Transferring Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts


Opening Remarks

Sri Vasimalai1

What is a knowledge-building workshop? What is the purpose of a workshop? How do you define the topics to be addressed at a workshop? Should they be limited to a single field, or should the topics encompass a variety of fields? These are all pertinent questions; but they are also questions that are difficult to answer. Workshops, in general are designed to enable participants to understand difficult concepts in a thematic manner. One way to do this is for practitioners to assimilate what is happening in the field and apply it to their daily work. The Transforming Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts knowledge-building workshop—hosted by the Tata-Dhan Academy—succeeded in bringing together participants in as many as eight diverse fields to enhance the breadth of information and experiences that could be shared.

Our perceptions and observations impact how we work. The problem is that we do not always take time to reflect, articulate, and ultimately enhance what we learn from our experiences. Participating in workshops changes that. Participating in workshops help bring these observations, perceptions, and insights to a conscious level where they can be communicated, discussed, and—most importantly—shared with others. This reinforces DHAN’s philosophy that Sharing is Swadharma.

The development sector abounds with insights gained at the field level, but there are hardly any attempts to “institutionally synthesize” these insights. How does one theorize for practice? Who should do this theorizing? How can you disseminate these concepts and theories to a broader audience? Indeed, for many practitioners, even the idea of a “concept note” is an elusive one.

There are many examples of outstanding—even “daring”—initiatives which have occurred at the grassroots level which were, regrettably, never adequately documented. Without this process documentation, not only are opportunities for replicating such interventions dramatically limited, but opportunities for transferring the learning to other innovative ideas are also reduced. Hopefully, this workshop—and this document resulting from the workshop—can encourage practitioners to minimize the gap between “practitioners” and “theorizing,” thus extending the knowledge well beyond the participants who were present for the dynamic workshop.

Prof. Vaidyanathan2

We all have a natural tendency to be defensive about our work—whether “our” refers to ourselves as individuals, or to the organizations we are a part of. We would also all prefer to highlight our successes rather than share the things that did not work. Unfortunately, such an attitude does not permit an open discussion amongst like-minded professionals, so our ability to truly learn from our experiences and the experiences of others are dramatically limited.

Imagine instead, the following situation. An NGO or an activist engages in a process of reflection—detached from defensiveness—with the explicit aim to gain insights into problems and theorize about solutions. After all, many practitioners would agree that, despite their specialized expertise in a particular field, ground realities make the process of drafting a “blueprint” for development is incredibly difficult. Even practitioners and NGOs working on similar issues in similar settings find that their overall experiences differ greatly.

What a workshop like this one does is it helps enable the mutual sharing of information; this, in turn, leads to conceptualizing at a larger level. During this Transforming Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts knowledge-building workshop, participants from eight organizations will sit together and share their experiences unreservedly. With this “detachment,” they will be better able to stand back and reflect on their work.

Is this process of review important? Shouldn’t this process be left to academia? Not if you want an accurate picture of reality. Academia is disjointed. But if practitioners can come together and provide sufficient documentation based on their shared experiences, academia will sit up and take notice, and knowledge which was developed at a grassroots level can reach a much larger audience to help many more people.


  1. Executive Director of DHAN Foundation and founder-member of the Tata-Dhan Academy [back]
  2. Professor Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai [back]

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