Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dialogue in the Receptor Approach to human rights model: some lessons from Theatre for Development (TfD).

In this article I will first present briefly the idea of the receptor approach to human rights and the important role that dialogue as part of an effective communication strategy plays within it. I will then consider Theatre for Development as practiced in East Africa with a view to highlighting aspects in its process that I believe could be useful in strengthening of effective dialogue within the Receptor Approach to human rights.

The Receptor Approach to human rights is a practical and functional approach for the promotion of international human rights obligations in local contexts, according to which international human rights norms and local cultural practices could and should mutually reinforce each other. The Receptor approach borrows its name from the field of biomedicine, where receptor molecules residing on the cell surface or nucleus receive and transmit external chemical signals. These signals are usually loaded with specific instructions for the cell, controlling such vital functions as cell division, extinction, as well as entry and exit of substances to the cell membrane. For the communication to be effective, the signaling molecules (carried for examples in hormones, drugs and neurotransmitters) have to lock onto specific receptor molecules which then translate the signals into the desired actions.

The Receptor Approach analogously makes use of human rights receptors within cultural societies that provide a path through which both cultural and social institutions and treaty obligations can be received, analyzed, understood, translated and delivered for enjoyment by right holders. This approach therefore considers that international human rights will be most effective if they are able to lock onto social and cultural receptors. As such, it is a two way communication process to which effective dialogue is crucial.

The Receptor Approach is a two-step process that involves matching and amplification. Using established approaches from ethnography, it identifies the core elements of the international human rights regime and looks for analogous phenomena in the societies of the state party concerned. Consequently, the duty to implement a particular right may be matched by social institutions other than law, such as kinship, religion, custom, customary law, pledge societies, social support networks or group-help. If there is a full match, the state is living up to its international human rights obligations despite not relying solely on legislation. If there is no match or only a partial one, then amplification is required and the state has to extend existing social arrangements to bring it in line with its obligations.

Such amplification may involve reforms, and the Receptor Approach promotes the idea that reforms should be indigenous and add to but not replace existing social arrangements. It opposes the introduction of foreign notions into local contexts if local remedies can be found which, while undoing the violation, remain loyal to the social structure existing in that particular society. This position is informed by the belief that changes that add to the existing arrangements stand a far better chance of being supported and carried out by the community than those enforced top-down. For this process to be effective, it is imperative that honest, genuine and mutually respectful dialogue that results in a transfer of knowledge to both parties be at its heart, and this is where the experience of Theatre for Development TfD provides valuable lessons.

It is recognized from the outset that no unified methodology or ethical standard in TfD exists at the moment. Joseph describes TfD as operating in an extremely discursive and eclectic context, and finds the lack of a guiding ethical standard as seriously hampering the effective practice of TfD. The attraction of TfD to the Receptor Approach, however, lies in its stated intentions, founding ideas and ethos, rather than as a robust model of unqualified success.

Most, if not all thespians and promoters of TfD subscribe to the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of Augusto Boal (theatre of the oppressed) and Paolo Freire (pedagogy of the oppressed) ,into which I shall not attempt to enter here due to the limited scope of this article. Suffice it to say that primary to both of them is the centrality and independence of the community as main the driver in its own development process. This has informed the status of TfD as we know it today: a powerful tool for the conscientisation of society whose main objective is the empowerment and transformation of society through interactive and participatory education using its own artistic forms. Such popular media include but are not limited to: dance, song, poetry, story-telling, recitations, mime and drama .

Given the above credentials of TfD, it comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Receptor Approach, which champions the use of local solutions for local problems, finds a natural affinity to TfD. Where TfD developed from the failure of paternalistic and interventionist Northern strategies of development which considered the receiving African societies as passive beneficiaries, the Receptor Approach is a response to ineffective Northern strategies of empowerment through punitive legislation that overlook the agency of the local. They both speak to the Illegitimacy and inappropriateness of external top-down imposition of societal change.

What specific lessons, then, can the Receptor Approach to human rights learn from TfD? Personally, I hold a deep conviction that unless human rights, especially those linked to good health and sanitation, are predicated upon economic and social well-being, they risk becoming an unattainable luxury. If due to a low economic status our focus is concentrated on the struggle for daily subsistence, there is little room for human rights. The link, therefore, between economic development and human rights is fundamental. In this connection, any efforts at economic development must be culturally legitimate, appropriate and effective. To achieve this, the entire process must be ceded to the target beneficiaries.

