By Roger O’Halloran
It is important in international community development to build on strengths identified by locals. NGO development professionals who get off planes from Western cities a few hours away can be deceived too easily by their perception of deficits; the things that they don’t see, or miss during their few weeks or months away from home.
Many factors will influence the time it can take for the strengths of a community to be revealed. The degree and type of oppression and dispossession previously experienced in a community makes a difference, as does for how long it occurred and how long ago. Trust of outsiders is less likely after prolonged violence and economic exploitation. Palms program participants are prepared for this and those who remain open to support get to realise the gains of a long term placement.
Outsiders with the best of intentions, including missionaries and development workers, especially those from high income cultures, often arrive with a naïve belief that they have the tools to “save” people. However, this attitude, born out of the relative comfort of a “privileged” Western culture, denies them the one ingredient necessary to manage the frustration felt as inexperienced strangers attempting to build the necessary trust with their hosts: Resilience.
At the 41 min 18 sec point of this link Ellen Fanning interviews Brian Walker about his book: ‘Finding Resilience: Change and Uncertainty in Nature and Society’. Walker suggests that resilience is not the ability to resist disruptive change. Adaptation rather than resistance allows us to be strengthened by change and builds the resilience to cope with future change.
This reinforces my experience with Palms on every level: as a program participant in the early 90’s; as a witness of program participants we’ve been responsible for preparing, sending and supporting; as an employer, and most especially, as a partner with the communities that host Palms sojourners. Responses to COVID-19 by various members of the Palms network bear this out.
In this and recent editions of Palms Post our mentors’ stories have in common a jolt, caused by the need to consider leaving the communities with whom they have been working. Subsequent reflection has led most to an adjustment initiating continued engagement, albeit to achieve amended objectives. This has required resilience among both those who remain in the field, as well as those who returned to Australia to continue engagement via e-platforms.
Covid-19 also caused disquiet with staff as large parts of some roles disappeared. Three Encounters, our July orientation course, and engagement with Australian networks for recruitment could not proceed. On the other hand the need to provide extra support for those on assignment, or transitioning home, increased the workload of Programs staff.
Compared to management systems reliant on high resource use Palms Program has evolved since foundation in 1961 to be nothing if not adaptable. In February 2020 this understanding of Palms ability to embrace, rather than resist change, saw staff and a former staff member, proposing new strategies to achieve the duel objectives of building Australian community connections, as well as enhancing support for those returning from the field. Adjustments to roles were accepted and adopted and implementation began just days prior to lockdown. Further innovative adaptation of technology enabled continuation of the work and communications from our homes. Supporters kicked in funds and we are now seeing the emergence of a wonderful new network.
I believe Palms’ lessons in resilience are provided by the experience and stories of Palms sojourners, who go not to “save” people with their first world knowledge, skills and tools, but to participate in mutual learning and development. Centred as they are in our core value of authentic solidarity, they remind us all that we are strengthened by embracing difference and change. It is a privilege that makes us simply rich and is what we will celebrate and enhance in our 60th year.