Dr Claudette Carr covers off the the theory of anti-oppressive practice (AOP)  i.e. how foreign aid and development workers treat the communities and people they work with in international settings, and the dire need for its application in international development education and practice.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” ~Maya Angelou

The Winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come.
~ Song of Songs 2:12

As an educator and a practitioner in the field of International community development, I have been involved in teaching the theory of anti-oppressive practice (AOP) to students’ in global contexts for some seventeen years or so now. In turn this has led me to say something about the lack of understanding of AOP, and it’s application in international development, based on my own professional and personal observations.

Let me first start  with a personal observation – albeit second hand. I recently spent an extended period in Ethiopia with my son, setting up the Sylvia Pankhurst Scholarship for Ethiopian students. My son also, contributes to the JIGG Youth blog on the Jethro Institute for Good Governance website. I was quite taken aback, during one of our routine evening meals, when my 13 year old – having emerged tardily, from the hurly-burly of the business center in our hotel – shared a rather troubling observation, about a couple of residents representing an internationally renowned NGO, involved in delivering a training conference at the same location.

Out of the mouth of babes, the proverbial saying goes, my son posed the troubling question: “Why are the couple staying in the room on the floor above us (from renowned INGO), speaking to [local] Ethiopian staff and the conference participants, as if they are inferior?” [i.e. infantilization]

Well, I laughed nervously, and asked my son to elaborate. He continued, “You know they are doing the training conference here, and using the photo-copy machine in the business center, which you and I know, does not work well on the best of days; but they are disrespectfully taking it out on the staff, speaking to them as if they are shit.”

I understood, how my son found this odd, as we had been treated warmly and given carte blanche – keys and all – access to do our work by the lovely staff at the center.

The moral of the story you may ask? Anti-oppressive Practice is about Critical Compassion and Reflective Practice, which in turn is also about how we treat the communities and people we work with in international settings. Indeed, as Maya Angelou has so eloquently put it, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What is AOP?
In my years of teaching social work, international and community development work students, the starting point is always with ones own Personal Value Base. This is rarely challenged or addressed in the field of International Development. The implications for a universalist approach to International Development, ought to be explored against the contested discursive practices, multiple perspectives, and tensions which give rise to consideration of valuing the local.

Cross-Cultural Working, prepares the student of international development for working interculturally, by examining, historical, and current patterns of international movement; identifying issues related to settlement and the experiences of different groups. This approach is inextricably linked with Critical Self-Reflexivity, in understanding use of ‘self’ in relation to ‘others’, in developing sensitivity to relationships of asymmetric power.

Oppression and domination are evident on multiple levels of social interaction: personal, cultural, and institutional (Adams, Bell and Griffin, 1997; Thompson, 1993; Mullay, 2002). Oppressive and dominant relationships are expressed through a variety of social constructs, including, but not limited to, race, age, gender, religion, class, and ability. While there are commonalities among these various forms of oppression and domination, each expression has a unique form and experience. An anti-oppressive stance resists the idea of a hierarchy of oppressions and understands that all forms of oppression and domination are interconnected. Furthermore, such a stance recognizes that individuals are complex and multi-faceted, and may, at differing times, be the oppressor or the oppressed.

The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.

“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” - Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Thus, Community Development, can be described as a process where people are encouraged to take charge of their own lives and solve their own problems. Some key issues and values integral to the concept of community development include:

  • Local people’s participation, bringing with them motivation and energy that drives the process of community development forward. Local experience and contribution is therefore valuable – it is not a top-down approach, where others come in and develop the community ‘for them’;
  • It is the local communities’ perceived needs and desires that drive the development rather than the needs perceived by others;
  • That local people with shared and common interests can take collective action in defining their own solutions. The notion of shared and agreed ownership over the community destiny is paramount;
  • The idea that together, in collaboration, the community voice might be heard – is often not possible for individuals who have historically been excluded from decision making processes. As such community development is most often needed, and most effective, within areas of poor socio-economic conditions, once Conscientization – a process where awareness is gained of the potential power of the community voice.

Reflective Practice
Learning through experience is a key principle that underpins community development work and the approach we take to learning. Whatever ones training or work experience it is likely that the most vivid learning experiences will have been through active engagement with a task and through ones involvement with people. Kolb (1984) [see diagram below], encapsulated his ideas in the definition of learning in this way: ‘Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’, and it is this concept that influences how we ought to be encouraged to learn in thinking about how we support communities in an international context. Community development involves learning, a reflection on experience that is ‘Transformative’.

