People like parables and anecdotes. They are short, easy to remember, and oftentimes presented in such a familiar and anthropomorphized fashion as to be irrefutable. The perception of such facts s that the collective wisdom of all the world’s storytellers is infallible. Yet when grouped together and thought about as a whole, these short, out-of-context truths seem to fall apart, contradicting one another, and would serve to confuse an individual to the point where they might actually begin to wonder why he listened to talking lions and mice in the first place.
On my way to work this morning I was recollecting my thoughts on Friday night’s Mombasa Tweetup when I began to think of two popular anecdotes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse,” and the Hollywood-famous, “If you build it, they will come,” (the original actually states “he will come,”). I thought I would apply them to community building, and not just communities in the specific sense of “village communities,” but more along the lines of, “People who have similar interests or live in a similar circumstance, sharing resources, including knowledge, to engage their specific circumstance.” That sounds pleasantly generalized and filled with enough jargon to get into a textbook on development, right?
In my time in Kenya, I have witnessed development along the lines of our latter anecdote above regarding the construction of buildings and the subsequent arrival of people. Buildings are an easy accomplishment for a development worker, and look great on paper, as they can actually be counted, photographed, budgeted, cost-analyzed, etc. Buildings also fulfill a very critical role for donors: the manifestation of an idea. There seems to be a philosophy amongst some that by building a, “community center,” you will build a community.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I, and hopefully any well-trained and experienced development type (the two being mutually exclusive…) will tell you this is all hogwash. Building a community center, or a library, or a school, or a dispensary, or a tech hub (see, I am being fair!), or anything of that nature, without there being a need, is a complete waste of money. The building will sit there, eventually fall into disrepair, and warrant another volunteer and another round of donor-funding. Why? Well, the most common answer I can get, cynical as it sounds, is that it becomes a status symbol, a trophy and not a functional component of the pre-existing community.
Mombasa has a very small tech scene. Most of the tech development is in Nairobi. That’s part of the reason why Friday’s Tweetup was so fun. A bunch of people who just like tech, got together. We didn’t have a space, but we didn’t need one because we had a common interest, and sharing knowledge should never be confined to a specific building. In Three Cups Of Tea, I appreciate that the first school is built for a community that is already teaching its children. Nairobi has had a tech scene long before the iHub was constructed. In these examples, the focus is on the community already communing in as best a way possible before needing to construct any spaces.
Newtonian physics claims that push and pull are equal forces on an object. Despite my personal inclination to believe that Nature replicates its patterns across all systems, I do not feel that push and pull are equal in development. Pulling along a community, or a non-existent one, into building a building they don’t really need, is just a waste of time and resources. Targeting groups that push for such spaces to enhance their pre-existing communities results in a far more effective utilization of space, as well as easier justification for the resources.
Of course now, any good reader will ask, “What do you mean by ‘really need’?” Well, isn’t that why development workers have jobs in the first place?