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Alternative Forms of Well-being as Defined by Communities

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

There are certain “themes” in the development world that are considered to be universally beneficial for communities. Education, health, prosperity; these broad and somewhat vague subjects enjoy a certain invulnerability that somehow excepts them from scrutiny. For example, if you are working on a project that offers scholarships to young adults in a distant agrarian community so that they continue their high school education in the closest bigger town, chances are that the vast majority of folks would consider that to be a noble and necessary project. The same could be said for projects that offer healthcare assistance or any project whose goal is the somewhat ambiguous, but universally esteemed “poverty alleviation.”

The problem with unanimously approving these supposed universal benefits towards development is that they often have very little understanding of the complex and nuanced reality that defines many rural, agrarian, and non-industrialized communities where concepts such as education, health care, and poverty look very different than in the so-called developed world.

This module will look at how true participatory development involves communities in the process of defining their own standards of wellbeing. This form of development should allow communities to change the parameters of what development is and what is seeks to achieve.

A Case Study in Education

For those of us who have grown up in the modern-day, industrialized, consumer-driven, developed world, it can be extremely hard to understand and accept alternative conceptions of wellbeing. A house without electricity and a flush toilet would be a symbol of abject poverty for almost everyone in the United States, but might very well be an acceptable form of livelihood for other communities around the world. The best way to understand this issue is through looking at a few case studies.

In the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala, a small youth network dedicated to rescuing the traditional, indigenous identity of the Mayan Ixil people decided to look at how formal, official education was affecting the cultural rootedness of young people in their region. Through a yearlong study, they determined that young people from rural villages who travelled into the larger urban centers to continue their high school and/or university educations quickly developed a profound contempt for the traditional, agrarian livelihoods of their parents and elders.

Education was seen to be a portal into the monetary economy of sedentary livelihoods, office jobs, and consumer opportunities. Many high school students subsequently asked for their land inheritance from their parents to sell the land to finance the rest of their studies. The problem, however, was that the job market outside of working the land was all but nonexistent.

What resulted was a surplus of high school and university graduates with no employment opportunities, no agricultural land to return to, and a superiority complex that only furthered the generational division with their parents. In this context, the only way for a young person to get any value from their education was through leaving their community and culture and migrating to the city in search of low-paying jobs. Education, the supposed universal good, actually served as an element to expel young people from their communities leading to a loss of ancestral culture, a break with sustainable, agrarian livelihoods, and a generational disunion.

Seeds Not Scholarships

What would you say if a small rural community where your NGO worked was approached by community leaders asking you to stop offering scholarships to young people who participated in your project? An initial reaction might be to consider these leaders archaic and even Hutterites who shunned the inevitable march of progress.

However, one of the essential components of participatory development is allowing communities to voice their contradictory opinions and humbly seek to understand the context from which these opinions arise. One of the legacies of colonialism and imperialism is seen in our Eurocentric hubris that claims to know what is “best for the rest.” Development organizations that allow communities to challenge and even oppose the supposed benefits of our projects, however, ultimately create the necessary space for communities to uncover their own paths towards holistic wellbeing.

In the case of the youth network in Guatemala, they concluded from their study that instead of scholarships for studies that yielded no tangible individual benefit while damaging community coherence and cultural tradition, young people needed to find ways to create a dignified livelihood from the land. Through supporting land inheritance discussions between parents and children to allow young people more secure access to farmland of their own, creating a local, heirloom seed bank for diversifying agricultural practices, and supporting local farmer´s markets, the youth network was able to re-dignify the traditional, agrarian livelihoods while maintaining cultural connections and community coherence.

What is the Good Life?

In recent years, much has been written about the concept of the Good Life (Buen Vivir in Spanish) stemming from the traditional cosmovisions of the Aymara and Quechua people of the Andes mountains in South America. This notion of a life and livelihood that finds health, wholeness, happiness, and fulfillment in things other than sustained economic growth, consumerism, and industrial and technological comforts, is shared by most indigenous peoples around the world.

Indigenous and peasant cultures tended to value connection to community, relationship to land and tradition, and cultural coherency and rootedness as the origins and main components of a life well lived. While not all communities maintain indigenous identities, people who still have connections to pre-industrial livelihoods, and people who have been left out of the supposed benefits of the globalization of western economic norms and standards, might very well have their own conceptions of what is needed for life to be considered good.

Organizations who are committed to participatory development need to be open to questioning our preconceived notions and values related to poverty, health, education, and wellbeing in general. We need to understand that the globalization of western livelihood standards has not been egalitarian and equally “enjoyed” by people around the world. We also need to open ourselves to the understanding that other livelihoods, even though they may appear different and perhaps even symbolic of our understanding of poverty and insufficiency, are legitimate and acceptable if communities so choose.


Questions for Reflection

Why do you think some communities might question certain ideas that development organizations might have regarding what is good and beneficial for the community?


What are some other “universally-held” benefits that most people in the community development industry never question or doubt?


What strategies could you use to further your understanding of how a community perceives the necessities for its wellbeing?

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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