OVP’s Sierra Leone-based staff recently gathered to watch the film, Poverty, Inc. We followed the film with a lively discussion on poverty, foreign aid, Africa’s development future and the “poverty industry” as we know it. OVP operates differently than a lot of development organizations: we work directly with community people and we strive to be fully inclusive in our approach to community development.
We believe community people are the most knowledgeable and most effective agents for creating their own change. However, we recognize that we are a part of a larger, macro-level system that aims to alleviate poverty in the world’s most vulnerable places. Discussions around foreign aid on a macro-level are important to keep us grounded in our own principles and to continue learning and adapting our work to be the most effective it can be.
NOW Manager Maada Koroma called the documentary, “a motivational film for African development” and recounted how the film has really reignited his belief that OVP is doing things the right way, really empowering the local people to create sustainable change.
Brima Lansana, Community Projects Coordinator, recalled a story from Maloma, a community OVP has partnered with and one that has just started implementing a latrine project through the Community Action Program. Brima shared, “I had a book out and the community all started coming over looking for supplies and I had to tell them to think about all the positive things you can do with the resources you have right here.”
This is a prime example of how OVP sees donor dependency often times exhibited in Sierra Leone. Communities expect that NGOs bring them material goods or support. What they don’t expect often is capacity-building through partnership. OVP looks to local resources, both human and material resources, to drive development and lower dependency on external actors.
Just like the example about a very popular social venture in the film, you cannot just plan to keep giving shoes away to people and expecting that those same people never want to get out of a situation where they have to rely on the developed world for shoes.
Ghanaian software entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse was a prominent narrator in the film. Brima mentioned that Herman’s ideas really resonated with him and the OVP approach – “Africa needs to solve their own problems, they need to be guided and that is just what OVP is doing – guiding communities to achieve their own vision.”
Nurturing Opportunities for Women Coordinator, Foday Sesay said, “If you think about giving money out, of course that money will be exhausted, but if you invest that money in communities, the benefits are truly long-lasting.”
There is a tendency in the West to view the poor as helpless, without resources to get out of poverty. Sheku Gassimu, Community Projects Supervisor shared that “development has just become the idealism of developed nations, the prominent ideology that has been spread is that poor people lack capacity, ideas, and this ultimately leads to a big power difference in development.”
The film really focuses not on the lack of resources because of course Africa has many resources – but instead the focus is really on the lack of access to markets, opportunities, and upward mobility.
Muje Belmoh, Community Projects Coordinator, mentions how communities see themselves in this light too sometimes, but the way OVP engages with them to become knowledgeable about their own resources and how to use them is driving change within their communities.
The poor face many challenges but we can’t expect to break the cycle of poverty with handouts. We have to look at the world’s most vulnerable as the primary actors in their own future, we need to look to empowerment, capacity-building and local resource management to affect sustainable, long-lasting change and self-reliance. That is after all, the ultimate goal.