Imagination or Experience in International Development?

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November 18, 2010; Source: Hauser Center | The Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain blog at the Hauser Center often runs commentaries about international development that have important domestic implications. Jennifer Rubenstein, a professor at the University of Virginia, recently raised questions about the role of vision and imagination for successful international development practitioners there.

Rubenstein cites recent comments from U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf and others about the need to listen to the perspectives of people being affected by international aid programs as opposed to deducing their perspectives. Even Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from house imprisonment by the military rulers of Myanmar (Burma), said that she wants to listen to people about how international sanctions really are affecting them before coming up with an analysis and solution.

Rubenstein wonders about the relationship of imagination and direct experience and deep local knowledge. While certainly not dismissing the importance of imagination and vision, Rubenstein says, “Perhaps we should work on having decision-makers experience more and imagine less – or better yet, perhaps we should support the imaginative vision of those who have direct experience already.”

That certainly sounds like a message for domestic consumption as well. The importance of supporting and promoting indigenous community-led organizations is not simply a matter of politically correct diversity. It is important because the combination of imagination and experience within communities will yield better solutions than the technical, social engineering experts devise with their surfeit of imagination and shortage of authentic, community level experience.—Rick Cohen