What is a U-process?
The U-process was developed by Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to bring about radical social change in groups of people and organisations.
The letter U stands for the various phases the group has to go through. In the ‘sensing’ phase everyone involved is given the opportunity to present their own vision on a certain matter. Then the whole group sees the extent of the problem in reality. This is followed by the ‘presencing’ phase, in which the members of the group join in silence. Everyone asks themselves how to tackle the problem. Then comes the co-creation phase, in which the solutions are developed further.
“What is the point of fair trade oranges from South Africa, when the orange pickers die of HIV/AIDS?” That’s what aid worker Tanja Odijk wondered after years of working with this group. So she asked the workers themselves how to improve the situation. They pointed out that they mainly sought help from traditional healers. But how can you use traditional healers when Western health organisations see them as quacks?
“Traditional healers play an important role in South African society. Around 80 percent of people turn to them first when they become ill. Some work with plants, others believe in the powers of their forefathers. And of course there are swindlers among them. Some even claim to cure HIV. Nevertheless the South African government recognises traditional healers a part of the regular health system,” says Ms Odijk, who has been an aid worker for more than 20 years.
Up to now, attempts to bring Western health organisations and traditional healers closer together have failed. “UNAIDS has set up a programme that tries to close the gap. That is great of course, but the problem is traditional healers are asked to learn Western methods to treat HIV and AIDS. That is like asking Christians to become Muslim. That doesn’t work.”
Ms Odijk has chosen a different approach together with a number of NGOs. She got 52 healers from the Limpopo region to give their vision on HIV. Once everyone had got a picture of the extent of the problem they joined each other in ‘silence’, before they started coming up with ideas to tackle the epidemic. This is a so-called 'U-process', which is often used in businesses. The idea is to find solutions in a number of steps.
“We went to a place which many healers have a special relationship with. They felt the presence of their forefathers as soon as they got there and saw healing plants. It was great to have an open debate like this with such a big group of healers, who usually keep the secret of their powers to themselves. The solutions came by themselves.”
Chishi Mashile, of the traditional healers association in the region, is enthusiastic about the process. “We were given the opportunity to come up with our own ideas. Normally, we are not shown this amount of respect from Western organisations: this was a completely different approach. All the healers are very positive about the experience.”
The healers said they wanted to make a special herb garden and to research plants which make the immune systems of HIV patients pick up. They also decided to do training to become counsellors for patients, so that they could carry out their own HIV tests. Unfortunately, a new problem arose: money.
Theo Groot, who has worked with Ms Odijk for many years on the orange farms, understands why there is a lack of money. “The farms are very commercial. There is plenty of money, but farm managers are sceptical, after all seasonal workers can easily be replaced.”
The U-process has potential thinks Mr Groot. “I believe in it, but we need to apply it on a much bigger scale before we can draw conclusions. It is a new way of working, but development aid is ready for change. The advantage of the U-process is that it exposes the complexity of the problem and lets people come up with their own solutions.”
Could this be Development Aid 2.0? Ms Odijk: “I hope very much that this becomes the new way of working and that I can contribute to it. Hopefully, in the future we will really be able to say that South African oranges are fair trade products.”