The ideas of Paulo Freire build on this ‘Transformative’ theme and have been highly influential in community development work throughout the world. As an educationalist committed to Community Empowerment, his concept of Conscientization, emphasizes the need of critical thinking, and the role of the educator/community worker/development worker in facilitating this process when working with communities.

The process involves working with people to examine their situation, to identify the experiences and cause of their oppression and act to bring about change in their situation. Inevitably, this requires some awareness and analysis of power-relations and structures within society at the macro and micro level that facilitate or frustrate social change that would benefit communities.

I want to end on the personal note I began with, about being an “accidental witness”, and learning through experience by sharing a couple of extracts, from Harvard ethnomusicologist, Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s book, A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey – the inspiration behind the title for this piece:

I was an accidental witness to a stunning series of changes in the Horn of Africa, and in the lives of communities and individuals with whom I was deeply involved. In part because of these events, my experience in the field in many ways inverted the conventional fieldwork pattern, usually presented as moving from initial dislocation through increasing accommodation, to achievement of a modified insider status. In contrast, my first six months as a researcher in Ethiopia were remarkably smooth and productive. I was welcomed warmly by the Beta Israel community, who from the beginning facilitated all aspects of my research. (p.xv)

Through the years of my Ethiopian fileldwork, and since then in other professional contexts, I have often been aware of the way in which gender has shaped the topics I have studied, influenced my research strategies, and colored the resulting interpretations. Until now, however, I have been reluctant to acknowledge fully this impact, both for its positive and negative aspects, and to take the further step of allowing it to emerge in my writing.(p.xxi)

In a recent article in the Guardian, titled, ‘African Aid. ‘No Pity Shit’, Magatte Wade writes:

I know that there are countless people in the NGO world that have done a great deal of good. But I would like to propose that NGOs either refuse to hire, or simply fire, anyone who has a condescending attitude towards the poor. We need to certify a new class of NGO: “No pity shit” NGOs.

What do you think about what often can be described as the ‘infantilisation’ by NGO workers from the global north of those they work with in the ‘developing’ world? Feel free to leave your comments below.


All images of the Hamer, Karo and Arbore people of Ethiopia by Joey Lawrence  - http://www.joeyl.com.
(C) 2012, Dr Claudette Carr.
About Dr Carr:

Dr Carr is the founding Director of the Jethro Institute for Good Governance (JIGG), and has over seventeen years experience lecturing in International and Community Development, Youth & Community Work, Social Work, and Social Policy, at Brunel, Birbeck, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland) and the University of Westminster. Alongside Lucerne colleagues, as Principal Lecturer, Claudette  co-ordinated the programme for the MA in International Community Development.    As the London Course leader, she successfully facilitated the Summer School in International Community Development at Westminster. In Partnership with J!GG, The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee, and the University of Westminster, Claudette has set up and secured funding for the Sylvia Pankhurst Scholarship for Ethiopian girls, and the Dr John Garang Scholarship for South Sudan starting in September 2012.

She holds a PhD in education and degrees in social science and applied anthropology from Goldsmiths College, and is also JNC qualified in youth and community work. Her research interest include Community politics and new social movements; black and ethnic self-organisation in the UK and Diaspora; the emergence of vernacular histories and indigenous knowledge(s) and their impact on the assertion of ethnic identity.  Her PhD thesis looked at ‘How Black History is constructed and represented in different sites of education’.Claudette is currently researching ‘Diaspora Organisations in the Horn of Africa and their role in community Governance (Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia)’. She is the co-author of an open letter to the Swedish Minister of Culture, that address the recent Swedish Racist Cake controversy, and recently participated in the conversation- ‘Racism is No Joke A Swedish Minister and a Hottentot Venus Cake’, which will be published in a forthcoming anthology, Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe (Routledge, 2012), edited by Michael McEachrane and with a foreword by Professor Paul Gilroy.

2 Responses

  1. Dan McLaughlin

    The real issue with the development community is that those from developed countries believe their way is superior, and that they thus have the right, even the obligation to impose their version of development, regardless of history, of culture and tradition, and of the wishes of the people themselves. That is the arrogance and condescension that you witnessed.

    The true development experts are those who treat the people as people. Those people don’t need anti-oppressive practices for development experts. They need others who trust them and expect them to be competent, who trade with them, who help them to achieve their own dreams, their own goals, and their own successes. Private commerce is development. There really is no other. Without that, it is just charity, and charity is dependence, not development.

    On the other hand, African people certainly would be much better off with anti-oppressive practices training for their own governments. That is where most of the suffering and lack of African development arises these days. If the aid community worked on convincing governments to embrace freedom and markets, opening their borders to goods and people, and did so successfully, most of the development they seek would happen automatically.


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