The scene was all too familiar. There we were, a group of volunteers, education specialists, medical students, and development professionals, installed in our plastic chairs, bewildered and bearing plastered smiles. In the dilapidated schoolhouse dozens of excited community members, namely parents of the school’s pupils, sat across from us on wooden benches, staring. The mid-afternoon quiet had set in, farmers took reprieve from the 3 o’clock sun, now dancing around the schoolhouse as it skirted battered, corrugated metal “walls.” We had called a meeting with a specific group of parents to workshop a community savings scholarship initiative for needy children in the 8th class, and to discuss our project in their community. This being Africa meant that the workshop would involve innumerable speeches and introductions, and that, respect-be-paid, it would be hosted by a high-ranking school administrator, in his finest suit.
The scene proceeded to reflect countless ones before it, and we listened politely, waiting impatiently to commence the meeting, our feet digging patterns into the earthen floor. We were eager to introduce ourselves and clarify our suggested intentions for the project. We wished to explain to them that Become is a registered NGO, run entirely by volunteers, and whose donations have a 0% overhead, that aims to provide holistic aid to orphans and vulnerable children as well as strengthen communities that host them. We wanted to explain that the current project in their community was led by local community mobilizing extraordinaire Sylvia, a registered nurse and her husband Emmanuel, also local, a successful community development practitioner, not by us. We wanted to explain that our aim was to reinforce existing infrastructure that already generated enough income to support their various activities. These included, but were not limited to, hosting orphans, maintaining an innovative demonstration garden, social programs and care for local widows, advocacy initiatives for children with disabilities and community health trainings.
Before we had a chance, the MC of the event then informed the parents that we would be there to support whatever it was they needed and invited them to please, one by one, ask us for financial support. And it came to be that even this isolated community, tucked away in the crevices behind Lake Victoria, had been affected by a century of missionaries and foreign aid. They had internalized the concept of white money for black suffering, as had we, perhaps, as we began frantically rephrasing our proposal for the village savings group, into which the money we had tirelessly fundraised would play a part.
So what efforts did we take to ensure that our project would not reflect the development models preceding us, the ones that paved the way for our target community, like countless others, to expect donations that are likely to build only more dependency? We followed the lead of the local experts who have been doing this work in their community for years, and developed a partnership with them, rather than imposing our ideas for an intervention.
While this is certainly not reinventing the development wheel, it is obvious that being responsive to the needs and capabilities of the local population as well as the systems in which they live will enable success in the three components we used in developing our model for a successful intervention.
The first critical component in instigating a development intervention is nurturing public-private relationships within the target community. Supporting income generating, social enterprises in developing communities is beneficial only so far as the extent of their linkages within the social and political systems around them. A business only has the potential for sustainable growth if it upholds national or regional standards or exists as a part of an official framework. While most relevant interventions to this model are small-scale NGO operations, larger scale, national level programming reflects the concept of using partnerships to strengthen both public systems and private enterprises.
For small-scale development initiatives, a smaller-scale model can be applied. Reinforcing resource limited health institutions, for example, with private or non-profit resources can ensure that resources are not unnecessarily spread thin and promote the growth of systems that already have a stronghold in the region of intervention.
Become’s intervention in the Kochia region of Kenya, carefully designed together with community members, works to reinforce an existing clinic that already brings not only health services into the region, but also raises awareness about relevant health issues, as well as serves as income generation to sustain other community-led initiatives.
The second key component in constructing a successful development intervention is the engagement of local communities in planning stages of the projects, or engaging in a partnership with an existing, locally instigated initiative. Large-scale development interventions may seek the import of a model irrelevant to the communities in which the program intervenes. On a similar note, many small-scale development interventions derive out of benevolent ideas conjured up by do-gooders with ambition. These do-gooders may even come equipped with research, personal connections in the region and experience with successful projects with similar models. However, this is not enough. When an intervention is not developed together with the community towards which it is targeted, it very well may miss opportunities that lie in the capabilities of communities and focus on issues not relevant to the community at hand. Development interventions need to be planned wisely and respectfully, as damage may otherwise inadvertently be done to existing community dynamics and efforts. Engaging in an existing project that follows the logic of “we would have been fine without you, but thanks for your partnership!” is key towards a successful intervention. Putting the engagement of the beneficiary community from the beginning as first priority is a critical step towards ensuring true ownership over initiatives, good governance and lasting sustainability.
Become’s intervention in Kochia was designed precisely because of the existing work being fulfilled by local leaders. The involvement in developing a solid clinic and facilitating health trainings aims only to strengthen existing resources, and give a push to an already upwardly mobile initiative. It is crucial that when Become leaves, the project rests upon the solid potential to continue afterwards. The idea of forming a partnership with an existing program leads the way to the third and final component of a successful development intervention.
The establishment or strengthening of sustainable human infrastructure that will long outlive the involvement of the intervening NGO must be a top priority for development interventions. Pouring physical resources into programs without ensuring that they, at the very least, strengthen the ability of the project to sustain itself afterwards is a direct plea for immediate project failure. While this stands out as a major challenge for development practitioners, a few elements should be included in programming such as planning that puts a focus on NGO exit strategies, involving local institutions in the longevity of the project, and creating partnerships with local government initiatives and private ventures.
So back in the schoolhouse, how did we maintain a positive relationship with an eager and expectant crowd, while attempting to deconstruct a century strong set of expectations? We praised not the donors of Become, though to them we are eternally grateful, but the work they, as a community, were already doing. We emphasized the virtues of partnership and stressed the values of idea sharing, rather than a money-giving relationship. We were transparent with them about the sources of Become’s modest budget and emphasized its limitations, thus clarifying the myth that from abroad comes limitless cash. We work-shopped ideas with them to reach the goals they proposed and came to the mutual conclusion that a fat check from abroad was not the answer to their needs. On the contrary, shared work in developing their existing institutions and pooling local resources to instigate steady upward growth prevailed as a mutual priority.
While Become continues to fundraise and grow, it remains our utmost priority to invest in existing projects that will have lasting impacts in the intervention communities and encourage community engagement when working towards change. We are excited by the success of the project in the Kochia region and plan to use adapted versions of this model in future interventions.
Ben Vorspan is the co-director of Become in Israel. He holds an M.A. in Community Development Studies and has extensive experience in education for various vulnerable groups. With years of development experience in West, Become’s budget is mostly comprised of individual, private donors giving small amounts and emphasized its limitations, Central and Eastern Africa, Ben just returned from the Nyanza province, Kenya, where he helped coordinate a project in which 9 volunteer specialists participated.
Become is a registered NGO in Israel, which functions thanks to the dedication of its professional and experienced volunteers, and the generosity of dozens of private, individual donors. The organization holds fundraising events in Israel and has projects in Kenya and South Sudan. As new programs are being developed, the NGO’s mission and interventions work according to principles of respect for local communities, collaborative attitude and a high level of professionalism. For more information, visit www.become-world.org.