Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sometimes, It's Who You Are That Matters

From a very young age I learned that when you hear the three letters: N, G, O, it means someone is coming to give you something.  Maybe a mosquito net, a community tractor, or a t-shirt.  I came to learn how outsiders defined our underdevelopment as if I read it in a text book.  Later, when I actually read it in a text book, I couldn't help but laugh.  If someone from outside asked, "How can we help?" or, "What problems do you see in your community?"  Any one of my neighbors would recite as if reading from some shared list: malaria, water, fertile land, electricity, etc.  However, if I were to ask any of my neighbors these same questions, I wouldn't receive any of these responses.  And in that discrepancy lies much of what plagues development initiatives today.  We know what you want to hear, and we will tell you what you want to hear.  Why?  That's far more complicated.  I think it's partly a trust issue, partly a matter of fear, partly a desire to appear "smart," partly for simplicity's sake.  It's not a phenomenon unique to the developing world.  I believe it happens in every country or situation where there's a population or individual comparatively under-served.  It's human.

So what do we do as development workers?  I think we need to be more sensitive and spend more time.  More than we probably think.  I believe we also need to be honest with ourselves.  Solutions to community-wide issues are not going to come strictly from the individuals who happen to speak the same languages as us, or the same language as our interpreters.  They are not only going to come from the chiefs or communities leaders.  They probably won't come in weeks or months; they may not come for years.  If we can see that a project is far less effective just because we (the one initiating it) are who we are.  We need to step away, even if it means the project will "fail."  Development can't be about deadlines.  Miss the deadline, find people who you believe really can implement the project because they are who they are, and set a new deadline.  Easier said than done, of course.  But what is more important is the reality.


  1. can I ask, please, what answers you would get if you were to ask your neighbours that question?

  2. This is a good question, however, a very complex one to answer. I'm going to write at least one more post about this to discuss the issue in more depth. However, to answer your question as simply as possible: My neighbors would not give me a list of items they felt needed addressed in our community. Instead, they would start (and do start) talking about the problems they face personally each day. They may have to do with community leadership, their farms, the market, or their families to mention some examples. They don't necessarily have any of these issues formally diagnosed with potential solutions. They just start telling me their story, and we discuss. Some days great ideas come from our discussions. Some days they don't.

  3. Loved the post and the point of view. It's sometimes difficult to explain it to people who 'want to help' and might have all the good intentions in the world. They might be doing more harm than good.