Learning is fundamental to our capacity to cope with future social-ecological change. But how do we stimulate the ‘right’ kind of learning, and how will we know if we succeed or fail?

 Posted by sustainable on April 30, 2012 

I am sitting in a high ceilinged community hall in rural South Africa. Cattle graze on short dry grass outside the door, and participants look pinched from the cold breeze that whistles under the doors and through a broken window. We have just finished an activity that saw all nine of us holding hands, tangled up with one another, and trying to get untangled. We succeeded, with some cheating. The facilitator tells us this activity is symbolic of what will be needed to overcome the challenges that the community faces: it will require everyone to be present, conscious of the actions of others, and mindful of their interconnectedness. She does not mention the cheating.


This is the second year of regular interaction with a small group of people who have been taken through a process of thinking about what vulnerability means in their community, how it is experienced by individuals and households, and how people are responding to it. We have used narratives, drama, dance, large community meetings and small focus groups to tell stories about local experiences of vulnerability in the context of multiple stressors, particularly climate change and HIV/Aids. Ultimately, over a period of three years, we want to get to a point where we have taken a core group of individuals through a process of exploring local experiences of vulnerability, responses to those experiences, what people could do to respond, and why they are not doing these things. Finally we want to reach to a point where the group begins to work with the community to break down barriers to adaptation. The hope, and the intention, is that the learning process will transcend the core group and become located within the social networks or/and communities of practice that participants belong to. We are testing the idea that by changing the way a small group of individuals think about themselves in relation to their community and the challenges it faces, we will have a larger impact on the community more broadly. In other words, we are testing a methodology for social learning. This is a long shot, but worth a try.

As we take these individuals through this learning process, the facilitators are attempting to monitor learning outcomes for those involved. This means documenting what both the community participants and the facilitators are learning as we go along, and using this to adjust our interactions with one another and to be mindful of the path we are walking together. We all have an idea of where we want to get to – we want to identify and break down barriers to adaptation, and we want this to happen in the broader community, not just this core group. But we are not entirely sure how we will get there. This year we will use social network analysis to explore how far, if at all, learning is ‘moving’ from this core group into the broader community. We hope that this will shed light on the kinds of impact a sustained participatory process such as this might expect to have in a rural community struggling with so many social and ecological challenges.

As we reflect on the learning that has taken place during the day’s activities in the community hall, I look around at the faces of women and men who I have seen cry as they told stories of their experiences of vulnerability. They say that they have learned about the importance of sharing their painful stories, they have learned that the person sitting next to them also lost a loved one to HIV/Aids. They have learned that their individual actions to help others are important. I can’t help but wonder if this is really worthwhile, and I return time and again to same thought: is participation the new tyranny, as Cooke and Kothari (2001) warned? How do I make this worth these people’s time? And then I am reminded why we are monitoring and evaluating this process as we go along, and I am committed anew to critically evaluating the learning outcomes of participatory processes.

This research is funded by the International Development Research Center, and supported by numerous researchers in the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University.

Dr Georgina Cundill,
Environmental Learning Research Center, Rhodes University
Website: http://georginacundill.blogspot.com/