Dialogue and consensus’. Decolonising development cooperation in Bolivia through communitarian development

Ytrehus, Line Alice (2014). ''Dialogue and consensus'. Decolonising development cooperation in Bolivia through communitarian development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Ca 20% of the Bolivian population lives in extreme poverty, and those identifying as indigenous are clearly among the most disadvantaged (HDR 2011). To many indigenous, the poverty indicates that the discrimination, exclusion and exploitation of indigenous peoples still persist (Klein 2003, Canessa 2007, CPE 2009: preamble). The last decade 'decolonising development' and cultural recognition of indigenous traditions and values came to the forefront of Bolivian politics and public debate. 'Comunitario' (communitarian) became a central symbol of 'decolonising development' for the Bolivian government and indigenous movements. Thus, according to the new Bolivian constitution 'communitarian' is a foundational value for the Bolivian state (CPE 2009 § 1), linked to traditional indigenous rural values. A commentary to the law explains that the Constitution is communitarian 'because of the crave to rescue the ethical-moral values from the communities' (my transl)[1].Indigenous ways of living are perceived to be threatened by deprivation and marginalisation on the one hand and assimilation into modernity on the other.

Researching intercultural challenges in development cooperation through ethnographic fieldwork in a Bolivian indigenous organisation, I was told that 'communitarian' is a crucial value in indigenous culture as well as an important mode of indigenous organisation through 'dialogue and consensus'. Communitarianism repeatedly was put forward as an indigenous contrast to the prevailing 'individualism' in international development intervention and in the West. Thus the aim of this paper is to identify the cultural meaning of Bolivian communitarian development and how this mode of communitarianism contributes to decolonisation of development cooperation. This is explored through the following closely connected research questions:  

  • What does communitarian development mean in the Bolivian contexts?

  • Why has it gained such an importance in Bolivian social movements and by the Bolivian government?    

  • How is it possible to enact communitarian development in everyday life?

  • Is communitarian development a feasible alternative to Western development in practical terms?

To understand whether the Bolivian mode of communitarianism is an alternative to Western development, it is necessary to identify what communitarian development means in theory as well as in practice. I will look particularly on how the concept is applied in the Bolivian constitution and national development strategies plans, and how it is used in the indigenous movements and organisations that pursue it. Implicit is also the question whether international development cooperation has an individualist bias. To be a practicable alternative, a communitarian development must comply with certain empirical and normative requirements. At least it must be practicable, and it should improve indigenous capabilities to participate in development cooperation according to their own values, or at least not hamper their opportunities and wellbeing. Whether it improves indigenous capabilities are a normative as well as an empirical descriptive question. In this normative-descriptive assessment I find insights from development ethics and the Human Development and Capability Approach particularly helpful. Both assumes that values are important in development work, and focus not only on outcome, but on the 'means of the means' or the 'process freedom' respectively (cf. e.g. Goulet 2010, Sen 2009).

The HDCA provides an outline for a conceptual framework to analyse development policy, presenting the poor and vulnerable in the forefront as subjects with agency, and acknowledging cultural pluralism (cf. e.g. Sen 2009). Generally, the process of capability expansion depends highly on the cultural, social, economic and political contexts in which people live. Because communitarianism deals with collective values and practices, collective capabilities of indigenous people in Bolivia are a focus of attention in this paper. Furthermore, the declaration and the convention on the rights of indigenous peoples are concerned with indigenous common good and values as a community. In a historical perspective as well, collective agency seem to have been crucial when the distribution of power in a society is challenged and structures of marginalisation and deprivations modified. The collective capabilities are 'the new choices that the individual alone would neither have nor be able to achieve unless he/she joins a collectivity' (Ibrahim 2006: 398). Accordingly, collective capabilities are only present through a process of collective action, and when the collectivity at large, not only an aggregation of individuals, can benefit from them. Cultural particularity should both make one sensitive to the possibility of justifiable areas of difference between the West and the rest and to the need for more intercultural dialogue for the purpose of improving the current development cooperation regime and expand the capabilities of the poor as well as the organisations working for their interests. The ambition is however not to present a complete or coherent analysis of communitarianism in Bolivia, but more modestly to identify what Bolivian communitarian development might mean.

The investigation is based on a combination of qualitative methods; participant observation in Bolivian NGOs pursuing development among indigenous poor with international funding, semi-structured qualitative interviews with facilitators, leaders and target groups, and conceptual analysis of texts such as the new Bolivian constitution, national strategic development plans and public reports. I have done annual short ethnographic field work trips to Bolivia since 2005, but the main field work was done from August to December 2009 and in March 2014.[2]

The paper comprises four parts: First, a short introduction presenting research aims, approach and methods. The second part is an outline of the Bolivian political, legal and cultural discourses on communitarian values and modes of organisation with particular attention to how they relate to decolonising development cooperation. The third part presents some insights from (Western) philosophical and sociological perspectives on communitarianism that can shed light upon Bolivian conceptualisations of communitarian development. The fourth part analyses examples of Bolivian NGOs´ communal work, comparing the approaches of a faith based organisation and an indigenous organisation. The article concludes with reflections on communitarian participation and discussing its potential to expand the capabilities of the poor and improve the current development cooperation policies.

[1]published at the governmental website,

[2] The field trips are generallyfor 4-5 weeks, part of this with Norwegian bachelor students. The project is funded by NLA University College.

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