Joep Van Arendonk, Chief of Programs at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), became acquainted with ICA in the 1980s. At an ICA global gathering in Bilbao, Spain, he spoke about his first hand experiences with ICA and his admiration for the creativity and commitment he saw in its work, especially in rural villages. In conclusion, he described ICA as being “People of the Question.” He saw ICA as an organization that strove to address some of the most overwhelming social issues in the world for which there were “no answers.” ICA’s integrity came from acting within the framework, urgency, and uncertainty of the big picture.
This has always been a hallmark of ICA. The questions have to do with big moral issues and involve stepping into the unknown for the sake of creating something new. In local communities it requires identifying and dealing with all of the issues that people face, not just a few. This is paying attention to the totality of the situation. ICA has referred to this as a comprehensive context as programs are designed in the twilight of ambiguity where something radically different is required but the pathway forward is less than clear. This results in transformation and changes in the way people see the world and their role in it. Responses made in anything less than a comprehensive context are reduced and intentional or not often treat isolated symptoms. It is like using Band Aids to care for severely injured survivors of a major train wreck.
Today this analogy is apt. There are those, for example, who focus great attention on the importance of economic justice within society but do so based on old assumptions about unlimited growth. They largely ignore realities of climate change and the necessity of finding sustainable ways of living in harmony with the Earth. Their strategy tries to make the systems of an old and collapsing paradigm “work better.” Failure to place their concern within the framework of a more comprehensive context ultimately undermines their efforts. Rather than transformation, their work inadvertently contributes to the perpetuation of larger contradictions. The futility of this in the long term is like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.
ICA pushes itself to be aware of matters that inform a comprehensive perspective. This means being in regular dialogue with edge thinkers through an active study regimen, and making the results of its own work available for review by others. It means lively interaction with those who wrestle with the same issues. In other words, ICA self-consciously works at being a learning organization as it develops and implements new programs.
The short-term thinking of popular culture highlights the importance of revisiting and rehearsing the realities of the bigger picture on a regular basis. ICA tells its public story and frames its work as a response to the urgency of the times. While this is important for conveying ICA’s purpose and work to others, it also fulfills an internal objective, to remind all stakeholders — staff, board, volunteers, and partners — about ICA’s mission, its historical significance, and how the mission is being practically advanced. Complementing the importance of the story, ICA has a tradition of regularly rehearsing this through songs, decor, and the use of symbols. These are powerful practices for keeping a comprehensive context squarely before us.
Finally, by daring to operate within a comprehensive context, there are few clear answers, As proclaimed in an old Chinese proverb, “Action will remove the doubt that theory cannot solve.” This is a helpful insight for those who wrestle mightily with today’s dilemmas as “People of the Question.”
• “Proposition 4: Deal with All Critical Problems,” IMAGE, E.I. Summer 1967 (see annex).
• “People of the Question” by Joep Van Arendonk, 1986 (see annex).