I am writing a paper for a roundtable discussion at Deakin University on Mission and Development. I don’t know how I was chosen, but the eve of Palms’ Jubilee made it both hard to resist and the last thing I needed to add to my workload. I was won over finally by my thinking that the struggles and challenges Palms has had with mission and development have produced an exceptional contribution to both, and the time to enunciate this is in the year ahead.
The paper examines the evolution of a program, from its birth in 1961 as the Paulian Association Lay Missionary Secretariat (PALMS) to the eve of its Jubilee (50th year) where some characterise it as an International Development Volunteer (IDV) program. I get to point out why I believe that the program is more than simply being either a missionary service, or an IDV program. The paper also outlines external pressures for change in organisational practice and refers to literature and research that inspired change in both mission and development. I touch on subsequent research that has examined the results of change and suggests further organisational transformation.
While Palms Australia has abandoned its missionary roots as those of a bygone era, contemporary missionary wisdom continues to influence a dynamic IDV program. Those who engage cross-culturally with a narrow focus (many missionaries, development “professionals” and academics) find Palms extraordinarily eclectic or conceptually complicated. Not all appreciate what evidence suggests is the successful integration of developments in mission with the mission of development.
I will highlight the reflected practice of missionary scholars and intellectuals who have reinforced Palms perception that development cannot be isolated from culture and beliefs and show how this principle is interwoven through Palms entire approach. An approach that means the priority for Palms IDVs is to build relationship and learn from their hosts rather than operating out of a narrow focus, such as a Western neo-liberal development focus, uncritically adopted by most North-South volunteers by virtue of their own enculturation.
It probably needs to be understood that Palms has a vision to achieve much more than one-way host-community development. IDVs provide a unique opportunity to achieve a bigger vision. Indeed, the integration into the program of contemporary missionary approaches on building cross-cultural relationship, creates a program suitable for those seeking authentic crosscultural dialogue in any sector, including government, environment and economic and may be the only way to break through to sustainable solutions for the planet generally.
Missionaries are a rich source of understanding, providing comprehensive insights into the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships and some very sound underpinnings for effective development practice. The faith outcomes that missionaries have attempted to achieve might be dismissed as very different to the more economic and social, or more recently, ecological and governance outcomes, set for IDVs. However, given that the assignments of both are conceived out of Western tradition and thinking, and applied using processes and symbols from that starting place, the barriers to success are fundamentally the same. An ill-prepared IDV from a completely different culture is as much without knowledge of critical success factors as will be missionaries from the same tradition. As well, I contend that unless IDVs are prepared to appreciate cultural and spiritual aspects of communities, as good missionaries do, they will not effectively support good development.
Another reason for Palms turning to the particular missionaries that we have is that these missionaries have frequently stayed longer in host communities than IDVs or anthropologists. They are also not missionaries who have let their zeal to plant their faith override their reflection on the merits of their approach. Indeed, true to the call of their faith, they are deeply reflective on their experience of relationship with people of a culture different from their own.
Palms is indebted to too many individuals to name in this space. You know who you are. Let me give thanks here to the Columbans, Divine Word, Spiritans and Franciscans for nurturing your deep reflection and intellectual capacity and to my colleagues at Palms who are giving me the space to submit to similar reflection and analysis to write the paper.
Roger O’Halloran, Executive Director