The Creator of Yerevan
When I arrived in Yerevan I began to construct a new city; it is very similar to the Yerevan on my city tourist map and it is similar to the Yerevan of the people who have lived here all their lives. But this is the Yerevan of my creation. I have populated it with plane trees and nineteenth century buildings of grey basalt and pink limestone; with cobble stones and hidden courtyards spied through arched laneways; and people in the street in their apparent boredom or beauty, each carrying with them their hopes and fears.
And me, making my way, new to this city, thinking about the opportunities I might have here to build a life and where I might live and how I might use this as a base to change the way we do development in this part of the world. I have also included the elderly white haired woman, long nosed and leather skinned in the seat on the bus beside me. I have made her a grandmother who has seen much happiness and much suffering under the Soviet time. And she has made her own Yerevan that is in many ways similar to the one I have created. But it is different; the streets in her Yerevan are longer and have more hazards; and the familiarity of the parks where she was courted as a young woman; and above the shop where over a dinner party in the home of her future parents in law her late husband proposed to her amid much laughter and happiness, for everyone had been waiting for that day. And of the house where her daughter lives now with her grandchildren, and the house where her mother died; these landmarks will never be in my Yerevan. And this is a world she has constructed during her lifetime. And the young man on the seat opposite us, coming from university. He has made a world that has very similar street layout to the old woman’s. But the streets are shorter and his landmarks are cafes where he and his friends meet; a lot of the detail of his Yerevan has yet to be completed as he only has thoughts now for the bus stop and the short walk up Mashtots Avenue, to the Retro Café and girl named Liana who he hopes will be there with his friends.
I see Mount Ararat, snow covered stark against the blue sky and the Mother Armenia statue watching over the city. But the elderly woman sees a Mt Ararat that is a reminder of the land where her grandparents died during the genocide and of stories of the trek her parents made from Van. Instead of Mother Armenia she sees the statue of Stalin who looked over the city from that same place before it was torn down in the early sixties. And I go on creating this Yerevan and take it into my soul, step by step, brick by brick as I wander through the streets of this city built nearly three thousand years ago. This Yerevan, that last year, it did not exist to me.
(Inspired by Vasily Grossman - An Armenian Sketchbook)
One way or another we are all creators of the universe we inhabit and somehow we are inclined to forget that each of us inhabits a different world of our own creation. In international development this reality can be overlooked and dangerous. At one level we know that people inhabit different worlds but at the same time we can still think that once they see our world, as we see it, they will leave their own and join ours and our way of seeing it. And the folly of this is identified in the story above.
As I am not burdened by the ties of the past and see opportunity to change this part of the world, my naïve optimism is not constrained. The elderly woman is woven into the cloth of the place; she is an integral part of the community here and its history in ways that I can never be. Perhaps she struggles to come to terms with a State that is no longer as controlled and tough as times often were then; there is no longer certainty, as there was under the Soviets, where work, housing and food were guaranteed. And to the young man, who at this time in his life is very focused on himself, sees many future opportunities; what he will do and how he will make things work for him belong to a code that he is making up as he goes along.
To make the inquiry easier I will name each of the world views in the story above with a color and attribute the color with certain characteristics, and for this I will use Ken Wilbers stages of consciousness as a guide[i]. We will suppose the writers way of seeing and making sense of the world is color coded Turquoise, the elderly woman’s worldviews Amber and the University student’s as Orange.
So, beginning with the writer who has the Turquoise view of the world, let’s suppose that what is important to him is holistic, intuitive thinking and cooperative actions with others. He is inclined towards combining feeling with knowledge; seeing himself as both distinct and a blended part of a larger whole. He recognizes that everything connects to everything else. His thinking tends not to be based on external rules like those of the older woman. He is aware of the interplay between thought, action, and effects and of the need both to transform himself and others. He seeks personal and spiritual transformation and continually strives to balance thought, action, feeling and perception as well as how he is influenced by others and the effect he has on them.
We are supposing that the elderly woman has an Amber way of seeing the world; she tries hard to lead a stable and purposeful life. She sees life as having meaning, direction and purpose with predetermined outcomes. She avoids conflict, believes in conformity and fitting in and that it is important to sacrifice herself for a larger cause, to do her duty, to honor what is rightfully determined by others higher up and the laws of the state and the rules in her religion.
It is important to her that she does what is expected and she believes that diligence leads to future rewards and in the necessity for the laws, policy, regulations, rules and discipline to maintain order where everyone will ultimately be better off. She believes strongly in principles of right and wrong, black and white; being faithful, maintaining order and harmony and she has a strong sense of personal guilt if she thinks she hasn’t done enough.
I have given the University student the world view of Orange. His world view for now is driven by a desire for success and personal autonomy. He sees self-interest as most important; if he doesn’t look out for himself then who will. He is inclined to see that progress is right and inevitable, that there are winners and losers - he wants to be a winner and prosper. He knows he will need to take risks for this but is optimistic that relying on himself he will succeed. He is competitive, goal focused and believes that science will always triumph and the earth’s resources are there for him to make use of so that he can prosper.
Ultimately for him it is results that matter, he wants to be an initiator rather than a follower, he wants to use his time well, to be effective to build a future in which he is the principle beneficiary. He works on being logical, driven by data and experience and is very goal oriented.
Within International Development there are multiple dimensions where these worldviews can collide within the organization, with stakeholders, government and communities. For this reflection however, I will only reference the development organization itself. We might have aspirations constructed by Turquoise but then the primary implementers might generally have a “center of gravity” at Amber. This means that while the achievement of the aspirations may require flexibility, risk and comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity and continuous learning, the body of the organization may be centered in conformity, policy, rules, risk minimization, control and how everyone fits in to a similar world view.
At the same time the Amber implementers may perceive that they don’t have the requisite flair, creativity and new thinking that Orange could provide, yet when they try to bring Orange into the system they are inclined to stifle the life out of it and Orange can’t survive. Turquoise also finds it difficult to survive in the Amber system for while it understands Amber it can become exhausted as it continually fights for enough flexibility to survive.
In this ‘Stages of Consciousness’ way of making sense of the world, a stage can only really understand the Stages below it and of the three worldviews described, Turquoise is higher, followed by Orange, followed by Amber. Turquoise can therefore understand both the worldviews of Orange and Amber and Orange can understand the world view of Amber. But Amber only sees those systems below it, not those above - in this case Orange and Turquoise.
The challenge is when an organization’s center of gravity is Amber then it tends to want all other worldviews to see it’s view as the highest view, which may be sustainable in a bus company where order, maintenance and scheduling are critical but it is a problem in something as messy and multifaceted as International Development.
[i] The part of the reflection of the color profiles draws heavily on an excellent paper by Barret Brown: Brown, Barrett (February 2007). An Overview of Developmental Stages of Consciousness, Integral Institute. Based upon research by: Ken Wilber in Integral theory and Integral psychology; Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Chris Cowan in the development of values; Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter in the development of self-identity.