How do we give communities in need the material resources they require to address their needs, while supporting them in maintaining their independence and recognising the cultural and spiritual riches they have to offer the world?
Additionally, how can we ensure that they have a voice in the global community?
Katrin Macmillan, founder of Projects For All, is busy addressing this problem on a practical level with a bold, "community-first" approach to development. With a mission of fostering community ownership of development projects, our team at Projects For All has been working together with communities in Africa on a series of innovative and creative projects. In Nigeria, we have assisted communities in learning how to build houses from recycled plastic bottles, and we are supporting local women in the production of soap and shea butter as a means of developing local businesses.
We are also implementing Hello Hubs in Nigeria, which are solar-powered Internet kiosks that provide children and adults access to the Internet. We are working on bringing our Hello Hubs to India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya. These Hello Hubs give community residents access to vast educational resources, the opportunity to communicate with others around the world and perhaps most importantly, a voice in the global community.
While we at Projects For All recognize the importance of aid, we also recognize that the aid industry faces complex problems, with no magic bullet solutions. It can be argued that a major blind-spot in the field of development economics is its inability to conceive of alternative ways of knowing. The value of culture and community empowerment is often either dismissed, or, at best, discussed as only superficially relevant. One of the central features of Projects For All is its commitment to placing the power of economic and educational self-determination in the hands of local populations. We owe it to communities to share our technological expertise, but we must be aware of what we have to learn from these communities, first and foremost. As Dr. Geoffrey Wells, Trustee of Projects For All, notes:
“Development aid fundamentally is like any other human interaction: it’s a relationship between people. Like any human relationship, it only works if there is a mutual exchange. The fundamentals of human relationships anywhere apply here as well. There needs to be a platform of respect, and that is an unconditional position.
Respect is due: to people as people, to groups as groups, to each other as we interact with each other. And along with that comes learning, which flows out of respect. It’s because you respect people’s values, abilities, attributes and cultural riches that you are in a position to learn. The attitude of an aid agency going into that kind of relationship, in my view, can very fruitfully be framed as learning.”
Philosopher and educator Paulo Freire has noted that throughout our lives we acquire knowledge largely from dominant sources of power, and that true learning is a process that involves critically reflecting on what we have been taught, and by whom, about the world in which we live, as well as reflecting on our own experiences and the experiences of others. Freire expands the roles of the teachers and students, acknowledging that both have much to learn from each other. At Projects For All, we believe that development aid work should attempt to mirror this process, to create an environment in which we, as development practitioners, adopt the roles of both student and teacher.
Developing critical awareness of our social reality involves both reflection and action. In this blog, it is my goal to establish a community where we are able to critically reflect upon our acquired knowledge regarding the role of aid in economic development initiatives, and discuss together potential modes of action. Topics of discussion will likely include the following: how we can begin establishing the legitimacy of indigenous knowledge in development initiatives; what we can learn from the communities we work with; the importance of incorporating qualitative analysis, as well as quantitative, into project development and evaluation; how we can envision approaches to development that are not another version of modern day imperialism; and why it is important to place the success of communities at a higher level of importance than the success of any organisation. We also hope to use this blog as a space where members of the communities we work with can share their stories and histories, as well as provide input on our own work.
We invite you to explore our website and follow our blog, as well as provide feedback, ask questions, and join the discussion as we attempt to engage with some of the most important issues facing development aid work today.
Written by: Ashley Dixon