Holding a Space for the Hard Conversations: Reflections on UN CSocD56 Panel

By Ellie Price, Locus Coalition Coordinator

Last month, The Hunger Project, The Movement for Community-Led Development and Locus co-hosted a panel titled “Ending Extreme Poverty is Local: community-led, integrated approaches to sustainable development” at the 56th UN Commission on Social Development in New York. Our panelists, Maurice Bloem, Executive Vice President of Church World Service, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, Global Director of Capacity Development at Pact, and Mary Kate Costello, Senior Policy Analyst and UN Representative at The Hunger Project, gave insightful remarks and made space for a participatory discussion. 

 I was struck by two observations while moderating the discussion:

1) The vastly diverse professional backgrounds of the people in the room: an ACLU community organizer in Brooklyn, NY. A Minister of Labor from the Government of Zimbabwe. A female pastor from Pittsburgh. Several NGO senior leaders from Malawi, Zambia, and Nigeria. A community organizer from Nepal.

Panel Participants

2) Acknowledgment of the multiple layers of power and privilege that existed inside and outside the room regarding community-led development. Importantly, I appreciated that Mary Kate Costello from The Hunger Project began her remarks by stating her deep regrets over the fact that all three panelists and the moderator were Westerners: three white American women and a Dutch man. With these regrets I concurred, recognizing that the nature of these ad-hoc organized side events favor recruitment of the easily accessible and already well-connected U.S.-based professional at the podium. That’s why we tried to limit our remarks and seek answers from the assets all over the room. Still, we recognized, what was said by each panelist and each participant was equally valuable, as we all have something to learn from one another. The discussion eventually revealed another layer of power: which representatives from the Global South were at the table having this discussion, and which ones were not? Who got visas to come to the UN in New York, and who didn’t? 

It was Macbain, an NGO leader from Malawi, who pushed back on my question, “what recommendations for change should we make to donors and policymakers for supporting the community-led development we’ve discussed today?”

“It is not just the donors who need changing. First, it is ourselves. Before we go to donors, we should be asking ourselves what do we need to change?” He cited an example of nonprofit leaders in Malawi assuming the youth needed money to take forward their initiatives. So they gave them money, and the results did not come. They were wrong. The leaders had to cut their assumptions and double-down on their listening skills, in order to provide the right support the youth mobilizers actually needed. 

In reality, many of the people seated at the table in that room, regardless of nationality, come from elite classes in their own countries. Well-educated, English-speaking, holding positions of power as leaders, NGO directors, and public officials in their communities. 

It is exceedingly difficult to faithfully represent views other than your own. Our discussion reminded me of this truth. 

But the beauty of that diverse room, far different than the typical D.C. development crowd we engage, reminded me that there is a role for everyone to play in international development. Even white westerners like me. I struggle with this a lot. In my mind, it is often easier to say I should just remove myself from the equation altogether. It is a different struggle altogether to figure out how to “hold the space,” as a colleague of mine at Pact puts it, for such dialogue while recognizing their inherent limits. For me, this is how I can live authentically within my own community, as an American, a resident of D.C., and a member of the professional international development community. These identities give me unique platforms to “hold a space” that hopefully invites more of the right voices into the right conversations. Our conversation was a reminder of that.

These “spaces” which Ann, Mary Kate, Maurice and others “hold” for us are the spaces that Locus Partners is dedicated to creating. Given the realities of our world today, while still working towards more just and equitable relationships between all people, we also identified some practical steps we can take to realize the SDGs. Generating evidence for donors on the efficacy of participatory approaches, is one example. Showing investors, companies, donors and public officials the economic cost savings that can result from participatory, community-led work, is another step forward. Collaborating across actors and organizations within systems for collective impact is yet another. In all this we must remember that true transformation, more often than not, takes significant time.

It is easy to get bogged down in the technicalities of our work, or the limitations imposed by global power structures. Yet these moments of dialogue are incredibly important for revealing our assumptions and giving us space to reflect. Only with reflection can we learn and adapt. Locus will continue to facilitate such learning spaces with our partners.