3.6 Tools and approaches: understanding
We are now going to look at one of the many possible ways of organising information in ways that provide an effective guide to action. No one tool can be said to provide the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ way of analysing a situation. They all have their uses, and using more than one will often be valuable in providing alternative perspectives that enrich our understanding of the situation.
Visioning is a consensus-building tool, and a way of thinking about the future that is not ‘problem-centred’. It is a group-based tool where people respond as individuals to envision how they would like their situation to be at a time in the future. There is then a group reflection of the alternatives and priorities, with the ultimate goal being a negotiated common vision of the future.
The big advantage is that it encourages creativity and ‘lateral thinking’ in considering possible futures. People's ideas are not constrained by the suggestions of ‘experts’. It can be done in a way that recognises power differences and gives the dis-empowered a voice, for example, by working first in groups which represent different interest groups, and then bringing the groups together.
In the box below a member of the Development Management Programme team describes the experience of being involved in a visioning process.
Box 3: A vision for the future of the West Amazonia Biosphere Reserve (WABR)
Biosphere reserves aim to provide an institutional framework for achieving the integration of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development objectives, which are seen as complementary. At the centre of the WABR is the West Amazonia National Park. It covers a large area of pristine rainforest, most of which is inhabited only by indigenous tribes-people, many of whom have little or no contact with the outside world. The area is legally protected, but despite this it is under pressure from encroachment by farmers who have settled around the Park boundaries. The Amazonia Project was a project run by a large South American NGO which aimed to support the conservation of the biodiversity of West Amazonia National Park and at the same time contribute to sustainable livelihoods among the population of the biosphere reserve.
When I first got involved with the project, it was already into its second phase, and there was a feeling that project staff were becoming overwhelmed with the volume of day-to-day work and in danger of losing sight of the wider goals of the project. Moreover the number and variety of activities seemed to be growing in an unplanned way. In an attempt to deal with these problems, it was decided to undertake a major mid-term review of the project with the participation of project field staff.
We decided to initiate the process with a participatory visioning exercise in a workshop held with project staff, who came from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and included both local people and academics from universities in the capital. In this way we hoped to be able to develop a collective vision of the future of the park and the surrounding area to orientate the future activities of the project.
The basic technique we employed was a simple one, but in fact it took us quite a long time – nearly a whole day – to work through the process. At the start, the participants in the workshop were asked to imagine the area in ten years time, and write down on cards things they would like to see. We ended up with about fifty cards, some of them very down to earth, others with very imaginative ideas for the future of the area. We pinned all these cards on the wall, without attempting to evaluate the content or to discard, and set about ordering them into ‘sets’ that grouped together similar ideas.
For the second stage of the process the participants were divided into small groups and each group was given a few sets of cards and asked to write one card which summarised the ideas in each set. We then repeated the process, finally arriving at a summary of a vision on six cards, as follows:
maintenance of biological and cultural diversity of West Amazonia;
appropriate management of the national park and land-use zoning of the biosphere reserve to achieve biodiversity conservation objectives;
local governments implement sustainable development plans produced in collaboration with local people and institutions;
different social groups in the area maintain their cultural identity, understand the importance of conserving natural resources and have the capacity to do so;
sustainable management of natural resources provides social, economic and ecological stability to the population of West Amazonia;
provision of basic services improves the quality of life of men and women in West Amazonia.
Finally, we all sat down together and tried to write one card that summarised our collective vision for the future of West Amazonia, and agreed on the following:
The West Amazonia Biosphere Reserve is a model of conservation, sustainable development and local participation in the Amazon region, which guarantees biodiversity, the well-being of its inhabitants and the cultural identity of its peoples.
We probably could have arrived at a similar formulation much more quickly, without going through all the work with the cards. But we felt the process of thinking about the future together was also a valuable team-building exercise.
The West Amazonia case shows how, for a group of project staff, the visioning exercise enabled them to identify core issues and to allocate responsibilities to them. This helped them clarify their purpose and build a team ethos.