Beyond Development Conference – Summary


The conference, “Más que desarrollo: construyendo futuros colectivos,” sponsored by Wuqu’ Kawoq, was held in Pa K’in from October 23-25, 2009 and was a huge success. The three-day event was the product of painstaking organization by several WK staff and board members, most notably Wicha, Anne, Emily, Graham and Peter.

Day 1: The presentations on Day 1 were organized around two themes: “Development – models, critiques, and histories,” and “International collaborations.” On this first day, participants eagerly began an exploration that would continue throughout the conference, examining the interfaces between different themes, perspectives and experiences. It was intellectually bracing to watch as people from a diversity of backgrounds – anthropologists, community leaders, midwives, health promoters and other members of global civil society – spoke to one another across the regnant divides in disciplinary focus and context-specific practice, building on each other’s insights to elaborate a unique and at times heated dialogue.

Kedron Thomas, Erika Yax Cujcuj, Anne Kraemer Diaz and Dominga Pic Salazar opened Day 1 with reflections on the first theme. Thomas, a Harvard anthropologist conducting fieldwork on maquiladoras in Tecpan, offered introductory commentary on the basis of her ethnographic investigation of community perspectives, identifying a number of “unforeseen consequences” of supposed “development” projects, such as the breeding of dependence and externally-driven cultural change. Yax Cujcuj’s talk, I think, challenged the idea of development critiqued in Thomas’s, marking one constructive effort to elaborate a different method—and thus alternative histories—of efforts to promote development. Kraemer’s enlightening presentation on the “third sector” – that is, the sum of social phenomena that fall beyond the limits of the State and the market – placed the preceding two within a broader geographic, historical and political-economic context, confirming the pitfalls indicated by Thomas as well as the possibilities exemplified by Yax Cujcuj’s overview of ACOTCHI’s history. Lastly, Pic Salazar’s brief testimony about her community’s struggle for land reform was a poignant reminder of the centrality of women and effective leadership in effecting structural change.

José Toasa, Ana & Carmen Roquel, Sergio Romero and Shom Dasgupta & Magda Sotz, addressed the second theme, “International collaborations,” from their divergent positions. Toasa, who administers Fundación Interamericana’s budget in Guatemala, described the latter’s objectives and methods in providing financial support for community-driven development projects. Ana & Carmen Roquel, health promoters for ALAS, described the articulation between this nationwide provider of community health services, and local communities that face the joint burden of poverty, gender inequality and ethnolinguistic marginalization. Romero, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, introduced the theme of North-South academic collaboration, describing successes in the promotion of local investigational capacity through individual, programmatic and institutional support. Dasgupta, a community health worker and student of medicine, public health and medical anthropology, offered reflections in Kaqchikel, with translation by Sotz, on the former’s experience of the impotence of engaged scholarship before the grave health problems of the indigenous poor in Guatemala.

The first day of the conference closed with heated debates about the responsibilities of universities and individual academic investigators to their study communities, and about the goodness of fit between allopathic contraceptive services and those who subscribe to “indigenist” Maya cosmovision. Later that evening, several community leaders continued the discussion by expressing misgivings about the claims of US-based investigators who defended the non-involvement of universities in the pragmatic aspects of development work.

Day 2: Apropos to the first theme of the second day of the conference, “Rural areas,” a contingent of attendees from the preceding day decided not to return for the rest of the sessions. In particular, one conference participant related with indignation how several peers had cited the humble ambience of the conference as the reason for their premature departure. Conference organizers were amused at this elegant illustration of the distance that many workers in the development and human rights industries maintain between themselves and the rural poor.

“Rural areas” included presentations by J. Vicente Macario Cosiguá, Erin Beck, Erika Yax Cujcuj, Peter Rohloff and Nelly Zambrano. Macario, who is a public health auxiliary nurse, discussed his work as the leader of a network of community health promoters that receives support from a Catholic mission in Sololá department. He detailed the gaps in government health services, the effects of which are worst in outlying hamlets where Macario lives and works. Beck, a Fulbright recipient and anthropologist from Brown University, presented a detailed and theoretically informed exposition of the limitations of liberal notions of “women’s participation” in development, drawing connections to Yax Cujcuj and Pic Salazar’s presentations from the day before. Yax Cujcuj described a new collaborative project between ACOTCHI and Wuqu’ Kawoq that provides primary care services to women and children in a poor hamlet near Chiq’a’l. Yax Cujcuj discussed the unique challenges and importance of reaching out to remote communities, and detailed their efforts to build trust by engaging the entire community and prioritizing pragmatic services alongside needs assessment. Rohloff, the medical director and founder of Wuqu’ Kawoq, reviewed mainstream press reports and scholarly publications on child malnutrition, emphasizing how supposedly neutral science has helped to elide the suffering of Guatemala’s indigenous poor. Lastly, Zambrano presented the work of microcredit organization Namaste, which provides microloans in conjunction with wraparound consultation services which she informally described as “a MBA” for cottage industry entrepreneurs.

The second theme of Day 2, “Languages, technology, and human rights,” was comprised of presentations by Deborah Greebon, Kara Andrade, J. Maxwell (Ixq’anil), and Diana Santana. Greebon, a Fulbright recipient and expert on Central American educational policy, presented data demonstrating the ongoing failures of bilingual education in Maya-speaking areas of Guatemala. Andrade, a Fulbright recipient and journalist, gave a dynamic introduction to HablaGuate, an effort to promote community journalism through the use of widely available communication technology. Ixq’anil, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at Tulane University, provided a historical and sociological perspective on the place of Maya languages in the plurilingual context of contemporary Guatemala. Lastly, Santana, a Miami-based spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, sounded a rousing call to integrate community-driven development with the promotion of human rights in healthcare, developing a constructive discourse for combating the oppressive structures facing politically marginalized communities.

Several first-language Maya-speakers offered their personal reflections on the themes of Greebon and Ixq’anil’s talks. One of these contributors, a very close friend and collaborator of this author, shared a sense of shame about speaking Kaqchikel, and thanked foreign Maya-speakers for encouraging the use of Maya languages. In fact, that contributor has since made a point of speaking in Kaqchikel at home so that his son will learn to speak.

Day 3: The final day of the conference allowed a more informal atmosphere for reflection and solidifying connections between participants. Opening the day with a brief recap of the previous two days, the remaining attendees discussed important themes from the conference: the crucial role of funding, the importance of institutional change, linguistic choice as pragmatic solidarity, and the possibility for sharing expertise through strong inter-NGO and inter-community networking. With regard to this last point, several community leaders have reported promising developments that arose as a result of connections established during the conference.

The conference closed with a xukulen, or Maya ceremony, offered by Wuqu’ Kawoq and attendees and presided over by Rolando, an aj q’ij from Tecpán. The closing activity of the conference, a demonstration of the giant kites for which Pa K’in is famous, was a fitting metaphor for the conference. On All Saints’ Day, these kites allow families to imagine alternative modes of communication with their deceased loved ones and ancestors. It is hoped that the conference marks a new beginning for communities and NGOs, fostering imaginative connections and collaborations between them.

Two specific Wuqu’ Kawoq projects that grew out of the conference are an effort to develop a community-friendly guide to NGOs and development resources, as well as a bilingual publication of the conference proceedings.

To learn more about the conference, please see the official