On the Warpath
A traditional Guyanese proverb says “slow fiah bile hard cow heel” which in plan english translates to mean that a consistent effort will eventually provide the desired results. So, as the largest development partner with an annual financial footprint of US$35 Million in Guyana, what do you do when a lone stakeholder is on the war path?
The problem was that this particular stakeholder and some; were on the war path, and had been gunning for the Bank for at least one year. Each new week brought apprehension about the next critical letter to appear in the local media complaining about the Inter-American Development Bank , questioning the institution’s commitment to indigenous peoples and the handling of development projects intended to benefit indigenous peoples.
To the institution’s credit, it understood that the only way to get good at handling difficult stakeholders, was to practice handling difficult stakeholders. The IDB took the principled approach of not responding publicly to the antagonism of the stakeholder – who many believed was writing under several fictitious names – but to bringing all of Guyana’s indigenous stakeholders into a conversation and a long term engagement to participate in its work and to lead their own dialogue on projects intended to benefit indigenous peoples.
Living in the Matrix
In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers that what he thought was real was nothing more than a computer generated simulation intended to give human begins the illusion of freedom. Too often, making assumptions about stakeholders keeps institutions boxed into a matrix of predictable and predetermined reactions toward them that are congruent with the matrix of conversations they have about what they think is going on. The matrix robs institutions of their ability to freely draw on creative solutions. An example of this “matrix” of predictable and predetermined reaction is the current full blown conflict between the Georgetown Mayor and City Council and citizens over the parking meter project.
Traditional development approaches tell us that engagement and dialogue should aim for “quick wins” but these fail for a lack organizational investment, insufficient leadership commitment and few dedicated resources – not of money, but of time and effort. The IDB Guyana Office had long known that indigenous audience engagement was not a “natural act” as the political history of patronage removed the potential for partnership between some agencies and indigenous communities and that communities did not have significant experience in the skills required for substantive engagement.
How to Neutralize a Warmonger
Christopher Hitchens said that nonintervention does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens. So what did the IDB do to stay clear of this war path.
- The institution invested time and effort building an open and transparent relationship with the indigenous community as a key commodity to partnership.
- The institution opened itself to listen generously. The major way community stakeholders negotiate is through complaining. When the institution listened to indigenous stakeholders generously, it communicated that they are worth listening to and what they are communicating is worth listening to.
- It understood that relationship was only an entry point. Development requires a culture of coordination and inclusion and relationship is the only way to genuinely partner with indigenous communities.
The lesson is that communities and their stakeholders should not be treated like objects. Some institutions shy away from exploring the fears behind “complaining stakeholders” because they assume they will have to pay a hefty price for addressing those complaints. When we think that the merits of a complaining stakeholder is worthless and hopeless that is the moment we need to be generous listeners. It is said that complaining is “the thoughtful discipline of negotiation“. We are always negotiating the future together, regardless of circumstances and an institution with a vision of alternative possibilities will not be held hostage by circumstances but will invest time and effort in exploring those alternative possibilities.