This article was originally posted at How-Matters.org – a blog arguing that aid effectiveness is not about what we do but HOW we do it!
When Mette Muller, founder of Best Self Experience, shared the following comment on my blog, I knew I wanted to invite her to share her story:
“The grassroots [organizations] that I have worked with have been excellent in seeing development as a process rather than a large checkbox… but many aid workers (sorry sorry sorry for the generalisation) seem to misunderstand this, and project their own ambitions and understanding of what development ‘should’ look like unto grassroots… the cool thing is: most of the grassroots I have worked with in Kenya seem to find a way to maneuver in all this frenzy and still continue their good work!”
When Jennifer invited me to write a guest post for how-matters.org, my first response to her was this: How could I possibly turn all these strong (often angry) feelings and thoughts about how development aid is being run into something sober and rational?
After our email correspondence I though: Am I even interested in sober and rational? I have been so frustrated reading heaps of sober and rational how-to-guides, tools, policy papers, frameworks, white papers… I realised that what I had missed the most in my work as a development professional was… people! Not participants, not target groups, not beneficiaries… just people. And ‘people’ in every aspect, with all their non-sober, irrational human emotions, feelings, thoughts and reactions. I had felt that development work had become more about systems and structures than the actual lived realities of people.
The department in the global NGO for which I worked was new and so we mainly worked with small grants, partnering with small and young grassroots groups living and working in Nairobi’s informal settlements. We did everything together, from research and data collection, to defining the goals of the project and which activities and processes were needed to reach these goals. We drew up budgets together and decided on how to evaluate and monitor the projects.
Doing everything together of course meant that full ownership of the project was being ensured (which should really be a given in any project). However, what I found the most important was that we actually got to know each other very well. And this made the biggest difference to our projects! I and the local facilitators and coordinators understood our partners. We understood why they might be delayed with a report, why spending was slower in certain times of the year and so forth. And even more importantly, we understood the personal sacrifice and struggle that many of the grassroots volunteers were making to actually create a better community.
But as our department grew and as income became even more important in order to sustain our programs, my work became more a matter of income targets and how to motivate (read: force) local southern-based partners to implement faster and spend more. To me, development aid had become yet another production machine – a conveyor belt mechanism, where effectiveness meant speed, production and income, rather than the well-being and growth of those involved.
As the grants became bigger, it became more and more difficult to focus solely and intensely on the small grassroot sgroups, and they seemed to get lost in the frenzy of income targets, reporting, spending, and ‘effectiveness’.
I was burnt out. I lost sight of the task at hand. I did not feel we were changing the world. On the contrary, most of the time I felt that we were doing more harm than good. I felt that we were causing more burnout and stress amongst the grassroots volunteers, loading more and more projects, involving more and more training, onto them. I didn’t feel that they were getting the quality support and help they needed in order to lift the heavy task of improving their own community.
We were training volunteers to become counsellors for families to children with disabilities and to literally knock on the doors of strangers to talk to them about their children, who are heavily discriminated by the rest of the community. Would I be able to do that without adequate support, understanding, guidance, mentoring, coaching, counselling or healing? NO!
I have never had more respect for other people than I have for those community volunteers who dedicate more than half of their daily lives to supporting other people who are in more difficult situations than them! But where was the understanding, and where was the support?
After I left my full-time programme coordinator job, I returned to Nairobi to visit my old friends working and volunteering at the grassroots. I realised that what I had been feeling was in fact true. Many of the volunteers are stressed. They do not feel that they are able to fully lift their weight. They are frustrated, and thus they sometimes forget all the good they are actually doing. They do an amazing job, but they feel a lot of struggle… and wouldn’t you, if you had to save the world, at the same time as constantly being told what to do, being told to make activities more effective, that you are too slow and therefore have to speed up the work you are doing, to write detailed reports for everything you do, and AT THE SAME TIME not being given an appropriate space to at least voice your complaints, frustrations, worries, feelings, thoughts and fears?
So, whatever happened to humanity?
What happened to the person, the human being and their lived reality in all the systems and structures that we now call ‘development aid’? It seems that empathy, compassion and understanding towards those people who are getting their hands dirty in the communities is rarely seen as a vital element of a good project. But what would happen if ‘empathy’, ‘understanding’ and ‘compassion’ became equally important buzzwords as ‘capacity,’ ‘ownership’ and ‘participation’ within aid effectiveness? Are these words too soft and irrational for the toughness and rationality of the development world – or could they be the missing piece in the puzzle?
If you want to meet some of these amazing volunteers, check out these videos: