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Interview: Patricia Walker on art, spirituality and international development

,    /   Jun 22nd, 2010Education, International, Interviews

After evaluating dozens of disappointing aid projects in places like Togo, Swaziland, and Senegal, Patricia Walker asked herself: Why don’t more of these projects succeed?  In response, Walker, a Buddhist and former professional dancer, got the idea to train people for international development work by linking their spiritual growth with field outcomes.  Here she recounts the origins of her idea and a dinner conversation that changed her life – and led to the creation of CASID, The Center for Art, Spirituality, and International Development.

Dowser: Many people have heard of the United Nations and the World Bank but may not know precisely what international development is. Can you sum it up?
Walker:  International development aims to raise the standard of living in poor countries. Projects can range from getting clean water and nutritional food to people who don’t have it, to helping women earn more money.  The goal is for the projects to be sustainable after the initial investment.

As an evaluator of international development projects, you have talked with people on both sides of the equation: development practitioners and local people.  Did this perspective kindle an early spark for CASID?
Yes, a spark I couldn’t seem to put out. The thing I kept coming back to was the fact that locals and development workers had such different explanations for what caused the often disappointing final results.

Was there a point when that spark ignited something bigger in you, when you said, ‘I have to do something about this’?
There was. I was in Uganda in 1996 evaluating a 10-year agricultural credit project that could not have had more failures. I started to think, ‘Okay, most of the projects I’ve researched have been adequately funded and most of the people doing the work have considerable experience. So why aren’t there more successes?’

Good question. How did CASID become your answer?
I wanted to expand the boundaries of thinking in my field. I started to look at the development practitioner, the person, because I felt that the light had not been shined on the individuals doing the work before.

One thing kept coming back to me: Where’s the creativity?  Where does imagination come into play?  These were not part of any formal training for international development.

You’ve got a master’s in Economics and a Ph.D. in International Development, yet it was Nichiren Buddhism that inspired your model.  What’s the story?
Buddhism tells us to look inside ourselves for answers. I looked inside and saw a creative person. I danced professionally and I’m a painter.  I see myself as an artist. So I asked myself, ‘How can I use creativity to help make foreign assistance more effective and to stimulate dialogue among the general population about the effectiveness of our foreign assistance programs?’

So Buddhism led you to creativity. What came next?
Many people in the big development agencies – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, United Nations Program for Development – have backgrounds in economics. There’s a tendency for linear thinking.  I thought, ‘If we tap into the creative aspect of our brains, how might that reveal different solutions and possibilities?’  My idea wasn’t to remove linear thinking, just to bring creativity into the mix.

How does CASID do that?
When I was an evaluator, I saw over and over how a development worker and a local person had experienced the same thing in two very different ways.  This gap in perception and explanation can contribute, sometimes significantly, to the failure of a project.  To minimize this, we use theatrical role-play exercises that highlight the complexity of what is going on when people interact in the context of international development. That’s just one example.

Does it work?
Yes. We’ve done this with people all over the world, including incoming staff for the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. Each time, we see people make the connection between what they believe and how they perceive others.  Once they acknowledge this connection, they can try to prevent it from getting in the way of achieving their goals on the ground.

That’s a big undertaking, and we haven’t even talked about spirituality.
Well, at CASID spirituality is not so much about morality or ethics but about an approach to oneself. Ironically, the problems we’re trying to fix are so big and urgent that it’s hard to make time for personal reflection. Yet for development to work, relationships must work, and that requires some inner reflection.

And they don’t offer that in graduate school, do they?
Not yet. Although I think we should. I mean, why not try to bring all of yourself to your work?

How did you first sell your idea that personal transformation could get better results?
It’s one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ stories.  I was in Boston visiting a Harvard Business School professor with whom I had coauthored a paper; he invited some friends and colleagues to join us for dinner.  I spoke passionately about bringing a new perspective into international development: art, creativity, and a spiritual dimension. Then I ate my salad and went to bed.

The next morning, one of the dinner guests contacted me and said, ‘I’m with the Kellogg Foundation. If you’re still pursuing your idea a year from now, I will give you a grant.’  Just like that!  A year later I started CASID.

More dinner parties should end like that.  Do you remember the first steps you took down this path?
As a kid I remember telling my mom I was going to work at the United Nations. I didn’t even know what it was; I just thought it sounded interesting.

I think my first actual step was studying in Rome for a semester during college.  I was studying history and our class went to Egypt and Greece to tour the Acropolis and the Pyramids. Seeing these places and being with students from countries so different than mine, I think that was the beginning.

Any advice for others who would like to use their creativity for social change?
Know your strength. Name it, own it, and contribute it. Believe in yourself. Even in the moment there is no funding, even in the moment of great challenge, keep believing.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: CASID

5 Responses

  1. Danya says:

    Oh, I completely loved this interview. Thanks, Dowser!

    I’m a big believer that the future of both private + public sector success (corporations…NGO’s…non-profits…etc) will require individuals who know how to think on “both ends” of the spectrum. Linear thinking can’t do the job alone. Neither can creative or altruistic ambitions, alone. They must merge.

    This interview also touches on the importance of diversity training + awareness, which is not merely a racial concept but applies even to diversity of thought. One of the reasons these int’l efforts can oftentimes fail, as touched on in this interview, is sheer arrogance (which is not all that smart…). There’s a presumption that outsiders know the way; there’s not a real dialogue to assess truth.

    This reminds me of Stephen Covey’s book, 8 Habits of Highly Effective People: seek first to understand, then to be understood.

    Kudos to Patricia! I am super inspired. Thanks again for this interview.

    • Doni Bloomfield says:

      Danya, it seems that not only is this idea of combining linear thinking with altruism becoming more influential in NGOs and for-profit companies, but that it’s inspiring its own breed of institution: the B Corporation. B Corporations, or Benefit Corporations, try to incorporate an altruistic approach into how they run businesses: aiming to have the company do more than raise the bottom line. They do this through environmental consciousness, fair wages, and partnerships with local non-profits. In fact, they’ve recently become an official designation in Maryland and Vermont. I hope we’ll see that this melding of incentives and purposes makes people “think on both ends of the spectrum.”

  2. Danya says:

    BTW – that should be “7″ Habits. Not 8. :-)

  3. Lucinda says:

    An answer from an expert! Thanks for conirtbuting.