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social circle diola village robert maletta

A circle of chairs that I came across in a Jola village last week in the Casamance region of Senegal is evocative of what I call the hidden “dark matter” of sustainable development. And, I would argue, it is the most fundamental building block of “development” often missing in our discourse on helping.

Having worked for some years in the so-called “aid sector”, I’ve seen many failed aid programs or “white elephants” as they are called.

“Why? Why? Why?”, chorus the aid technocrats and foreign donors. It all looked so good on paper.” (I am being hyperbolic, here.) Having once been a village based Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal for several years, I was privy to what villagers discussed outside the hearing of development tourists as they drove away in their 4×4 vehicles. I can tell you it was much different than what was discussed in the meetings with the authorities and aid agencies.

It’s in the communal nature of villagers everywhere to sit in a social space and debate the relative merits of anything that affects their lives, including aid projects. Often, the missing ingredient in these palavers is the presence of aid outsiders authentically engaged with them – unmediated by jargon, timetables and clipboard surveys. In other words, just plain old talking, building trust and hanging out to find out what people really think, and what will or will not work.

As in cosmology, the pull of unseen forces – in this case, human psychology and culture – will skew the most elegant theories (and log frames). Real development begins beneath a tree, and there’s no substitute for being there.