Western Project Planning Meets Indigenous Cultural Reality
In this post, I want to approach this issue of the meeting of two very different worldviews through the example of an NGO (Non Governmental Organization or non-profit) project in an indigenous community.
Towards the end of the last year, I was involved in the building of a fish farm in a Shipibo community. The fish farm is part of a larger educational project attached to the State school in the community, which aims to offer a genuine, extensive intercultural education to its students teaching them about the rich Shipibo cosmovision and culture.
The first step had been to organize a minga – a communal work day in which the community donated their time and labor and the NGO contributed the money to provide two meals for everyone who took part.
The plan for the fish farm was designed by the Shipibo permaculture technician working with the NGO. It involved building a large dam across a small stream to form an area which would then flood in the rainy season to create the fish farm. The dam was to be built with sacks filled with earth.
The technician estimated that we would need 2000 sacks to build the dam and that these could be filled by the community in two mingas – that is 1000 sacks per minga. The first minga took place on a swelteringly hot day (not at all unusual here) with about 50 adults plus the older students from the school. About 250 sacks were filled.
A difficult meeting concluded with the community saying they would finish the work within the budget we had remaining of 2000 soles (around $800 USD). We, therefore, devolved the budget to them.
Their first step was to hire a bulldozer for the day at 200 soles an hour. However, the hourly hire included the travel to and from Pucallpa and by the time the tractor arrived it was only able to do two hours work. This left the great bulk of the work unfinished having now spent 1800 soles of the 2000 soles.
The man from the community who had assumed the informal leadership of the project – who I later discovered was not only regularly cheating us but also members of the community, (and may well have gained personally through the hire of the bulldozer) – said the work would be finished by a series of mingas. The night before the first minga, it rained heavily – much to my relief, as I confess I was not looking forward to filling sacks in the hot sun after a long ayahuasca ceremony – and so the minga was cancelled.
In the ceremony that same night, I found myself thinking about the fish farm project. Gracias a La Madre Ayahuasca I was able to see the situation with humor rather than with the anxiety and fretful sense of responsibility I had been feeling.
It occurred to me that in the encounter between Western methodologies of project planning and indigenous cultural reality, there was no doubt which was the stronger. If I envisaged this encounter as a football match, I reckon Western Project Planning was losing about 7-0. Additionally, we had scored a couple of spectacular own goals.
My previous career as an organizational development consultant had already shown me the pervasive power of culture. As a consultancy I still occasionally work with likes to say: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – which means the underlying, often unconscious, assumptions and deep roots of culture will always be more powerful than the rational processes which are claimed to guide organizational decision-making.
In fact, even in mainstream organizational theory now, the limits of planning have been exposed by theorists like Ralph Stacey, who uses insights from complexity and chaos theory to show that the world of living systems, of which even a Transnational Corporation is an example, is inherently unpredictable. For a video interview with Ralph Stacey which provides an excellent six-minute overview of his work, see here.
Much of organizational strategy in practice is improvised, despite being presented as a conscious, planned strategy to maintain the appearance of control. As Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder, a German Field Marshal and renowned military strategist of the nineteenth century, famously said: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
I have continued to reflect more about this encounter between project planning and indigenous cultural reality. It is often said that indigenous people typically live more in the present and so the notion of future planning is unfamiliar to them. I have been told that in the past, for the Shipibo – a people living mainly on riverbanks – food had always been abundant and easily available throughout the year. There was, therefore, no need to store food for the future, which is possibly an explanation of why it was not necessary to plan ahead.
It further occurred to me that there is a paradox at the heart of many NGO’s work. Western organizational assumptions naturally lead to the use of project planning methodologies. In addition, these methodologies are seen to be necessary to keep funding organizations happy by maintaining the illusion that actions can be taken which will have predictable, guaranteed outcomes.
This further means that projects can be successfully evaluated by showing direct cause-and-effect relationships between actions taken and results obtained – an assumption seriously challenged by the study of complex, adaptive living systems.
By using such ways of working, and drawing indigenous people into these ways of thinking, NGO’s may actually be eroding the culture they aim to be supporting. On the other hand, in an increasingly globalized world, indigenous people need the skills to navigate Western political, economic and cultural systems. So the key question becomes how to offer education which enables this without further undermining indigenous culture.