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Wiki threads between definitions and openness

In our effort to develop the WIKI manual, we had to “define” the terms we were using but at the same time we had to keep such definitions open. And that was a challenge. Without accurate definitions, the whole subject was becoming increasingly vague and inconsistent. With rigid definitions it would have become pedantic and imposing. So we tried to redefine the basic concepts of development cooperation and project management in a way that is enough standardized to enable conceptual clarity but still enough "customizable" to serve specific need. We wanted definitions that were provisional achievements and that could be further discussed, criticized and clarified.

It is sort of paradox that in the WIKI platforms, that are made for open multiple authorship, knowledge is organized and shared along “definitions”, which are a way of limiting and constricting thoughts. So, on the WIKIs, on the one side we have an effort to clarify concepts by “enclosing” them into precise semantic boundaries; and on the other side, an effort to transcend the supposedly "terminal" character of such definitions and leave the discussion open for criticism, additions, integrations and modifications of such definitions. What we have on the web is, therefore, a sort of provisional agreement on the way to define concepts, where it is clear that there is no final “objectivity” in any form of conceptualization. Concepts are products of our intelligence, and so our subjectivity is involved, along with our need to confront our points of view through dialogue and further observations.

In fact, we are in dialogue only as far as we realize that concepts are provisional achievements of our subjectivity. When instead, we believe that we have arrived to “final” statements and that our definitions are now “objective”, we try to stop the flow and we break the dialogue.

This is as much true at a personal level as it is at the level of the relationship amongst different communities and different faiths. We would like that the wall, within which our community lives, becomes permanent. And for that we would need not only to restrict the movement of the people. We would need to stop the process of changing the meaning and connotations of the words we use. But languages constantly get enriched, as concepts, as cultures. And all attempts to cultural insulation fail. As fails the attempts to use "power" and not dialogue, as a means to change the culture of the others.

Surely so much violence is been done by those who have the economic power and use it for imposing their conceptual categories on others. But those who tried to resist to such a violence with insulation and fundamentalism have made their communities weaker, not stronger. Those who really resisted the violence of cultural aggressions are only those who enriched their communities with concepts and visions learned from the experience of others.

There has been a time when it was thought that the world would have become a better place to live in because new communication technologies would have helped us to learn more from others. But now we have to come to terms with the fact that new technologies are mainly used to generate new kind of tribalism, new intolerance, new fears. And so, as it always has been in history making, the struggle continues between the people who believe that “our doctrine is the only good one” and those who believe that “we fundamentally all civilizations share the same humanity in spite of the different ways they express it.

Besides the dogmatic isolationist, the other enemy of dialogue is the person who believes that “all statements are just opinions”, and that we can never produce concepts which can form a basis for reciprocal understanding and cooperation. These are the persons who have realized the subjectivity of thought, but who are very sorry of it, because they would have preferred that we had some sort of solid objectivity which would have made us “sure” of what we say. They believe that all statements are opinions (except the absolute fact that all statements are opinions). And because all opinions are expressed by persons who have the same authority to make statements, then all statements have the same value and there is no use to try to overcome differences, define shared concepts and build consensus on ethical and philosophical issues. They think that even when people talk, they do not listen to one another. It is a sad view, very nostalgic of the lost “objectivity”, which in spite of its claimed "egalitarianism" finally represents an ocean of darkness around each subject eternally isolated from others. But these persons instead of being consequential to their belief and live in silence, go on preaching against any effort to enliven the concepts we share and share an effort to cooperate in making our cultures really human and dignified. Nobility belongs only who search for concepts and accept responsibility for living in harmony with the knowledge of them. Vulgarity belongs to those who see only opinions, and so feel no responsibility to follow their own conscience, since that is also an opinion, and so they try to manipulate it when it advises against something that is perceived as one's own security or convenience.

We wanted the manual to be a platform of dialogue, so we felt the need to define concepts in a way that they could facilitate reciprocal understanding. My main focus was the basic concepts of “development”, “aid”, “cooperation”, “communication”, “subsidiarity”.

I was quite happy of our definition of “communication”, that was framed in these terms: The objective of communication is achieved when a group of "I"s accept to identify themselves as a "we". But then explaining this required a full chapter which in a sense brought the manual into some philosophical discussions which might have been perceived as “out of the main topic” of the manual. But I took the risk and adventure in this philosophical mine field, with the kind of patience that I had seen in the job of Unifil in South Lebanon.

It took a lot of effort for me to tackle the question of “subsidiarity” which we redefined differently from the standard definitions. “Subsidiarity is generally defined as the "organizing principle stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively". While this is the standard way by which the word "subsidiarity" is used in institutional governance, its concept is more relevant and refers to the way that different authorities interact so that they reciprocally recognize and empower each other avoiding that "the bigger" is put higher in the hierarchical order then "the smaller". Subsidiarity means that each level of authority requires the others in a process that all are reciprocally and mutually "subsidiary". The "smaller" in a geographic sense may actually be "higher" in a "ethical" sense and may have more relevance to the life of the individuals than the distant "big bosses". At the same time it is the peaceful and synergic coordination of the "smalls" into widely coordinated "bigger" authorities that enable the smalls to be really autonomous authorities that really recognize and protect the rights of the individual persons.”

But the big question was how to define "development" in a way that was neither "Western-centered", nor "anti-West". We decided to reveal that we need to define development from the perspective of "development cooperation", which is the capacity to integrate the view of the other on what development is". "Gradually awareness is growing that social and economic development require a balanced mixture of freedom and order, of spontaneity and rule, of solidarity and competition. However there is much disagreement of what should come first (freedom or order?) and where to set the balance (more spontaneity or more governance?). Freedom and order are two vital factors of development. On the one hand, they promote each other and on the other hand, they destroy each other, especially if one of the two grows too much at the expense of the other. A similar balance between two seemingly contradictory, and actually reciprocally enabling factors, is the synthesis, in development, of “change” and “continuation”. In fact, development has a dynamic character implying simultaneously that something is transformed and something is carried on. When we talk of "development" in the human and social context, we refer to a course of action that integrates two processes: a change for the better and a preservation of a cultural identity and its value system. A social change that is implemented independently of the value system of the persons whose environment is changed is not development. And neither is the preservation of an old value system, independent of the aspirations of the new generations, development. Using another terminology, we could say that “development” is when there is synergy and creative communication between “progress” (moving ahead) and “tradition” (taking forward one’s values)."

With this definition we could then really explain why we consider communication so important for development. But not all communication. Only the authentic communication, i.e. the one that unites the "Is" of the counterparts in a shared identity of "us". And so we could add to the definition of development an indication of the necessity to be at the same time humble and authoritative. "Change and learning are not produced by social workers and by teachers; they are produced as responses of persons to the external inputs they receive. Authentic development aid workers, in the same way as authentic educators, will aim at “empowering” the persons and will help them develop their potentialities."

Well. So we used the manual for taking a round of more "philosophical" landscapes. I know we will be criticized for it. But we liked it. May be, as we liked it that way, we could share our enthusiasm with our readers. In any case philosophy is OK only if it is lived outside the philosophy classrooms. The philosophical diversions of the manual will make sense only if they lead back to concrete work and concrete stories. So let's now return to the projects in the field and let's see if we find a way to close the threads into a beautiful carpet. A flying one? You bet!

Next Assessing the progress with Armadilla colleagues

See in the handbook edit

 Cooperation and Communication
 Defining Development