A touch of humility needed

As we begin another year of attempting to tackle the ills that plague our society, I can’t help reflecting on my contribution. I am struck by a feeling that the biggest enemy facing us in the social development sector (or citizen sector, as David Bornstein puts it in his book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas) is self-deception.

The more I look critically at my work and the work of those around me (including the government), the more I find that we seem to have a warped sense of reality.

Development work by well-meaning NGOs often fails to reap benefits because strategies employed are often foreign to local communities' culture, argues the writer. Credit: ING

We speak in lofty terms about “indicators” and “outputs” and boast about our achievements and impact (just look at any NGO or government department’s annual report to see what I mean).

Yet, the major problems we have to eradicate – like poverty, ill-health, poor education – continue unabated. In fact, Bornstein makes the point that the impact of civil-society organisations as a whole falls far short of their numbers.

My observation is that we miss the mark – at least in the South African context – because we make fatal mistakes like the following:

People are simply expected to adopt ideas and practices developed in faraway lands “for their own good”. This creates an unnatural and unsustainable state and the intervention, despite its good intentions, is doomed to failure.

And the success of an intervention elsewhere, even if it’s the community next door, does not guarantee success in a different area.

On the other hand, experience has shown that such practices very often have negative consequences – dependency, failure to take good care of the benefit received and/or poor commitment of participants to the project.

My observation (untested) is that this type of practice is often patronising and undermines the dignity of the individual. In any case, it hardly ever leads to long-lasting success. I have noticed that people will show greater commitment where they feel that they have worked for and earned a benefit.

Not only have the organisations that were supporting these communities had to drastically scale down their operations (if not close down altogether), but the communities have been left in the lurch, without an alternative source of support.

I have seen several examples where no preparations were made for the day that funding would finally cease, and so no alternatives were in place. Instead, we (as practitioners) play the role of victim and encourage our community partners to criticise the donor.

This shortcoming, and the one before it, makes me think that many NGOs find acceptance in a particular community and never think of themselves as leaving. It should be our aim, but is oh so difficult, to work ourselves out of our jobs.

It’s a bit like politicians telling the public to tighten their belts as they buy flashy cars and houses for themselves.

To me, this last point is at the heart of why most of our development efforts fail. When it comes right down to it, in our innermost beings, we are perhaps not quite in solidarity with our community partners as we would like to believe.

As much as we claim compassion and care for others, they are still very much that – “others”. Different from us, “beneficiaries” and “participants”, to whom we reach out with our well-meaning projects, but not really with all of our beings.

And with our hearts in the wrong place, we can’t hope to get any of the above shortcomings right. In fact, we are doomed to repeat them over and over, while justifying our positions and seeking scapegoats for our failures.

So what is the solution? I don’t know. I suspect that a touch of humility and an openness to learning, in particular from those we have come to “teach”, but also from one another, would go a long way towards creating and sustaining the “real” impact we desire.