Anyone who read Robert Pirsig’s best selling cult book (most likely in their younger years) ‘Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and claimed they understood every word could most kindly be accused of being self-deluded.
It was possible however for us mere mortals to glean the essence of some very important concepts. One of these, which was the tension between an empirical approach to life and a more qualitative approach, resonates highly for people today across a range of sectors, not least for those working in local development.
Our work is now dominated by outputs, indicators, logic models, audits, accounting, etc.
This is not to deny the importance of numbers, accounting and systems. They provide necessary structure within which the core work can be carried out and they can also contribute to value for money and in the case of numerical reports for example inform future work.
The importance of finding the correct balance however was illustrated for me at the AGM last week of the company in which I work:
The core portion of the meeting was presentations from those who had been beneficiaries of, and partners in North and East Kerry Developments community development work. Two women who had been supported under a women's strategy funded at various points under both the LCDP and ‘Equality for Women Measure’ shared their experiences; the support had helped them to change their lives.
For one it was the catalyst to progress from a situation where she was contending with a marriage break-up, a son having issues in school, unemployment and low self-esteem. She and her family have since been transformed by the programme.
Another lady was becoming isolated in the home having had a child and again suffering an erosion of confidence. She found the friendship and support from the group instilled her with confidence and has since been offered a job.
Finally, we heard from a social enterprise run by people with disabilities which was presented by a member of the group who charmed the audience with her passion for the project and sales patter.
The financial report given was positive and its importance is not underestimated, but the meaning of the work and the reason for the organisation’s existence was put to the forefront. This was an important reminder to staff and board members alike about what lies behind the seemingly endless paper shuffle.
At a variety of levels in Ireland there is a fundamentalism about money, auditing and numbers. Ironically despite the ugly demise of the Celtic Tiger, there is still a focus on the price of everything and value of nothing approach, all be it in with different motivational spectre, not caused by status anxiety as previously but that of austerity, and now there is a new spectre in the form of alignment.
The balance is skewed and it will impact on people’s lives and the ability to find creative and imaginative solutions to social issues. As Pirsig says, "To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”
In other words, it’s what happens in between that really counts.
* Robert Carey is LCDP manager with North and East Kerry Development.