On the outsider
On the outsider
I just spent some time in Georgia, talking with people in two municipalities to initiate a pilot Local Economic Development (LED) process. My colleagues and I have worked the last 16 months with organisations in Georgia to better understand how LED can be improved in the country. One activity that has come out of that deliberation is to run a pilot on municipal level.
So here we are, coming in as the outside 'experts', which is unfortunately often how we are perceived. But what is the value of external people like me coming into a system like a city and work with the local people like the local government, business representatives or associations?
My answer keeps changing and, I guess, is becoming more nuanced. Initially, when I started my work in international development, I was of course convinced that we as people from so-called 'developed' nations could bring our knowledge and experience to the developed world. I soon learned that that does not work. On the contrary, the view that 'if you just did things the way we do them you would also be developed' is of course highly problematic and is deeply rooted in and perpetuates colonialism.
I then became convinced that the outsider has no role at all. I studied systems and complexity theories and was of the opinion that change that does not come from the inside is never going to change the system for the better, make it more resilient, or take hold at all. But also this view is not accurate. Too often we (and now I not only mean the so-called developing world but all of us) are locked into patterns of habit that we don't even see and that are therefore hard to get out of.
So what grows out of this is an emerging idea of the outsider not as somebody who brings 'better' knowledge and know-how (ways of doing things), not somebody who imposes their way of thinking and knowing over and above what is already there. Rather, the outsider is somebody who brings in a contrast, a difference that can be put side-by-side with what is already there to show lock-ins and blind spots, to disrupt the local people out of patterns that they cannot even see.
Of course sometimes outside knowledge is useful and can be applied in a new context. Outside knowledge is one of the sources for innovation (besides trying things yourself and working with others in a place or sector). Yet to rate it as more important than local knowledge often leads us to not appreciate that the local knowledge has grown to exactly match the idiosyncrasies and intricacies of that specific place.
And importantly, if you come into a place with the humility necessary not to put your knowledge and experience over and above what is already there, it is always necessarily also an opportunity to learn for the outsider. On this trip to Georgia one thing that has become clear to me is that at the moment what is probably more important than to establish an LED planning process is to change the perception of the people on who can and should do the planning and to establish new patterns of relationships between the different actors.
The businesses we met, at least the successful ones, all told us that they are fine, that they don't mind not being involved in the planning of the support activities by the local government. This is not surprising as these businesses have grown in a way so they can thrive or at least survive without any support so they don't see any need for that now. On the other side, the local government develop their economic support activities often in a vacuum based on what they think could improve the situation in their municipalities without talking to many people. These projects then often end up being investments that do not help anybody. In order to make places more lively and vibrant, a better enabling environment is needed, which requires collaboration between the actors. Piloting our LED process might not lead to that process becoming established, but it might shift some of the perceptions and relationships between the various actors involved.
What do you see is the role as outside actor? I'm curious to hear your point of view. Just reply to this email.
The Paper Museum
From a letter from May Kasahara to Toru Okada (whom she calls Mr Wind-up Bird) in Haruki Murakami's brilliant book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Murakami 2019:460-462)
Anyway, it seems to me that the way most people go on living (I suppose there are a few exceptions), they think that the world or life (or whatever) is this place where everything is (or is supposed to be) basically logical and consistent. Talking with my neighbours here often makes me think that. Like, when something happens, whether it's a big event that affects the whole of society or something small and personal, people talk about it like, "Oh, well, of course, that happened because such and such," and most of the time people will agree and say, "Oh, sure, I see," but I just don't get it. "A is like this, so that's why B happened." I mean, that doesn't explain anything. It's like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you've got rice pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can't tell what's going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni cheese in the darkness when nobody's looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it's natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me that's just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni cheese. I suppose I'd be shocked, of course, but I don't know, I think I'd be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn't be so upset, because that would feel, in some way, a whole lot more real.
Why "more real"? Trying to explain that logically, in words, would be very, very, very hard, but maybe if you take the path my life has followed as an example and really think about it, you can see that it has had almost nothing about it that you could call "consistency". First of all, it's an absolute mystery how a daughter like me could have been born to two parents as boring as tree frogs. I know it's a little weird for me to be saying this, but I'm a lot more serious than the two of them combined. I'm not boasting or anything, it's just a fact. I don't mean to say that I'm any better than they are, but I am a more serious human being. If you met them, you'd know what I mean, Mr Wind-up Bird. Those people believe that the world is as consistent and explainable as the floor plan of a new house in a high-priced development, so if you do everything in a logical, consistent way, everything will turn out right in the end. That's why they get upset and sad and angry when I'm not like that.
I don't know - maybe the world has two different kinds of people, and for one kind the world is this logical, rice pudding place, and for the other it's all hit-or-miss macaroni cheese. I bet if those tree frog parents of mine put rice pudding mix in the microwave and got macaroni cheese when the bell rang, they'd just tell themselves, "Oh, we must have put in macaroni cheese mix by mistake," or they'd take out the macaroni cheese and try to convince themselves, "This looks like macaroni cheese, but actually it's rice pudding." And if I tried to be nice and explain to them that sometimes, when you put in rice pudding mix, you get macaroni cheese, they would never believe me. They'd probably just get mad. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you, Mr Wind-up Bird?
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? It is in a way a kind of naive attempt to explain the complexity of life and that things usually don't go the way we think they will. And yet that most people adhere to a way of seeing the world that insists on logical consistency. This is linked with Bateson's insight that the purposeful conscious mind only sees logical chains instead of complex interconnected loops. And interestingly, it also contains the idea that even if we see with our own eyes inconsistencies with this world view, we try to explain these inconsistencies away. If we find macaroni cheese in the microwave after having put in rice pudding mix, we try to explain that inconsistency away – I love that image!
Reference: Murakami, Haruki. 2019. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage Classics Japanese Series): Haruki Murakami. Penguin Random House.
A blueberry field established in one of the municipalities we visited in Georgia. My own photo.