Enlightenment – A new comment in the CDC debate

Development Policy16 Dec 2008Harry C. Boyte

The responses thus far to the special report on civic driven change (The Broker 10) have helped to launch a public and international conversation with far-ranging implications for the work of democracy building and development. I look forward to hearing many more voices in this debate. Here, I want to address briefly the issues raised by Richard Holloway, director of the Aga Khan Development network in Geneva, and Lia van Broekhoven, a policy advisor to Cordaid.

Holloway’s lively reflection has a certain schizophrenic tone. He begins ‘cheering and stamping the floor’, and is generous in commenting on the methods of support for positive change. He then switches to depression when discussing what he sees as an overly utopian and romantic tone, which he perceives to be embodied in ‘expectations that the citizens will always have the best ideas for their own future and that this should be supported’. Holloway also believes CDC singularly focuses on civil society, ‘overloading the arena…with too much responsibility’.

His reading may reflect the problems of a necessarily compressed and selective summary. No one in the group believed that citizens invariably choose wisely, or that questions of values are unimportant. Further, all agreed that the division dominant in the democracy and development field of civil society, markets (or businesses) and states is profoundly flawed, and argue for a cross-sectoral perspective that looks at civic initiatives crossing boundaries.

I can only speak directly from my own perspective, grounded in what I call the ‘organizing’ and popular education approach, but I want to emphasize the perspective on democratic values that is rooted in this framework. An organizing/popular education perspective is entirely unromantic about ordinary people’s perspectives and values – as it is about the values of credentialed professionals and experts. Organizing is at its core educative and formative – it is about approaches, methods and frameworks that develop people’s public capacities. It stresses values that are cultivated by organizing, such as inclusion, equality, justice, cultural roots and the sacred nature of the human person. These are values, I should note, that in important ways challenge enlightenment values of the primacy of rationality, the primacy of scientific epistemologies, secularism, and hostility toward tradition and cultural roots. Organizing is sharply critical about frameworks – like the Swedish welfare state, which Holloway cites as a model – that largely rest upon enlightenment perspectives and that generate a technocratic model of expert-led public action as the ideal (though it is very important to note that Swedish technocracy has been leavened and challenged by the strong popular education and folk school traditions). Organizing is also based on a profound respect for the capacities of ‘unlettered’ men and women to become the agents of their lives, as they experience educative processes, largely self-directed, that expand their perspectives. It also highlights the potential for poor and Southern hemispheric communities’ potential to challenge and help transform the North Atlantic conceptual frameworks and value regimes now dominant in development and democracy discourse.

I am in strong agreement with the perspectives of van Broekhoven on many levels. I especially want to note her emphasis on the multiplicity of frameworks for knowledge and knowledge-making (‘social, political, economic and cultural changes cannot be analyzed solely from one narrative but need insights from…historical perspectives on markets, economics, governance, politics, religions, spirituality and the social psychology of human behavior and relationships’.) It is beyond the scope of this reflection to develop this point in detail, but I want to emphasize that organizing and the older politics which it retrieves and promotes see each person as unique, complex, generative, dynamic, and in narrative terms – a perspective radically at odds with dominant discourses of our time, which privilege enlightenment-derived rationalities. Politics, in this sense, is a radically different perspective and philosophical framework. It adds an interrogatory method and a catalytic conviction – that there are immense potentials normally ‘locked up’ and unrealized in everyone – that are simply suppressed in scientific ways of thought. This includes even the most creative and promising science, such as the study of complext adaptive systems. All science rests on a modeling process that eliminates ‘extraneous details’. This purification clearly produces advances and benefits. But it also has costs that can be mitigated only by bringing back politics. Our world overflows with educated professionals who have learned to eliminate ‘extraneous details’ in the name of science, often with the best and most egalitarian of helping intentions.

Politics and organizing bring the details back in, not for romantic or utopian reasons, but because ‘more gets done’ when different ways of knowing and different talents and capacities are emphasized rather than just those privileged by today’s formal educational systems. Moreover a much richer set of core values are reintroduced in the process, which immensely enrich our quest for a good society. These include, among others, relationality, the common good, the dignity of the individual, local experience, spirituality and religious perspectives. Politics, in this sense, is based simply on a richer, more multidimensional conception of the human agent than the problem solving, model-making focus of science.