This leads us to the first useful lesson from TfD. This is the effective communication between the expert and the learner, the donor and the receiver, the state and the citizen. How does one impart knowledge or provide aid without alienating the recipient, given the imbalance of power between the two? In the case of HIV/AIDS, this is complicated even further by the sensitivity of matters relating to sexuality. In a sense, every idea that is not indigenous to a particular community is foreign and external. This does not reduce the potential benefit of innovation, but its internalization must be carefully managed. How then does one create a sense of ownership of innovation? Essentially, this boils down to a question of reducing the gap between the two actors, so that the learner is able to appropriate for themselves the external tools of change that the expert (facilitator, animateur) avails. Joseph (personal communication), refers to this process as the collapsing of insider/outsider dichotomies. Through the use of local and therefore familiar forms of communication in an interactive and participatory manner, self-analysis of one’s social conditions can lead to critical self-assessment, which can lead to the conscious appropriation of an external prescription leading to self-reform (conscietisation).

To offer a brief look at how TfD actually works, I consider in the following section a description from Tanzania provided by Mlama. The practice of TfD captured in this case study proceeds in seven stages. It is designed to maximize the participation of local communities in the identification, analysis and solution of their most pressing problems. This is done through discussions stimulated by theatrical performances.

The first two stages involve research. Firstly, the experts (animateurs trained in the art of theatre) go to the village to inform themselves of its structure, organisation, and outlook (discovery). In stage two they identify resource persons within the community with whom they collect specific information relevant to the particular village.

In the third stage an analysis of the information gathered during the first two stages is done with the participation of the community. The community is divided into different groups, each led by an animateur who guides the discussions, focusing them on identifying problems, their possible causes and solutions.

In the fourth stage, the discussion groups present their findings through an artistic medium of their choice. The animateurs help with the technical aspects and ensure fidelity of the performance to the identified problem. They also help to stimulate and direct dialogue about the problems during the course of the performance, involving the audience in the performance as much as possible.

The fifth stage brings together all the different groups who now perform in front of the whole village who are encouraged to participate both as audience and performers.

In stage six a post-performance discussion takes place. It is here that strategies and visions for the resolution of the identified problems are tabled.

The last stage involves following up with the relevant authorities the progress in the implementation of the solutions to the problems prioritized by the villagers.

In practice, this process is fraught with many challenges, the most serious of which I refer to as the institutional trap. This manifests in three important ways.

The first is structural. Existing governmental institutional structures were not meant for the implementation of bottom up policies such as those emanating from TfD. As a result, any resolutions arrived at during the TfD process is still subject to the administration of bureaucratic institutions. This has the impact of creating only an illusion of empowerment as the villagers lack real power to effect any of their desired projects. Willingness by the governing institutions to transform their structures accordingly is therefore an absolute necessity if TfD is to have any meaningful impact.

Secondly, because the power relationship between the parties concerned is inherently uneven, the funders, donors and government agents often find it difficult to cede decision making power to the communities. This has seen attempts to manipulate the TfD process by using it only as a vehicle to promote the acceptance of predetermined prescriptions. As such, many donors still retain boardroom authority as far as development projects are concerned, raising questions of legitimacy and appropriateness of the process.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, is the amenability of the process of TfD to hijack by all sorts of actors. At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kenya for example, there was an explosion of NGOs claiming to operate under the banner of TfD but whose individual agendas could not be ascertained.

The history and experience of TfD in Africa has without doubt had its share of negative outcomes. It has, nevertheless, regardless of the degree of adherence to its theoretical groundings, matured into an applied form of development paradigm, and its relative success in the field of public health education in general and HIV/AIDS in particular has been remarkable. Examples exist in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, to name a few.

Its success can mainly be attributed to its consideration of effective communication and community participation as central to its practice. According to Kalipeni and Kamlongera , the most important element in health care strategy is community participation. As opposed to usual top down tendencies, TfD in Malawi was used to ‘probe, stimulate and draw out ideas, and build on and learn from existing knowledge and expertise’. The success of TfD as an effective communication tool has thus been attributed to the fact that popular theatre is based on didactic function, audience participation, and anonymity and makes use of familiar forms of communication and is therefore less manipulative. 

Like TfD, the Receptor Approach champions the use of local and accessible means to tackle local problems and could benefit a great deal by incorporating some of the salient aspects of TfD into its practice and methodology. It is hoped that this article has provided useful insights into the challenges that will face the Receptor Approach to human rights on issues of cultural importance.

Posted by Michael Odhiambo (Michael is a post-doctoral researcher on the Receptor Approach at the School of Human Rights Research, Utrecht)

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