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[VIDEO] Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen!

February 01, 2013 | By Dina Buck

"If you are coming to help us, you are wasting your time.  But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together." -Aboriginal Elders

During the summer of 2010, while working in Uganda, a friend of mine took it upon herself to learn more about the advocacy efforts in the northern part of the country.  She was told an interesting story about a development project in northern Uganda.

An organization decided to build wells closer to some villages so women wouldn't have to walk 10 miles a day to collect water.  After the wells were completed, to the organization's great surprise, the women continued to use the original wells farther out. When they asked the women why, the women said it was because going to the wells allowed them the only time they could have to themselves.

This story is not unlike the (very humorously told) story Ernesto Sirolli shares in the above TED video.

Sirolli once worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that implemented projects in different parts of Africa.  He says that, despite desperately wanting to do good, everything the organization touched, it "killed."  He says literally all of the organization's development projects failed.  And not just his organization's projects, but the projects implemented by other Western NGOs, too.  Why?

The Top-Down Approach...Past is Prologue

To help us understand, Sirolli shares the example of a specific agricultural project his organization implemented in southern Zambia.  His organization decided to teach locals how to grow food since they didn't practice agriculture, despite living in a fertile valley that was perfect for it.

When the local residents were uninterested in growing food, his organization paid them to do it, never asking them why they weren't interested, and why they didn't practice agriculture in the first place, despite such perfect growing conditions.  He says he and his colleagues held an attitude of "Thank God we're here. Just in the nick to time to save the Zambian people from starvation."

They grew their big beautiful vegetables, and just as they were about to be ready for harvesting, hippos came up from the river and ate everything.

One thing a Westerner might immediately wonder is, why didn't anyone speak up in Zambia, or in Uganda?  Sirolli says the reason his organization didn't learn about the hippos beforehand was because it never asked.  This demonstrates cultural differences that Westerners often fail to learn about (read here about low-context and high-context communication styles and the concept of "outer and inner circles"). The approach that Westerners tend to take when working in the developing world also can create barriers.

The overall Western approach, says Sirolli, is often either patronizing, or paternalistic.  Both words, he notes, come from the word "pater" or "father."  Western development aid, Sirolli argues, tends to take a top-down approach.  We tend to enter into situations with pre-determined ideas and assumptions, and then spend a lot of time bending everything to fit our ideas.  This includes spending time telling locals what it is they need and want, rather than finding out what they needed and wanted before we swooped in with our notions of rescue.

The Consequences of Not Shutting Up & Listening

Sirolli mentions something he learned from E.F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful; you don't help people if they don't want to be helped.  And when help is wanted, the key to effective aid is to enter situations without preconceptions, and without initiating and motivating people.  Instead, you shut-up and listen in order to find out what people already wish to ask for, what they are already passionate about making happen for their own growth, and respond to that.

The fact that it is difficult for Westerners to conceive of approaching situations like this means we waste enormous amounts of money, time, and resources.  This recent article talks about how the World Bank's own investigators have found that US $4.1 billion the organization has invested in forestry projects in the last 10 years has failed to alleviate rural poverty.  Reasons cited include "not involving communities in decision-making," "assuming benefits would accrue to the poor rather than the rich and powerful," and not actually paying attention to rural poverty.  This last point is especially frustrating considering the World Bank exists expressly to alleviate global poverty.

By not actually paying attention to the very thing we think we are paying attention to, the development aid we offer can end up being ineffective or, at worst, causing inadvertent harm.

Listening, Learning, Respecting, Catalyzing

There are, of course, numerous organizations that do take alternative approaches, and sustainably empower people.  Many of them tend to be smaller, working closely with a specific group of people, or in a circumscribed region.

Some do much of their functioning at the direction of their constituents, only making decisions after getting the go-ahead from them.  For example, the organization I worked with in Uganda works in partnership with the indigenous Batwa there, taking almost all its direction from them.  No decision is made unless and until the Batwa approve of it through a democratic decision-making process.  Their approach has allowed them to make impressive strides in helping the most marginalized communities in Uganda re-build their lives.

The Pachamama Alliance was formed in response to an invitation from the Achuar people, who wanted citizens of the modern world help them spread their message that the Global North's overconsumption, and its reliance on fossil fuels, threatens to literally destroy them.  Our sister organization, Fundación Pachamama, is based in Ecuador, and carries out on-the-ground work with the Achuar.  Our work with the Achuar is based on understanding that they have much to teach us, at the same time that we can offer them the tools of the modern world to catalyze their mission.

And Sirolli's Enterprise Facilitation organization supports sustainable economic development through the principles he discusses in his talk. By helping local entrepreneurs gain the knowledge they need to make their dreams come true, he fosters a grassroots economy that he believes will birth a "green economy."

These approaches all incorporate a willingness to listen and learn, be led rather than do all the leading, and catalyze rather than control.  Realizing a world where humans and the environment can find an equilibrium depends on doing things in a way that many Westerners might call "the long way 'round."  When it comes to development aid, like the Slow Food Movement, maybe we should have something like "slow aid." What do you think?

Further resources and reading:

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