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  • Léon Arthur Beckx

Of deserts and districts II

“Money like water," conjures up images of abundance. A lack of water, such as in the desert, signifies scarcity. In the previous blog, we compared poor districts with deserts, where incoming money leaks away and initiative is lost. We saw that community development is like greening the desert. It is about diminishing patterns that reinforce poverty and nourishing patterns that create sustainable growth. It's about moving from vicious cycles to virtuous cycles.

Life Aid 2.0

Readers aged forty and above can readily remember the images of Ethiopia’s famine in 1984/1985. The first pictures of this humanitarian catastrophe came from Tigray, a northern province, where an emaciated crowd was cornered in the desert by war and drought. Bob Geldof organized the Life Aid concerts in 1985 in response to the images. Now, thirty years later, this area is in the news again (see here and here). This time the message is not one of helplessness, but one of strength and rejuvenation. In the past 20 years, thousands of Ethiopians greened some 224 000 hectares of dry land. They used an agro-ecological approach that captures and circulates precious water to carefully planted crops and vegetation. The scale at which this occurs has Biblical proportions. During the 20 year period the inhabitants of Tigray probably moved more earth and stone than in the construction of the pyramids. In the 90s every abled adult was called upon to work three months a year on the irrigation and planting. This was later reduced to 40 days and now entails 20 days per year.

What happened in Tigray is not only an ecological, but also a social wonder. Unfortunately, media coverage of the social process is sparse. How do you mobilize and organize thousands of people struggling with poverty and conflict? How do you motivate people in urgent situations for a project that will mostly benefit future generations? Changing the ecosystem also means winning the hearts and minds of the people involved. It's their day to day actions that will make or brake the greening project. Will they chop the tree for firewood? Will they help maintain the waterhole? Greening the desert is about strengthening positive feedback loops, like the cycling of nutrients through the system and neutralizing vicious cycles, like erosion. The same goes for the social change. Do people find ways to share limited resources and spread crucial knowledge. Can they solve festering conflicts? The massive effort shows that the people in Tigray are willing to go the distance. The results so far are awe inspiring.

People Power?

The weakening of the European Social model comes with a growing appeal on civic participation (Germany's Bürgerschaftliches Engagement, UK's Big Society). Where government steps back, citizens need to step in. This seems like a straight forward deal, but it is not. Just like you can’t plant a bit of green in the desert and expect it to survive and even grow; you also can’t plant citizen initiatives in a consumer driven society. When the dominant message is: ‘You, individual buy this service or product to fulfill your need or solve this problem’, alternate messages like 'let's make change happen together’ are easily drowned out. We have to acknowledge the strong forces for civic disengagement. These forces are especially strong for the urban poor. According to the Dutch food bank, which distributes free food to the poor, more than a million people in the Netherlands (6%) live under the poverty line. Poverty traps keep many of these people fixed on the bottom and they can use a little help. Unfortunately with less money available, social professionals have to do more with less. It is a dire situation. How can we turn the tide? Is there anything to learn from Tigray?


Hidden Resources

"What makes the desert beautiful," Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote in Le Petit Prince, "is that somewhere it hides a well." Marginalized neighborhoods also have hidden resources. With the proper attention these resources can be spotted and might transform into an oasis. The untapped talents of unemployed residents are such a hidden resource. Just as an empty building and informal associations. A bit harder to find are the purchase budgets of local businesses and institutions that might turn into a wellspring for the community. Do local companies hire local cleaners or local catering, for example?

How can engaged citizens and social professionals access these hidden resources to improve their communities? Greening the desert requires detailed knowledge of the area, knowing the different soils, the wind and hidden water ways, before going to work. Likewise, one should start with mapping the terrain in detail, gaining insight in the chances and threats in a community. In order to support citizens, social professionals should free themselves of their targets and SMART goals and help citizens to start dreaming BIG. By big I mean fantastic and large scale. Big dreams inspire and mobilize action, like 'let's go green this desert' or 'let's build a free child care center in this empty building'. Big also means creating change on a social scale. Different initiatives should start feeding into each other, by using a local currency for example, to reinforce each other. At the same time forces of disengagement should also be kept in check. So train neighborhood mediators to resolve conflicts and lobby to get rid of rules that stifle citizen initiative.

Because of the complex nature of an ecosystem you don't know when it will reach a tipping point. Sometimes huge effort amounts to very little and sometimes the metaphorical butterfly can cause a hurricane. Until that time citizens and professionals have to plant many seeds to the best of their knowledge and watch carefully what will grow. This might sound complicated, but it is complex.

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