Author: Vuyiswa Sidzumo
It started with a simple request – you would think – for donkeys and carts.
One day, someone gives me a leaflet from an organization asking for donations to buy donkeys and carts for home-based careworkers in the Northern Cape.
My immediate reaction is: “brilliant!”
In my excited state, I forward the call to as many people as I can, including my friends, none of whom work in the nonprofit sector. I conclude that for once, someone has listened. I immediately conclude that no development worker can come up with this kind of idea (no offense, but I consider myself a development worker too), mainly for three reasons:
1) we’re generally not that creative;
2) we often believe development solutions need to be complex and sophisticated; and
3) for fear of appearing to patronize communities.
Without asking many questions, I conclude this is the voice of the local women coming through this pamphlet and I like that. I like it a lot.
So, imagine my dismay when I receive responses from my non-NGO friends.
Some are shocked, even angered, by this initiative.
How dare anyone patronise rural people like that? Who in their right mind, in 2013, would think buying donkeys for people is developmental? Don’t get me wrong, they are impressed by what these caseworkers are doing and their selflessness, but for crying out loud, give them donkeys for their efforts?
So, I get suggestions about escalating the initiative to buying a car. Some even offer to get support from their networks so the money could stretch to paying for drivers and maintenance.
I try to respond to all the concerns, aware that my well-meaning friends are trying to impose their world views, and their middle-class take, on the problem. I am mindful that this is typically how development is undertaken.
I am also painfully reminded that many of us have never lived under the conditions we’re trying to improve, yet we do not have the humility to let those affected inform us.
I assure my friends that this is the preferred mode of transport for these women, as they know the condition of the roads in their areas. I tell them stories of other do-gooders who’ve tried to impose solutions to people’s problems without being asked. I tell them that I can point to many communities that have received similar donations, where the cars have become part of the landscape. I beg them to, at a minimum, go to the communities and listen without any preconceived ideas, then decide. It mostly falls on deaf ears, but two of them offer to contribute. I feel victory. Two out of ten is not bad — Rome was not built in one day. The irony is that while my friends don’t get it, my 16-year old daughter immediately offers to contribute half her allowance for that month. I’m amazed that she gets it, but then she’s her mother’s daughter after all.
This, for me, is the story of development. We devise solutions in board rooms far away from where the problems are felt. When those affected try to voice their opinions, at best we ignore them, and at worst we presume we know better.
We are quick to assure on-lookers that “yes, we’ve consulted the community.”
In reality, we go to them with a set of questions, choose the answers we want to hear, and pretend it is the will of the people. Then we complain that development initiatives are not yielding the desired results (the discussions, of course, are taking place in yet more boardrooms). Big surprise.
We talk about the billions pumped into Africa in the past 50 odd years, and the fact that there’s little to show for it, but we never look at ourselves as the biggest part of the problem. In South Africa, our new pastime is complaining about people being too dependent on the state, what with all the social grants, free housing, etc., that have become the burden of the taxpayer.
In these discussions we often forget our role in creating this dependence, from a state that promises to do everything, to NGOs that provide supply driven-solutions to people’s problems.
So, where to go from here? Let me disappoint you, dear reader, by admitting I have no clue. As I told someone recently, if I did, I would probably win the Nobel Peace Prize. I am in no way discounting the amazing work that the development industry, broadly speaking, has done and continues to do
. I still believe it has an important role to play. I do feel, however, that we need to do a lot of introspection, we so-called development workers, at all levels.
We need to make the next 50 years an exciting time for Africa, and that starts by listening more.
Vuyiswa Sidzumo is Director: South Africa for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and is a regular contributor to this site