A recent conversation brought to mind Gandhi’s observation “Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me…” I’d been facilitating a strategic process with an organisation whose executive director told me about an earlier experience with strategic planning in 2008: “… [it] didn’t really help us move forward, it wasn’t the right time and we never asked for it. Our partner was concerned about our organisational development; they wanted to use this process to identify our strengths and weaknesses and generate a capacity building plan, but it was their idea, their project, not ours. It was supposed to be something positive but it felt like an imposition, a constraint that hung over us like the sword of Damocles.”
This discussion made me think about several questions:
- Are our good intentions enough to ensure that we have a positive impact, that the support we offer will actually change things for the people that we’re helping?
- What if, despite our best efforts, our interventions have a negative effect (inhibiting change)?
- How can we make sure that we are always aware of the ‘human and social footprint’ we leave behind?
How often do those of us who work in the development sector get together in our offices to devise strategies and plan actions that are supposed to help ‘beneficiaries’ and improve their living conditions? How many projects are designed miles away from the people who will be affected by them? Surely we do this in a spirit of altruism, with the best of intentions?
It is often said that ‘these people’ (the beneficiaries) have got used to receiving handouts, that they lack initiative and need to take charge of their own future. Sometimes these comments could be justified by the fact that it’s hard to see how things have changed. Development assistance is often criticised for failing to produce results or transfer skills, for being inefficient, wasting money and resources, and for not being appropriated, sustainable or cost-effective, etc.
So isn’t it time to stop for a minute and take a good hard look at what’s happening? In her book Time_to_Think, Nancy Kline talks about the desire to make things better for others, worrying on their behalf and thinking that we are better placed than they are to decide what’s good for them. She describes it as a form of INFANTILISATION: a profound concern for others’ well-being that is accompanied by a deep-seated (often unconscious) desire to make oneself indispensable.
This is often done in the name of a good cause and justified by the argument that we’re helping other people. It happens at every level in the development sector – in bilateral aid, in the relationships between donors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), between international and national NGOs, and between these NGOs and local communities – and is reflected in the leadership styles and relations between team members within different organisations.
This kind of infantilisation hinders development at every level (societal, organisational and individual) because it stops people from thinking and acting for themselves. Think what could happen if we allowed people to decide what they want and enabled them to do it themselves; if we channelled our desire to help into developing a real understanding of local people’s priorities. Practitioners at every level should aim to create an environment that allows people to think for themselves. If we are going to do this we will all have to embrace a new type of learning and acquire new skills.
From now on, I have decided to ask myself the three following questions before I take any action:
- Why do I want to help this person or organisation?
- What does this person or organisation really want? What are their priorities?
- How can they be helped? And what can be done to ensure that they won’t always need me?
That’s it from me. Now let’s hear what you’re going to do to make sure that your support is relevant and effective. Post your ideas on the comments page!