From Aid to Accompaniment

Written by Dr. Paul Roberts, Director of Intercultural Education, Alianza Arkana.

Last week from 21st to 24th of April, I attended a conference called ‘Climates of Change and the Therapy of Ideas’ at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. The brochure for the conference said:

“Living in an extraordinary time of historic proportions and possibilities – from economic divides to irreversible changes in our climate – calls us to reorient ourselves. If we accept the challenges facing us, opportunities to re-harmonize will emerge, transforming our way of living on this planet. As an interconnected and vital community, we come together to engage new ideas that “see through” existing paradigms. We will gather to listen, to learn and to work together to spark innovative action. In this calling, we are deeply inspired by James Hillman, the founder of archetypal psychology. Toward creating a future that undertakes a “critical re-visioning” and “re-imagining” of our world. He urged us to create a therapy of ideas, “to bring in new ideas so that we can see old patterns differently.”

I was heartened to see at the conference much evidence for Pacifica heeding James Hillman’s advice for psychologists to get out of the consulting room and into the world – that is to understand and work with peoples’ problems not just from an individual depth perspective but also from the perspective of the cultural and the political environments in which people live.

Vandana Shiva doing-the-right-thing

There were powerful presentations from political activists such as Chris Hedges and Vandana Shiva. Vandana Shiva talked, amongst many things, about the importance of seed banks, and the danger posed to these and other public services by companies such as Monsanto, and the new round of secret trade agreements called TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).

This helped me see the importance of the work in our permaculture projects to create seed banks as part of a wider project about preserving the commons.

The presentation, however, that had most resonance for me, was given by Mary Watkins who teaches at Pacifica and has been influential in creating the M.A./Ph.D. Program in Depth Psychology there with Specialization in Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology, & Eco-psychology.

Mary Watkins talked about the importance of what she called ‘psycho-social accompaniment’ to help restore and recreate the commons, which is under threat from global, neo-colonial capitalism as it seeks to privatize and profit from resources that traditionally have been managed for the common good – such as land, air, water, and seeds.

In her presentation, she pointed out the  many social and psychological features by which the commons are being eroded. These are evident in the Peruvian Amazon: the displacement of people from their traditional lands and their absorption into the low-wage economy; ill-health; misery and its psychological symptoms;  discrimination through race; people being walled into ghettos; and traditional indigenous ethics of sharing being replaced by competition and rising individualism.

For Mary Watkins, a key strategy by which to combat the forces of neo-colonialism is psycho-social accompaniment. (For a very good article about this by Mary, click here). The idea of ‘accompaniment’ is taken from liberation theology – the practice of breaking bread with others, but in many spheres, not just in religious communion – and has migrated into liberatory forms of psychology as ‘psychosocial accompaniment’.

Re-Humanizing the City: The Art of Social Activism, Edinburgh Chiapas Solidarity Group found at:

The basic idea is to accompany those who are suffering, being displaced, to stand with them and experience our interdependence with others rather than wanting to define ourselves, usually through race and/or gender, as superior, or wanting to get out of a situation that makes us feel uncomfortable.

In his book ‘To Repair the World’, doctor and social activist, Paul Farmer, says:

“To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end. There’s an element of mystery, of openness, of trust, in accompaniment. The companion, the accompagnateur, says: “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll share your fate for a while—and by “a while,” I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is about sticking with a task until it’s deemed completed—not by the accompagnateur, but by the person being accompanied.”

The key skills involved in psycho-social accompaniment are the ability to withstand the suffering of others, be present with them in this suffering, and the ability to listen to others. By listening to others, we can help them engage in an analysis of their situation which educates them and shifts the focus away from seeing their difficulties of poverty, illness etc. as an individual problem but part of a politically, economically and socially created context.

cartoon on aid

We can, thereby, differentiate aid from accompaniment and seek to replace the idea and practice of aid by  accompaniment. Aid is typically top down, is imposed, and creates dependency. Accompaniment proceeds on the basis of standing side-by-side and involves mutual learning, respect and reciprocity. Accompaniment involves what others have called ‘radical compassion’ and ‘radical availability.’

