But, What Do You See?

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Two Peruvians uniting with their fellow global citizens to talk about pressing global issues.

About a month ago, in the vibrant Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, my friend Ricardo Morel and I had the great pleasure of sharing a learning experience with academics, students, and professionals mainly from the social development field during the seminar “Critical Tools for Social Change: Could impact evaluation and discourse analysis come together to address the most pressing global issues?”

While Ricardo and I were planning a road trip along the breathtaking Garden Route, we thought: why not set aside one day of our trip in order to collaborate with practitioners related to our research fields in Cape Town? I then spoke with the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA), an organization active in fostering social change with which I had the pleasure to conduct a workshop a year ago.

From my personal opinion, the seminar was a success not because we, as the conductors, brought solutions to social issues (because we did not!), but because of the significance of the outcome of the seminar: two Peruvian researchers like ourselves came together with an active social organization based in Cape Town and more than 40 South Africa-based practitioners from different parts of Africa, Europe, and North America to produce a space where we all, from our own subject positions and with an understanding of our “shared complicities”, could alter our approach to change.

The seminar intended to combine practical tools and case studies drawn from two different arenas. As a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) in South Africa, my contribution came from the application of critical discourse and visual analysis, postcolonial and feminist approaches, and race theory in the study of racism and whiteness, ideology, and violence.

As a then Research Manager at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) in Uganda and currently IPA’s Country Director in Myanmar, Ricardo contributed with his experience in the application of innovative impact evaluation of social policy and developmental programs.

Just as we learned to cause chemical reactions by mixing elements in a Trujillo high school back in the late 90s, Ricardo and I were once again trying to bring together two seemingly unrelated fields in order to accomplish the following objectives:

1) to develop a critical understanding of how institutions articulate discursive practices;

2) to understand the way resources arrive with an entire cultural package;

3) to engage with terminology, concepts, questions, theories, authors, and cases that would endow us with critical tools; and

4) to strengthen critical thinking, global perspective, and intellectual curiosity. 

“But, how can we REALLY provoke social change?” “Am I really going to learn anything today if I stay until the end of the seminar?”

These were two of the questions posed by the participants as the activity moved from thoroughly explaining a traditional perspective of impact evaluation to a critical analysis of it using discourse analytical tools. Interestingly, the answer lies not in the response one could provide, but in the very questions, we should be asking ourselves on a daily basis.

Our accomplishment as collaborators in this learning experience was to put emphasis on the fact that we need to question everything around us, both individually and as a collective. So, combining our fields, Ricardo and I suggested to move standard impact evaluation questions such as “What works in development practice?” to a different stage by beginning with something as basic as “What do you see?”

What do you see? When looking at the photo above (the main cover photo), the first thing that many people do, from my experience, is relate the two people walking to the adjacent advertisements, which promote a beauty salon, and explain the sexism or racism behind this relation.

However, could they really change a sexist or racist reality by replacing those advertisements? If we each asked ourselves “what do I see?” more insistently, we would be able to notice more than just two objects that construct what we recognize as a problematic reality. A more critical impact evaluation then, is, as we suggest, the one that takes into account the whole picture by asking “what do you see?” before posing the question “what should change in order to have a positive effect on the problematic reality?”

In the last weeks, many of us have chosen to believe that we can deal with Peru’s political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues by replacing ministers, punishing bank employees, or demolishing a poorly constructed building. But, the picture has many more objects that need to be addressed if we want to take concrete steps towards changing our country’s problematic reality.

Thus, let us start again and each ask ourselves the question: what do I see?

(Photos: Luis Escobedo)

 

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Luis Escobedo is a postdoctoral research fellow at UFS Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) in South Africa. His research focuses primarily on the application of discourse and visual analysis, postcolonial and feminist approaches, and race theory in the study of racism and whiteness, ideology, and violence in postcolonial and post-apartheid contexts, particularly in Latin America and Africa