Learning by Doing: Economic Actors Discovering their Place in a Market System
Complex Adaptive systems—yikes, sounds complicated, but really it is all about paying attention to what is happening in real time, being curious and investigating why things are the way they are, and encouraging experimentation to respond to what is happening—thus flexibility is required.
This all sounds so rich and good, but for many of us, the institutions within which we work does not model such behaviour. Which leaves us to struggle in the field with obeying the project proposal, which was written probably 2 years before the project even started, and in the context of today is almost irrelevant.
The Process of Learning about Participating in a Market System
No I am not here to ‘dis’ big international NGO’s (BINGO’s as they say here in Central America) or donors, I am struggling like so many of us with how do we create learning spaces in our projects with our staff and with the people we are working with and for who the participants in our projects. I am so appreciating the discussions about adaptive management, but let’s be real here, adaptive management is occurring in small pockets around the globe inspired and mobilized by individual innovative professionals. It is not coursing throughout institutions in all of their missions right down to the extension workers who then inspire the economic actors they are partnering with to think and operate in a complex adaptive systems manner. Sure there may be a project manager that creates an adaptive management space, but generally speaking this is not the norm.
Case in point, here in Nicaragua I am working with 2 producer groups to assist them in reflecting and analyzing a market system that they are curious about entering. There were to be 3 groups, but the third group had to withdraw from the process because they actually had no idea of what market they wanted to enter, and were not really a group, as they didn’t know each other, but they did live in the same community. They had been ‘sent’ to the session by women in their community and had no idea why they were there. The project manager is tethered to outputs- he is to form a specified number of producer groups. He is driving around the countryside, sometimes up to 5 hours a day, arrives at a community, has a meeting, talks with them, gives them an idea of what they can do, offers supports, and then they are a group. He is working really hard, is very honourable, and an incredible worker, but truly it is a sad situation because he has no chance to influence behaviour change in market systems.
The work with the 2 groups has been wonderful–three sessions so far. My curiosity as a professional lies in how do we transfer ideas like adaptive complex systems to the people we work for and with. This is not just an idea with concepts, it is HOW we do our work. And truly, it is how the participants in our program also do their work, so I am starting at that level- how can the participants engage in a market analysis understanding that they are very much part of the system they are analyzing, and that this system is constantly changing and adapting to obvious and not so obvious factors. The process of learning about the market system as they do their market analysis is a teaching mechanism to inspire the culture of learning that spills out to how they operate in the market system- to observe, be curious, to adapt and respond in an informed manner. If the process is reinforcing that the market system includes weather systems, and political policies and how the fluctuation of the price of gas affects input supply and sales, then just maybe there will be more resilient market actors in the world.
Adult Learning Cycle
What guides me in my sessions is the adult learning cycle – which is elaborated in the figure below.
I am a big fan of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and he presents the learning process that is guided through popular education a bit differently.
Popular education utilizes the daily life experience of the learners as a basis for curriculum development. The people’s experience in markets is where the curriculum starts. Freire (1970a) describes popular education as the personal development of the learners, who progress from a magical awareness to a naive awareness to critical consciousness (awareness)
Magical awareness is when the learners do not have sufficient distance from reality to objectify it in order to know it in a critical way. It is an immersion in concrete reality, which often is attributed to “this is the way things are” (p. 461).
Naive awareness begins when people start to perceive the structural condition of society in which the markets operate. Contradictions begin to come to light. The people start to become aware of their dependent state on others, often because they do not have access to information to make informed decisions regarding their economic activities.
Naive awareness can lead to critical consciousness, which is a process that uses reflection and action upon the effects of that action (praxis) to develop awareness and understanding.
The investigating and analyzing part of the learners cycle opens the space up for the learners to understand their relation to the market system and how they, and other actors are influencing it. This process is a means to unmask people’s feelings of estrangement and separation from the world, and the economy they are operating within. Economics, and markets which are the distributive mechanism for the economy, is not separate from us humans—we are all connected— buyers, suppliers, natural resources, flora and fauna, formal and informal regulations, infrastructure, etc.
In order for people to realize that there can be another reality, and that they can create this new reality, they must move from seeing themselves as objects which are being manipulated by others in the social historical process to becoming subjects and creators of their history and reality (Freire 1970b, 1973). This involves decoding the market as it appears to the people, in order that the market system structures, which are obvious and not so obvious, be revealed. And no this is not the whole truth of the market, but the learning process itself is what is going to give participants in our programs, who are economic actors, the experience of the power of observation and analysis.
This blog is going to share my experiences with the women and how we are deconstructing and decoding the cues that are influencing the markets they are operating within. Stay tuned for the next posting!