Polyvocal Development

“Democratic development”  was  suggested several times by alumni during a La Ceiba retreat as capturing part of the essence of what makes us different.  It’s  a natural archetype to cast ourselves in – particularly as many La Ceiba members have gone on to work in other NGOs, where all too often there seems to be more focus on serving the donors or following the orders of the top brass rather than listening to the clients.  Instead, we are trying to create a relationship where women and men in Honduras are really the bosses that we need to respond to. 

But I’d argue that we also are not truly democratic – it is not the will of the majority that rules us, and if you sit in on any LC meeting there won’t be any votes.  And this is because we govern ourselves according to a much more radical principle – polyvocal development.

 Democracy, as we are seeing play out in the current (2016) political climate, leaves minorities often silenced.  This is particularly true if those minorities have power dynamics working against their ability to participate in political discourse.  Which is precisely the structural social environment we’re working in – our clients, although numerically a majority of LC constituents, face economic, educational, linguistic, and other power-based barriers.  These inhibit the ability of our clients to communicate their vision of development and the role of our organization in their futures. 

Moreover, if we ignore those barriers and the way they shape our clients’ voices and the ways in which we hear them, we risk perpetuating the system that created them.  At the very least, we are failing to dismantle them – which even in a strictly micro-level development effort such as microfinance, should be a broader part of our mission that shapes the way we go about our individual-level efforts.

Polyvocality, instead, celebrates the multiple voices.  When we think of the narratives we tell, about our work and our projects, instead of imposing a single thread, we can imagine many strands, told in different voices, working together, responding to each other.  This multiplicity allows for different constructions of reality, woven together into the strong fabric of La Ceiba, owned by each of its constituent parts. 

In musing over polyphonic music, which captures the same sense of distinct, individual songs twining themselves together into an intricate and beautiful whole, Dorothy Sayers turns rhapsodic:

“… the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and throughout, ravishing heart and mind together.” 

Which is precisely what La Ceiba’s story does: with personal stories of the clients, joint existential epiphanies, and lots of hard research,  all of our voices join together to thrill the heart and the head in a way no one narrative ever could. 

In the coming months I hope there will be a strong discussion about making LC into a global thought leader. It is my firm belief that it is not only the details of our loans programs that make us something special, but the way we go about creating those details and articulating them and our ethos to the world that contain a radical and fundamental truth about the way development should be done. 

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