The Fourth Principle of Community-Based International Development


If we are the source of all the ideas and plans, if we fear that nothing will get done or improve without us, if we are the motor of initiative, if we are stressed-out that we might fail in our efforts, if we have trouble recognizing the names and faces and stories of those whom we serve, then it’s likely our filter needs replacing.

This is the fourth post of a 6-part series republishing the original Staying for Tea article from The Global Citizen journal (2005). You can link to the other posts in this series here: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check your Filter] [5: Cultivate a Servant's Heart] [6: Conclusion]

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Principle #4: Check your Filter

One of the things that can happen as you go into a community to serve is a subtle dehumanization of the people there. It’s not intentional, but it happens sometimes, especially when you roll into town with projects already formulated. There is a difference between being invited into town to live and learn where you can help with the endogenous development process already underway and arriving in town with ready-made solutions to problems you haven’t even encountered yet, but assume (or hope) exist. In that scenario, it’s like you’ve got a hammer and are looking for nails. This approach shifts the people in your new community from the subject to the object of development. If you haven’t been given the trust of the people and shown the social topography of the community, the people may even seem like obstacles! “If it weren’t for these darn people and their baffling behavior, I’d have had these women’s health exams finished long ago!” Many community service volunteers have encountered this attitude creeping into their minds at one time or another. It happens when we loose sight of the second principle (Process Matters) and begin focusing again on our projects and not on the people. I developed a metaphorical framework to remind myself to check my thinking when I began to feel frustrated in Bañado about the pace or “success” of the different projects we worked on with the community. I call it “Checking my Filter”.

The fact is that our perception of the world is altered by the conceptual filters through which we view it. Each of us makes ontological and epistemological assumptions about the world and how it works, and these ought to be made explicit. But what I want to get at here is a more specific model of conceptual filtering and it has to do with how we see people in relationship to us. Specifically, checking the filter is about how we, as communityservice volunteers, conceptualize the people in our communities. It is possible that there are appropriate times for each of these filters, but my hope is that this simple mental model will help you to be more self-conscious about checking your filters as you live and work in a community of people.

First Filter: People As Function

It is very common to treat people (unconsciously) as functions in the activities of our lives and not as our fellow kind. We fail to see people for who they are apart from us; we may see them only for the functions they perform in relation to us. This man-function is my waiter. This woman-function is my bank teller. And if the person malfunctions, we can hurl abuse because functions exist in an emotional and historical vacuum. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry here in the States, you will know how shockingly inhuman people can treat you when they filter out your humanity and see you as nothing more than a malfunction in their transaction rather than as a person with history, sensibilities, soul, and a piece of the Creator within. If we want to botch our time in a community, we can treat people as receptacles of our service; we can serve them because it’s our job and they happen to be there in the necessary role of the poor and needy. To get it right, we must be willing to see Christ in all humanity, to see the spark of the divine in the creation that was made in God’s image.

Second Filter: People as Backdrop

It can be difficult to engage people at eye-level. It’s easier to set our mind’s eye on wide angle at 10,000 feet and just take it all in from a safe distance, treating people as the background scenery to our life. On life’s stage we don’t engage the shifting backdrops painted with the scenes of other people’s lives. Miserable, idyllic or mundane, none of them directly involve or touch us; they merely frame the stage, which is populated by actors of our choosing. If we do pay attention to the backdrop, it is to admire at arm’s length. We can enjoy the world like a cultural zoo. We travel through it and take pictures of colorful, exotic and fascinating people, limiting our understanding of them to what we read in a Lonely Planet guide. This filter blurs individual people into a medley of abstract smudges. Taken to an extreme, it dehumanizes, stripping from view the essential elements of individuality and personal consciousness.

The Polarizing Lens

Photographers use the polarizing lens to gain clarity. It filters out glare and penetrates water and sky. It orders light to reveal an object without obscuring or distorting. As a rule we should seek clarity to see people for who they are: unique expressions of God’s creative proficiency, fellow human beings with a full range of emotive faculties and wholly enabled desires to belong, to have enough, to overcome, to create, to give, to enjoy life, to survive, and most of all, to have meaning.

The “Check your Filter” principle means to avoid dehumanizing those we serve. We dehumanize by showing up in their communities and telling them about their problems and the solutions we’ve brought for them. When we meet the poor, the oppressed or the abused with our giving agenda in hand, we relegate them to the role of either receptacle-function or silent backdrop of our good deeds. How do we check our filter? If we are the source of all the ideas and plans, if we fear that nothing will get done or improve without us, if we are the motor of initiative, if we are stressed-out that we might fail in our efforts, if we have trouble recognizing the names and faces and stories of those whom we serve, then it’s likely our filter needs replacing.

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Categories: Development Principals, Service Ethics

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3 Comments on “The Fourth Principle of Community-Based International Development”

  1. September 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    Thank you for this post. It is very convicting to me. I almost think that this can be summarized as to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

  2. September 11, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    About six months ago I decided–mainly to reduce stress—on two principles:
    • no more employees
    • keep overheads tiny.
    I found these decisions had a profound effect on how I saw people. My former employees became colleagues, because I didn’t need them to do stuff. My former clients became friends, because I no longer needed their projects.

    We dehumanise people because we cast them into roles. We cast them into roles because we construct stories and social situations in which both we and they play these roles. Situations like company, contract, project, agency; roles like boss, employee, client, supplier, consultant, beneficiary, expert, villager.

    We can’t avoid such “typecasting”, because structures and roles are useful, even necessary. But, as you point out in this post, we can ameliorate the side-effects by being self-aware. I think what follows from self-awareness is increased opportunity to step out of, occasionally disrupt, and become playful in these roles. Then we might play the roles, instead of the roles playing us.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Photographs of Chiga Village | Mama Maji - November 27, 2012

    [...] Earlier this year Sarah had the opportunity to travel with Mama Hope to Africa and document their projects and communities.  From this trip she produced a fantastic array of photographs that helps frame these communities as people first and foremost, not objects of pity or simply as a backdrop for our own ‘good’ work. [...]

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