Making Mess

Success stories are a powerful trope of international development and conservation work. They structure the way NGOs, governments and companies engage with powerful donors and public opinion. They also smooth over complexities, efface failures, and ignore contradictions. They present ongoing situations as if they are done, dusted, and thus can legitimately stand as a lesson to others who seek to achieve similar goals. They clean up mess. But conservation and development work is all mess.

Making mess...
Making mess…

As my ethnographic work proceeds here in Congo, it’s hard to keep a lid on all the mess I encounter. As I sit in Brazzaville trying to make yet another workplan for the coming months that I know is unlikely to stick, I fear the mess may overflow and overwhelm me. It’s been there from the start, from the very first day I started working on Extreme Citizen Science, but it’s here – in the field, at the point of implementation – where mess makes itself most apparent. Success stories are powerful (particularly those that begin with failure) and certainly I’ve told my fair share of them. But I’m beginning to understand that without accounting for mess it’s impossible to make sense of what is actually happening in the complex, multi-layered, power-laden realities of development and conservation work, or the global industrial processes this work simultaneously denigrates and supports. If we are to be faithful to mess, and we urgently need to be faithful to mess, then we need to unlearn old narrative tropes and engage with something quite different. We need to learn how to tell, and we need to learn how to listen to, unsuccess stories.

This is a tall order in an industry dominated by one principle agenda – securing the next round of project funding. It’s a tall order in a world obsessed with the inspirational force of TED Talks, Disney movies and cheery motivational posters. It’s a tall order when the storyteller risks upsetting or offending friends and colleagues, and the listeners risk treating unsuccess as failure, which is quite a different beast. Unsuccess is not intended to be judgemental. It’s just a story of what is, on the ground, sur le terrain. A story of mess.

I’m still thinking this through, but here’s a (tame) example from my recent work. I wrote a blog post for ExCiteS about the potentials of using ExCiteS’ icon-based software Sapelli to support a group of community-organised ecoguards to collect data about wildlife and hunting activity in the Lefini Reserve. We piloted the system in the context of a research project, and the two ecoguards who participated were very enthusiastic about the possibilities. So far so successful. But what I left out of the story was that these ecoguards are supposed to be engaged in the same process as the conservation organisation that supports them – trying to stop other members of their community from hunting. This means that they are not only not necessarily representative of, but are often directly opposed to, the community at large – so what then for the radical community participation philosophy of “Extreme Citizen Science”? Furthermore, the conservation organisation does not have a government mandate that allows it to provide official support to the ecoguards – and thus the sustainability of the project is questionable and rests on political decisions being made at the national level. Additionally, there are some doubts within the conservation organisation as to whether it is strategically desirable to continue working in Lefini at all rather than focusing on “priority” landscapes where elephant poaching is a bigger issue.

There is worse mess here, but I am struggling to find a way to tell it. To be faithful to it I’ll need to weave narratives that may directly contradict the success stories my colleagues and I have told in the past. But if we are to make any progress towards the lofty aims of Extreme Citizen Science – to support truly community-driven, bottom-up processes of data collection, analysis and use – then however uncomfortable it is, these messy unsuccess stories will need to be told.

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