Author: Chad McCordic, Program Director
“Water is a basic need.” Yes, but have you ever wondered why we refer to a need as ‘basic’? The answer depends on who decides what the need is and who determines how to meet that need…
When I’m back in Canada and casually asked about what OneVillage Partners does, I say, “We help villages plan and implement their own development projects.” Once in a while, I get a curious look back and they ask, “Yes…but what do you do?” Many of us in the West equate community development work in Africa with physically doing something. We have visions of digging wells, building schools, or delivering medicine and materials. The scale of the challenges faced in rural Africa can seem shocking, especially those things that are obviously lacking, like clean drinking water. For those who are concerned about global justice and wellbeing, that spurs action, or at least a “What can I do to help?” There is a perception that in order to really help people, you must be physically involved, taking action, often on behalf of those you’re helping. This impulse has been perpetuated by the media and marketing from some charities, depicting either sad or smiling children, depending on whether the agency has or has not “met their needs.”
This yearning for action and accomplishment, of filling an evident lack, is so ingrained in our culture of charity that we have a tendency to simplify the problems further. Those “basic” needs are perceived as more basic, and our collective response to “meeting them” becomes even more basic: “For just $1 a day, you can change a life…” So it’s easy to conjure images of a straightforward yet simplistic response to poverty. We comfort ourselves into thinking a ‘quick fix’ is possible, and this helps the complexity of those needs seem less daunting. We find it hard to imagine some of the real work that must be done:
sitting in dialogue with a community.
This dialogue that the village engages in with OneVillage Partners is about what their needs truly are, as they define them as well as what is stopping them from meeting those needs. Sometimes these needs are simple to highlight, with tangible responses, but sometimes even agreeing upon a need can be difficult. From this dialogue, a community can better understand and create a vision of improved quality of life. This conversation isn’t simplistic; it is a deeply reflective and inclusive process. The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire calls this “Praxis,” that is, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” For Freire, true liberation for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed was in that discussion. From this dialogue would come awareness of their own situation, a “critical consciousness,” a big picture of their needs as a community and also of the systems that have kept them from meeting those needs in the first place.
This is what an ‘action’ oriented discussion is for us. Once a village knows the need to be met, it inspires a flowing response that inspires and equips all community members. The community discussions facilitated by OneVillage Partners progress organically from reflection to awareness, to planning and then action. And of course, as for any organic processes, it can be messy and chaotic, but it is also a joyful experience that can powerfully move people to accomplish more in solidarity than they ever thought possible.
It is still easier to understand when there is a lack of something, and unfortunately, that’s a common perception when outsiders view poor Sub-Saharan African communities: their definition of the village is based on what isn’t there. We want to change that. We think the discussion on needs should be focused on what is already there, not just on which “basic” thing is lacking.
In other words, it’s easy to see that a community needs clean drinking water, but if people understood what clean drinking water would mean to them, what the material, social, and even spiritual benefits to their wellbeing would be by having clean drinking, and what they could do about it right away, they would have power. Power to make better decisions on how to bring clean water to their village. Power to better protect their clean water. Power to ensure their children will grow up with enough clean water. This is why OneVillage Partners helps communities define their own needs and define their own response to meeting those needs. This is what we do, and it’s complicated, messy, and hard to describe, but oh so vital.
Basically, this about power. Statistics on water access, checklists on “Basic Needs Met,” and sad posters of children…none of those give power. Power is found between us, as we discuss our needs together, and when we decide, all of us together, what we can do about it.