All types of development have the same thing in common: good intentions. These good intentions, however, do not always translate into a positive impact on the individuals they are directed towards. Development ideology has shifted over the years from a traditional approach driven by economic growth, to a modern belief that development should holistically incorporate a variety of sectors such as health, education and livelihoods into individual projects, and, most importantly, it should put local people first. I believe that OneVillage Partners (OVP) is taking this modern approach and pushing it even further towards true Community-Led Development.
In Sierra Leone—and all over the world—you can easily see projects with good intentions that never reach their full potential. A dry water well or empty market place, for example, that ends up being left abandoned because the community did not see a need for it in the first place. Often, an intention to do something that seems needed (like give money, food or other items outside of emergency situations) can be a one-time investment with no follow-up or ongoing support. This may create or perpetuate a cycle of dependency; community members and individuals become apathetic towards their own development with the expectation that someone will come along and improve their situation for them. Helping others seems easy and straightforward, but impactful and sustainable development is not that simple.
The question is, “How do we make sure our good intentions are good?” First, we must change our vocabulary and the way we think about the “poor.” It is vital that we recognize that definitions of “poor” and “rich” cannot be limited to quantitative measures only (i.e. by income or GDP, or access to resources), but must consider qualitative aspects as well.
Sierra Leoneans, like many people around the world, may lack access to some basic amenities, but they are far from “poor.” Sierra Leoneans are some of the richest people I know when it comes to family, hospitality to strangers, and an abundance of natural resources. So why do we call them “poor?” We should not be assuming that we have something to give them; we are not just donors and they are not just beneficiaries. Instead, together, we are all participants, coaches, guides and most importantly partners.
Now that we acknowledge that we are working with people, let’s look at two buzzwords in development and ask what participation and sustainability really mean. “Participation” does not just mean that you asked a community member if he/she wants a market in the village. It is simple human nature to say yes when someone is giving you something for free. But maybe that community and person you asked doesn’t need a market because they already go over to the next town to sell their goods. Maybe what they need is something that you have not thought of yet, like business training to help them sell their goods more profitably in the next village.
Meanwhile, sustainability does not mean that a water well is made of strong materials and will last a long time. With true sustainability, if that water well breaks down, community members will not just have been trained to fix it but they will make sure that others in their village know how to fix it for themselves. For an organization to be truly participatory and sustainable, community members and development workers must participate together at all stages of development.
This is how OVP works. This is why we participate in Community-Led Development (CLD); “the process of working together to achieve locally owned visions and goals… focusing not on projects but on systemic change.” To have truly sustainable change, OVP and other organizations cannot just simply construct a water well, or hand out money, food or goods. We must build deep long-lasting skills. To do this successfully, we must listen to the community, we must let the communities lead and truly participate in every step of development so they can fulfil their own self-defined goals. It is not easy and it takes a lot of time and work. But we believe it is essential to create sustainable change.
Since OVP has taken on this inclusive model of Community Led Development, our communities are realizing how important participation is in their own lives. They understand that improving their wellbeing must include everyone in decision making. They make sure their neighbors are also practicing the skills they have learned around good hygienic behaviors because if one person has an unhealthy behavior, it can impact everyone. They are passing on skills they have learned from OVP’s coordinators so that their neighbors can also save money and send their own children to school. This deep participation in our communities, and the systemic positive impact we see because of it, continues to inspire us to push beyond our good intentions, well known buzz words, and even the boundaries of what modern development can mean.