Missionaries get a bad press in development circles, often caricatured as the cultural and spiritual shock troops of colonialism and imperialism. I’m sure there has sometimes been truth in that, but talking to a roomful of them in Dublin earlier this week, at the annual meeting of Misean Cara (a membership network for missionary organizations) I got a much more positive impression, and it got me thinking about the link between missionaries and ‘doing development differently’.
Misean Cara’s strategy sets out what it calls the ’missionary approach’, based on a set of five values:
Respect: Due regard for the feelings, needs and rights of others and the environment
Justice: Solidarity with those who are marginalised and advocacy for what is right, fair and appropriate
Commitment: Long-term dedication to and accompaniment of people amongst whom we live.
Compassion: Empathy with and understanding of the reality others live
Integrity: Transparency and accountability in all our activities.
That approach strikes me as both refreshingly human and highly compatible with DDD or the ‘power and systems approach’ I set out in How Change Happens.
Missionaries exemplify long termism and a deep knowledge of context – the room was full of priests, religious sisters and lay people who had spent decades in the same community, learning the language and becoming deeply immersed in local culture – the kind of embeddedness that Rory Stewart laments has been lost from the aid and diplomatic sector. They value people and relationships, not blueprints and policy documents.
Missionaries also model another idea I’ve been talking about in recent years – they are living proof that one alternative to the dead hand of the project is to directly support leaders instead. Find charismatic individuals who are likely to make change happen and support them to do so without having to concoct endless project proposals to justify the grant. Oh wait, isn’t that what missionaries are?
Their deep and permanent roots in communities should make them ideally placed to do advocacy, something that Misean Cara is encouraging its 90 member organizations to explore. But some of the missionaries I met, many of whom are elderly, though insanely energetic, confess to feeling disempowered by the impenetrable technocracy of the aid business, and its paraphernalia of methods, compliance requirements, indicators and plans. If anything, they are too impressed by the technocrats, too humble about their own achievements, knowledge and ability to work with communities to bring about change.
But there are also some downsides and challenges that are particularly acute for missionaries contemplated a leap into advocacy:
They are traditionally linked to direct service provision, running schools and clinics across Africa and beyond. Getting into advocacy is likely to create tensions between that way of working, and the need to improve the quality and quantity of services provided by the state
How Change Happens, and the way INGOs and others talk about advocacy, assumes a high level of intentionality – outside organizations, hopefully working closely with local CSOs, decide what they want to achieve, and build a theory of action to get there. But there is an alternative approach – solidarity, whereby an outside organization backs its local partner through thick and thin, takes its lead from then, and doesn’t try to impose its own agenda. That feels in some ways a more natural fit for missionary organizations, but is a nightmare to raise money for – basically asking for core funding for local organizations with no strings attached.
The other asset that missionary organizations often fail to capitalize on is that priests and nuns are sitting on a vast range of stories about the lives and struggles of the communities in which they live and work. They may not fit easily into project reports, but they are real and moving. And occasionally, some of them are hilarious. The Columban Fathers once regaled me with stories about the christenings they had performed across Latin America, and the tendency of their parishioners to invent new names based on the English words they had read on their shanty town walls, or on passing cars. There are people around the continent glorying in names such as Rangerover, Thissideup and Iloveny (the last from a number plate – got it ?).
I imagine some readers will find this post naïve or offensive. After all, don’t missionaries exemplify the ‘white saviour complex’ that we dislike so much and want to get away from? But a) an increasing proportion of missionaries are local – the room was pretty diverse – and b) ask yourself which is more illegitimate – a consultant (or INGO strategic adviser, for that matter) who flies into a developing country thinking they have all the answers on their laptop, or a priest or sister who lives in the same community for decades, is trusted, and can accompany and support them in their struggles?