Once upon a time there was a village where the people were hungry and dissatisfied with their situations and no one knew what to do. The chief of the village summoned the strongest young man and said, “Go over the mountains, find the wise Oracle and bring her to us; she will tell us what we need to do”. So the young man set off and after much hardship and many weeks he found the Oracle and brought her back to the village.
The Oracle asked, “So I am here, what is the problem?” And the villagers replied, “Great Oracle we are hungry and unhappy!” and the Oracle asked them, “So what is the answer to your problem?” and the villages stared at each other in confusion and one brave villager replied, “We are hungry and don’t know the answer to all the problems in our village, that is why we sent for you so that you can tell us the answers.” And the Oracle asked them many questions about those things that the villagers already knew about their situation and about the challenges they were facing and the reasons, and then she said, “ You know a lot about your situation, if you can’t find the answers in what you already know then I won’t be able to help you”. And slowly she stood up, picked up her walking staff and without another word began the trek back over the mountains to her home. The villagers looked at each other in disbelief; they had expected the Oracle to give them a simple answer that would solve their problems. Wasn’t she the one they had been waiting for, the one they had put their hopes on, the wise one? Some villagers were disappointed, some were discouraged and some were even angry.
Some months went by and the poor conditions in the village had not improved, so the chief consulted with the elders and they agreed, they would send for the Oracle again to seek her wisdom. They agreed also that this time when she asked if they knew the answer to their problems, half the village would say they knew the answer and the other half would say they didn’t and in this way they would elicit the answer from the Oracle to what they should do to make their lives better and more successful.
So again the young man was sent to beg the Oracle to visit and she consented and together they slowly made the journey back to the village of hungry people. And again she asked if they knew the answer to their problems. And as they had agreed, half the village said that they knew the answer and half the village said they did not know and they asked the Oracle what they should do. The Oracle thought for a moment and then said, “Those who know the answer tell those who don’t know.” And then she took her walking staff and without another word left the village.
That night the chief had a dream and the next day he called everyone together. And he said, “The Oracle did in fact give us the answer but we didn’t have the ears to hear it. The answer is that the solution to our problem lies within us, because we can only respond to things we already know to be true. If they were beyond our comprehension we could not respond, so anything we can do is within our comprehension, so the answers to our problems are already with us.”
I have told this story many times. On one occasion I was talking with a group of staff in Vietnam about local value chain development. They had been furiously taking detailed notes and I had the strong sense that they were expectantly waiting for me to give some miracle solution for what they should do for producers in their communities. They all had a copy of the ninety page local value chain manual and they wanted copies of all available PowerPoint presentations as well.
I could feel the pressure on me to be the expert but was very aware also that the answers were not in the notes. So I stopped and said something like:
“Market development is easy, first you find out what buyers are buying, then you find out what people are producing, after that, you and the community try to figure out how the market might work better so that producers can get more for their products. And this is generally by assisting producers to buy inputs like fertilizers and better seed, to supply more of what the market is demanding and increase their bargaining power by selling collectively. And to the extent that it is possible, farmers work together and partner with other organizations with which they share common interests. Then you all work together and innovate what seems to be working so that whatever successes have emerged can be maximized and experiences are shared about what has been effective. At various times you take a step back to see what the impact has been and what can be learned and discussed for the future.”
And everyone agreed that they knew this already and that it was helpful when it was spoken so simply. And so I told the story of the Oracle above and then said:
“The answers are already with you. And the answers are in the communities you work in and you must be the Oracle to them; just as I must be the Oracle to you, the one who helps you see what you already know. And perhaps helps you fill in some of the missing pieces when you have decided what you want to do.”
I believe there is something we all need to learn about our tendency to believe that answers lie outside ourselves or beyond our ability to find them and our tendency to believe in the power of the expert to solve problems that only we can solve.
I think as development professionals we too often fall into the trap of our own need to be useful, which quickly becomes us wanting to be the experts, to hold the answers, to want to be of more value in pitiful situations and not to disappoint the expectations of those we are working alongside.