A brave spirit in social change

Last week saw the launch of a new social change initiative called “Dignify”. There wouldn’t be much to comment – good causes pop up all the time – but this game plan is very different from others. Without cloaking itself in some or other religion or belief caste, it wants to bring spirituality and human dignity to the core of social development in South Africa. It’s a courageous and practical attempt at “transformation of the development approach” and maybe it won’t find rocky ground.

At base, Dignify doesn’t think that success in social change is a thing that just, or even primarily, comes through x rands buying y outcomes for z people; rather it puts the people bit right at the centre of work being done.

This isn’t the stuff of some soft-hearted angst: it’s pulled together by hard-nosed development workers who’ve spent years hitting their heads against poor results in community work, or at least less-than-could-be results. And they reckon that in social investment, we’ve largely forgotten its key – people; not funders, causes or esoteric visions. To them, talking about the “needs” of beneficiaries is for naught if we forget that the latter’s “ownership” of projects is a thing most often of inner conviction in the self. Indeed, the Dignify concept is that human dignity and spirituality lie at the core of successful social investment. This is radical thinking.

Says Dignify co-founder Sr. Aine Hughes: “It is vital to understand that the values, principles and beliefs that every one of us holds play a very important part in guiding our courses of action. If we’re truly interested in holistic change in the world, then we must tap into this source – whether we call it spirituality or something else”.

Adds Ann McCollum: “It’s about something people hold to be their core of life or spirit, according to which they direct their lives, make judgments about right and wrong, good and bad. It’s about the values and principles that one cherishes. It doesn’t matter whether they come from some religious background, or from the social upbringing, or simply from one’s rational nature. What is important is that we understand and acknowledge that the values, principles and beliefs that we have and hold play a very important role in guiding the course of action that we take”.

That’s something that the good burghers at Dignify think is too often missing in project design and practice. Not that this approach is new globally – much has been written and working groups in places like the UN and the World Bank have tried to make this approach practical.

But in places where the need for circumstantial upliftment is sometimes simplistically thought of as “critical” in an “emergency” way, these ideas easily fall away. That has far too often been the case here in SA, thinks another Dignify driver, Doug Racionzer, and he says that it’s a reason for so many community development failures.

Selling this stuff to anyone long-in-the-development-tooth won’t be easy if it comes across as airy-fairy. Which makes Racionzer a fortunate spokesman; given his track-record in the very down-to-Earth and sometimes messy pulling together of divided business interests in the established and successful Small Towns Rejuvenation Project, never mind his background in spaza marketing set-ups in more than 100 townships and much more besides.

So the Dignify approach means what in practice? First off comes the humility and learning of forming deep-seated relationships with “the self” and with communities, partly through educating development practitioners and their ground partners for a transformation in how they see themselves and each other. Then it moves to matters economic in giving preference to ethical social enterprises and in advocating a society of greater opportunity. “Relating to creation” means promoting a stewardship of nature, along with ethical and accessible use of land, water and waste.

All of this starts off with“foundational practicalities” of social investment project design being disciplined to “deep listening”; an overt and to date unusual affirmation by development practitioners of safe/sacred spaces; and so pretty much taking to this work through community trust-building.

In a society as deeply religious as South Africa’s (the last census to ask, in 2001, found 84% of South Africans declaring for some or other religiosity), it means an overt withdrawal from taking the Enlightenment’s strict separation of church and state, and taking the resulting redirection into social investment. This is far more profound than it may at first glance appear. Given the reign in development of a sometimes unthinking conformity in a too-clever-by-half chattering class, it is also brave.

Talking about the centrality of human dignity in development is trite when the belief systems of communities and the national character are ignored or pushed away. The obvious beneficial strengths that come with these things are inexplicably rejected, top-down.

But getting such home-truths through to self-proclaimed development experts might mean fighting a tough and nuanced battle of thinking in development. If that battle of ideas is won, measurable and positive results in the fraught world of community development and social cohesion can almost certainly be expected to increase. All strength to that.

Paul Pereira (Dignify can be contacted through Ann McCollum on ann.mccollum@virgin.net, Sr. Aine Hughes on pmhughes17@gmail.com, and Doug Racionzer on douglas@racionzer.net).