Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

Innovating in light of the “social jukebox”

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Ronie Zamor


“The policies can be good, but not work; it is like we put a coin in the jukebox, choose a song, and a different one plays” (X. Gorostiaga sj, 1983).

 What is happening with the “social jukebox” that transforms policies and creates even undesirable outcomes? The British aid agency, DFID, the OXFAM family, state institutions, organizations like RUTA and the World Bank have used the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), initially proposed by academics R. Chambers and G. Conway (1992, Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century) and I. Scoons (Sustainable rural livelihoods, a framework for analysis), for getting poor families out of poverty. Can this SLA approach overcome the “social jukebox” phenomenon? Supported by concrete experience, we argue in this article that it can, but under certain conditions.

The critics of the SLA say that it only works for assessing, that it is illusory to make families participate in their multiple strategies because the projects and policies are defined outside the communities. Others say that it makes the poor become empowered. In Boaco, Chontales, RAAS and Rio San Juan the FOMEVIDASA program was executed between 2004 and 2011 with the support of the government of Finland, and within the framework of the then Rural Development Institute (today the Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy), a program that used the SLA as its principal approach, and was aimed at the poorest families that were living “where there are no signs announcing projects.” The results from that experience were mixed, successful cases, cases that did not change, and failed cases.

The SLA recognizes the multiple dimensions of poverty and wants empoverished populations to get lasting improvements to deal with the poverty that they themselves identify, so that organizations might help to finance and that other local organizations might co-execute, and that there be affective and effective closeness among the different actors. While other approaches focus on the scarcity and needs of the families, the SLA assumes a vision of development focused on the person, begins with an analysis of their means of living, their strong points, their different forms of capital (financial, social, physical and natural), and how these have been changing; it involves the families, respects their visions, and helps to identify the multiple influences and their strategies.

Boaco, Chontales and a large part of the RAAS is characterized by their ranching culture –“the sprawled cow” -Rothschuh Tablada called it, a writer from Chontales. The assymetrical power relationships between ranchers, the peasantry, fieldhands and the indigenous families has a great impact; it is a social jukebox that regardless of who “inserts the coin”, shelves the families into the alleys between the farms and the highways, or in marginal places – without water and roads. These families become “untouchable” families, excluded by their own communities –“there is no exclusion worse than that of your own community”, said a Finnish aid worker. In light of this, following the SLA approach, listening to the impoverished families awakens in them a sense that they have value: “I am poor but I have dignity, my voice is part of my dignity”. Listening to them (“touching them”) is also dignity.

The assessment and ideas for solutions can be left truncated by these “local – global power bottlenecks”, by the nature of the poverty in the minds of the impoverished families themselves, and by the technicians and consultants who create walls between “those who know”, i.e. the technicians, consultants and those who execute the projects, and “those who do not know”, the beneficiary families; so it is that when they are in the communities they call one another “engineer”, “Licentiate” and “magistrate” (lawyers), as a code of differentiation and authority, while in the offices these same people call one another by their names.

Given this reality, going to the communities and formulating polices in accordance with the demands of the families in order to expand their capacities is a monumental challenge, because the tendency is to formulate what the institution is going to “give away” (if it is the central government, the “bonus”, if it is the Municipal Government it is “paving stones” and if it is the aid agency it is a “harvest collection center”), what is in the logical framework, known by the technicians and what is going to be evaluated. After the assessment, a good step is to give the communities back the conclusions and demands, so that the families can monitor them during the execution. The more they participate, the more they exercise the role of social auditor, the more co-responsible they are; participating is contributing ideas, labor and attending meetings without charging as a service; co-responsibility is a social audit for all institutions.

This process has a transformative potential. It changes the technicians and the families; the technician becomes convinced that there is information that only the families know (e.g. sites for drilling wells outside of the areas where the river runs during the rainy season), and a critical perspective on the participation of the families helps to discern between their voice and what is imposed as if it were their voice. It helps to understand that where the water passes is where life passes; it makes visible that in the dry season all of Nicaragua is a road, while in the rainy season a good part of the country is a quagmire; without a road the sick person dies before getting to the hospital and the vegetables rot along the way. It questions organizations and institutions, that for sustainable changes to happen in the lives of the people multiple investments are needed, that perhaps do not fit within a logical framework, but that are possible with complementary alliances, recognizing that one organization or institution alone does not have the capacity to transform these situations.

The SLA approach is not the panacea, but it can be a good tool if three conditions are met. First, understanding the “social jukebox” as a “machine” that distorts policies and approaches, and is a space of dispute and two way negotiation, about realities that are transformed and getting less inadequate “songs” (policies and approaches like SLA). Secondly, investing and monitoring the process of change of the “jukebox”; inclusion of the “untouchable” families that are discovering their own capacities, and the possibility for change for the staff of the organizations in recognizing that even the most impoverished families have value, have something to give and teach. Thirdly, trust in the people themselves, that the families themselves might negotiate (their) resources to repair roads, have potable water or organize their savings and loan system; this requires the organizations to mature and treat the families as mature people, accepting what birds do, that as soon as their baby birds have feathers, they let them fly and give them distance.

The innovation is not in the SLA, but in connecting it to the “social jukebox” under conditions of understanding its dynamic character, that the change is in the impoverished families and in the organizations that work with them, and in that you have to have courage to trust in the “untouchable” families. Otherwise, it does not matter whether the coin is silver or gold, the song that you choose will not be the one that gets played.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Wind of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Bélgica) and the Research and Development Institute, Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua). Ronie was an adviser with FOMEVIDAS and currently is the Sustainable Livelihood and Risk Management Program Official for TROCAIRE (Nicaragua).


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