source.” Considering all the hoops people with disabilities have to jump through when attending conferences, meetings and other public events, it is easy to see why most would rather stay at home. The ones that show up have to make do without and try to catch up with their able-bodied counterparts, even though they were not afforded equal experiences/accommodations. In some instances, people with disabilities are expected to participate vicariously through able-bodied participants.

One of the main obstacles in tackling ableism is that people sometimes see it as a “soft”-ism which might or might not constitute discrimination – depending on individual subjective sensitivities or moral concern. Unlike other “-isms” like sexism, racism and LGBTQIA+-antagonism, ableism is seldom characterised by physically or even verbally violent bigotry and consequently becomes easy to ignore.

Organisations and Tackling Ableism

The ABCD approach to development is one that, in my view, addresses the heart of why organisations are formed – people. It is true that organisations are often hard-pressed for support, mostly in the form of funding. However, this cannot come at the expense of people – the core of why developmental work is initiated in the first place. Organisations do not deal with problems or issues, they deal with people and their potential for doing great things.

Ikhala Trust‘s Director, Bernie Dolley, and her colleagues have stressed that sustainable solutions do not come from mobilising around managing problems. Dealing with issues on a material or superficial level of trying to eliminate the immediate danger seldom works, since issues that plague humanity are hardly ever random or surface-level. By mending the negative or harmful ways in which people see themselves and their environments, can we then start to move away from behaviour patterns or mindsets which led to the problems and the cycles/systems supporting them to thrive.

Unlearning ableism is not only dependent on what one avoids doing or saying but also actually listening to people with disabilities
Tarkastad’s Masizame Disabled Centre members engaging in a discussion about issues affecting them. Photo: Loyiso Gxothiwe

Ableism Is Not Pragmatism

In our attempts to be practical or efficient in organisational work, we cannot sacrifice nuance and critical engagement for the work. This can be more potentially damaging than spending more than the organisation’s planned budget. It can undercut the value and impact of the work and chip away at an organisation’s reputation. This does not mean that organisations have to spend lots of money on unknown accommodations (unknown because not every disability is physical or perceptible on first glances, for example mental health issues).

Accommodating people with disabilities does not have to be a hassle or even expensive. The NWHF cites that it asks its guests/participants, “What helps you participate?” when sending out invites for invites to their workshops or meetings. Blind people may find music or sound beneficial. Deaf people may do better with visual aids. People with learning disabilities may find more discussion and less slides or reading material useful. For others it might be cutting down on ableist language and jokes like “lame”, “Stevie Wonder to…” or comments and jokes depicting people with mental disabilities as sociopaths.

We do not have to spend money to provide these accommodations. The NWHF noted that funders usually do not have reservations on forking out a little extra for accommodating people to encourage participation. Asking what participants need to participate effectively is also important, as it is reported that people with disabilities will seldom ask for accommodations in order not to inconvenience the organisers.

ABCD Tackles Ableism

Especially in organisational work, ableism is one such cycle that needs to be broken. The ABCD approach to development is based on transforming paradigms or boxes of thinking/seeing and being that people build up. These mental boxes limit our potential and the impact we have on humanity and our own destinies. Crucial to this unlocking of paradigms is unlearning toxic socialisation like ableism. Although it does not specifically deal with ableism, the ABCD framework of finding new ways of thinking and mobilising our available assets is helpful in tackling ableism, as it emphasises self-reliance and the need to participate in determing our own narratives.