Knotty Problems

Christian Distinctiveness

A viewpoint on Christian development work

The Knotty Problem in Footsteps No 14 asked for ideas which could help a Christian community development group beginning work in Namibia. Farmers in the area had lost confidence in their own traditional knowledge and new methods, recommended by extension workers, were no longer bringing good yields. Here, Roger Sharland shares a thoughtful and provoking reply.

This Knotty Problem raises a number of important issues. I believe that, as Christians, we should have a distinctive approach to rural development.

Some key issues...

1. I believe that God has a particular concern for the poor and the needy. We need to be targeting this group in our work. Unfortunately, there are few successful examples to follow, so we often get diverted into other, less helpful work. The rural poor generally have no money in their pockets, but most new teaching involves buying inputs - so the poorest groups are immediately excluded. Many ‘improved’ varieties of crops and livestock are developed for those with money. These may not help the poorest farmers whose aim is subsistence.

2. Most trained agriculturalists are taught to think of commercial needs (encouraged by the government) before thinking of the subsistence needs of the rural poor. They think about what is best for the crop or the animals before what is good for the farmer. Sometimes this may be the same - but not always.

3. Most agricultural teaching assumes superior knowledge. This has the effect of making farmers feel that they are ‘ignorant’, ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’. Christians must fight against this kind of teaching. Even the term ‘improved’ may be misleading.

4. Most development workers feel the need to prove their use by always having something ‘new’ to teach. If you admit that the local people know what they are doing, you are unable to maintain your status as an ‘expert’. For a few of us, including myself, this ‘new’ message is in fact teaching that farmers already know what they are doing and have a strong base of indigenous knowledge.

Some responses...

1. We need to build up a genuine vision of those that we are trying to serve. Some study of the Bible’s teaching on the poor and needy may help us to understand God’s view and provide us with the motivation to go against our own training and the world’s wisdom.

2. We need to question many ‘obvious’ assumptions about the benefits of commercial agriculture and money. We need to look again at subsistence values, which I believe are very important. Subsistence is a matter of providing for the needs of the family and involves a different way of thinking which is very positive.

3. We need to change our view of those we are teaching. This requires a genuine respect built up by a knowledge and understanding of just how well adapted people are to their situations. It is often easy to get all our opinions from a few, often better-educated, spokespersons, who may not represent the majority. Local knowledge, perception and wisdom is often held by people with whom you cannot communicate with a western language.

4. We need to look again at the role of the teacher and the whole issue of how a teacher maintains status. Our status should come from our ability to get alongside people and understand them. It should be based on who we are as people, rather than on our knowledge and education. Listening is an important part of this.

Once we have sorted out our own thinking, we are then in a position to look at the problems faced in the situation in Namibia.

Some ideas...

  • Start with what the people do know. They may not have confidence in their agricultural knowledge, having been told it is all wrong, but what about other knowledge, particularly about their environment? Build up their confidence in the areas where they obviously have much greater knowledge than outsiders.
  • Build on the dissatisfaction that people have with the new technology. As stated in this problem, people saw dramatic benefits to begin with, but these have not lasted. Discuss how their traditional ways were long lasting.
  • Try and help the people think about which traditional practices were good and should be brought back and which were unhelpful. Also help them look for new teaching from outside which may have been lacking in the traditional methods and does not depend on inputs. Traditional societies normally have a great deal of knowledge obtained by observation. However, they may lack understanding of what cannot be seen - the spread of diseases and soil pH for example. This type of knowledge can lead to improvements in agriculture without the need for inputs.

A Christian based development project can teach and draw on two very important aspects that other groups cannot...

  • motivation to care for the land under stewardship from God
  • dealing with unhelpful superstitions based on fear.

Generally the rural poor are poor because they have inadequate land and resources. However they normally do have family labour available. New ideas which require more labour at non peak times may be very appropriate. They have time for care of the soil - its fertility and conservation.

I believe there is a very real need for those of us working in development to reassess our thinking. Are we really targeting the poor and are we willing to be distinctive as Christians?
Roger Sharland is the Director of OAIC/RDE, PO Box 21736, Nairobi, Kenya.