I am excited by this idea. For a long time in our work, we have been uncomfortable with the notions and practices of traditional aid models. It is abundantly clear, too, that they do not work.

We see Alianza Arkana doing something different by creating grass roots alliances that are genuine partnerships with our indigenous allies and that create change by working from the bottom-up. Additionally, as I wrote about in a previous blog post, we do not want to replicate hierarchical power relations within as well as outside our organization.

When Mary Watkins was talking about this idea, I started thinking about aspects of our work that involve this kind of accompaniment. In particular, I thought about the project we have named the ‘two-women-wandering clinic’, which is offering a basic health service to Shipibo people in urban communities using a combination of traditional Shipibo plant medicines and Western homeopathy.

boy with bad foot, Carolina and Nine

When I had spent a morning with Nine and Carolina, the two women co-leading this project, I had been very moved by their work and by their capacity to get alongside the people they were treating, especially because they were visiting them in their homes. I could also see what this demanded of them. It had occurred to me that simply by making themselves genuinely available to people who were suffering major health problems, they were offering something of potentially equal value to the treatments they were also giving – although in practice the treatments and the way of treating people go hand-in-hand.

Likewise, in many of our other projects we are practicing accompaniment: with young Shipibo women by listening to their stories on our five-day development programs with them; with our Shipibo university scholarship students, as we accompany them for the five or six years of their degree programs and witness all the obstacles that they have to face: with the communities we work with suffering from large-scale resource extraction from oil and gas companies or the activities of palm oil cultivation, which have decimated their forests.

When I sent the draft of this blog to my colleagues, Thomas Younger, who is Director of Eco-Social Justice (ESJ) for Alianza Arkana, responded:

“From the point of view of the ESJ work we have been engaged in, the notion of accompaniment fits very well with how our relationship with Uchunya has grown – accompanying the comuner@s as they go about their daily lives (albeit for short periods of time – hopefully we can be there for longer in the future) and, of course, accompanying them through the forest to that vast part of their ancestral territory which has been destroyed to make way for palm oil. Making the documentary has also required accompaniment, at least from our side – listening to recordings of the community members’ testimonies over and over for weeks on end is a strange type of one-sided intimacy. It is my hope we can continue to accompany Uchunya as their fight moves to the next phase and attend to some of the other pressing needs they face, i.e. looking at the possibilities for developing community-controlled infrastructure, which not even the municipality can take away from them.

Nearly all our work demands that we accompany the people we are working with. Furthermore, as Mary Watkins pointed out, paradoxically in the midst of being with people in misery and suffering, there can be a great joy. This is the joy of being in service, acting out of awareness and integrity and not just living in the privileged, cocooned bubble that most people reading this article have access to.


3 thoughts on “From Aid to Accompaniment

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that the way you describe the projects you are engaged with, the way you are organised and work together at Allianza Arkana, the way you have attempted to engage with supporters and funders – the idea of accompanying makes a lot of sense. Although my work is very different I have been thinking in this way for a long time too. I stopped talking about consulting and used the offer of ‘walking with’ as a way to describe my way of joining with people in the orgnisations I worked with. My relationship with Schumacher College is that of Fellow and I have talked about that as being ‘a compagnera’. This seems immediately to create a relationship where developing trust is foremost – we share experiences along the road even when our histories and the resources we can access may be different.

    1. Thanks for your comment Patricia. I agree that creating trust is crucial especially in situations that have been marked by 500 years of colonialization and ongoing discrimination.

      My friend Susan Street, who actively participated in the course you ran on line for us, wrote this comment about the blog in another thread:

      “Your picture of accompaniment has a clear Illichian taste to it, remembering that friendship (as deep reciprocity) was the basis for Illich’s idea of Conviviality or the convivial society.”

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