Programming local development from the future

The making of a local development program tends to follow the classic diagnosis-vision-objectives-goals-policies-activities sequence before we get –somewhat exhausted– to an action plan. This is a process where the time and energy committed to it is not always justified. Are there other more effective ways to program local development? For instance, could it be possible to develop a vision, a course, based on “concrete facts of the future”? Could we start, rather than end, with an action plan reflecting a “touchable” future? What would that process be like? Might we be at the threshold of a paradigmatic shift?
Almost always the process of programming local development starts with a recognition of the main aspects of reality, such as, among others, who the social players are, how the endowment of production factors is composed, what institutional assets (or liabilities) exist, what the recent history of the locality is, what its political and economic functioning is like, what the connections with the national and foreign context are. With that knowledge base, the situation of the locality or region is diagnosed, and the social, economic and environmental consequences of the local functioning are made explicit; objectives, strategies, policies, programs are established, and we reach the point (if we ever manage to reach it!) where we are able to formulate–somewhat exhausted–an action plan. It is an intense process, one that is sometimes creative and other times fraught with commonplace, where the time and energy committed to that effort are not always justified, if the same are measured in relation to the resulting capacity to impact on the course of events.

In a recent visit to Chiloe1 and without having planned it, a new way of tackling a local development initiative cropped up: a very preliminary profile of an action plan was put forward from the start and, on the basis of that improvised proposal, a very interesting and enriching conversation took place. Instead of departing from some kind of starting point as if no knowledge, preferences and even suggestions already existed, ideas and preferences were poured into a draft action plan profile. What happened next was surprising: participants immediately connected with a vision of the future of their territory and community; hence better ideas, precisions and corrections regarding what was being discussed emerged, enriching both supporting arguments and contents. Each session left questions and topics open which encouraged participants to keep thinking … and proposing. These make up very valuable inputs that the local team and some specialized working groups will know how to elaborate and return in the way of operational projects.

It seemed to me that what was innovative was having gathered from the very beginning the knowledge, the longings flowing during the course of several initial interventions, and then organize them as possible actions for building a future whose scattered elements were already ripening within each participant. Instead of presenting a sometimes long, sometimes arid process of formulating a local development proposal starting from the past, reaching the present, and finally taking a look at the future, the invitation ended up consisting in placing ourselves in a “touchable” future choice and, from there, revising the present (conditions, potentials, limitations, etc.), treading into the past when necessary in order to understand processes, and hence adjust the course whose initial steps were the action plan we improved with each intervention. Based on a modest and very preliminary proposal for the future, which was ultimately adjusted and strengthened as implications and risks were weighed, the participants were able to share their interests and feelings, yet around suggestions for action.

This series of meetings with different local sectors was underpinned by an excellent prior work conducted by the sponsor group, who was capable of integrating reflections about the desired course for the development of the territory (as an expression of the social body) with personal development goals that were widely felt but hardly made explicit.

A key ingredient was having been able to combine the attitude to listen to each participant in full with the ability to translate and structure suggestions into operational programs that were customized to the circumstances of the local and national context.

This approach, more carefully worked on and developed, might lead to a paradigmatic shift on ways and rationale of local development programming. Instead of following the classic vision-objectives-goals-policies-activities-etc. sequence, talks might begin by profiling, from the very start, a preliminary action plan based on the experience, knowledge, implied visions that some individuals already bear without verbalizing them. This makes it possible to preserve course-setting as the structuralizing element of local development, only that the declaration stage is overcome since, from the very beginning, concrete elements are offered that make the population understand that the preliminary action plan is in fact the beginning of a path. It involves, however, daring to overcome resistances and conventions to innovate “in the open air” (the starting point for the course change is known, but the ports to be called during the search are unknown).

The approach leaves room for adding one hardly orthodox ingredient that is almost always present in spite of the misgivings it may cause: a certain reality-creating intuition. With its help, the exercise made to develop a vision, a course, is based on considering “concrete facts of the future”, a flagrant contradiction for other views and logics.

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