The dilemma of being useful

Development Policy16 Sep 2010Margaret Jansen

Greetings from the Global South. South Africa, more specifically. Rural northeastern South Africa, next to the Kruger National Park, if you’ve got a map handy. A former Capetonian, I’m an infant rural inhabiter. I’ve hardly turned the soil – let alone put down roots – and yet I’m happily certain that this is Home for the next chapter.

But to be perfectly honest – and with the bustling metropolis of Nelspruit, with its 2010 Fifa (TM) Soccer World Cup stadium, a short drive away – I’m ‘rural’ by the skin of my teeth. And yet, right here under the (evidently blocked) noses of the powers that be, you will find the poorest of the poor. Those below the breadline. A sickening majority of the children who, from as young as 12 years, head their households wouldn’t reach the breadline if they stood on their tippy-toes.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is visible by the sheer magnitude of orphans and child-headed households. Walking around the communities in the area, as I’m sure is the case throughout South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, one gets the sense that someone has taken a large pair of scissors and cut an entire generation of middle-aged people, particularly men, from the picture. The statistics are quite literally and very sadly illustrated, so no one can deny there is a problem.

We have a problem. Gogos (grandmothers), often uninfected and strong by virtue of good genes, are left to look after their children’s children and their children’s grandchildren. Many of whom were conceived, unplanned, by young women who would do anything for a bit of food. Kids are missing school because collecting firewood to sell to buy food for the day – their only meal – is more important than the long-term benefits of staying in school. And so I could go on…

I’m here to work with an organisation that works to engage the local church in rural communities (like Coca Cola, you’ll always find a church in a community) in effectively caring for orphans, widows and the sick. The hallmark of the organisation is that it concerns itself with the poorest of the poor, ‘absolute poverty’ in development speak, and provides basic but essential services.

But here there is no room for quick fixes, clever little plans or feel-good food and mosquito-net drop-offs. Because to work here, effectively and without doing harm, time is the main commodity. Time to listen, time to walk and to get to know the community, time to build relationships. Not because it’s fluffy and nice, but because quite frankly an outsider (particularly one with a Western worldview) could never, not even after years of investigation, truly understand the complexities of a different culture, its norms, values, unspoken rules, the intricacies of language or, most significantly, its real needs.

Oh, real needs. How easy it is for us to ‘discern’ what a community, or even a country, needs. Clean drinking water, a school, healthcare… Yes, yes and yes, all very good and admirable ingredients to bake a healthy society. But maybe, before we whip out our pens to draft proposals and erect beautiful buildings in which children are meant to learn, we should take the time to sit with the community and its leaders – the community knows itself better than anyone else – to ask if the children can learn on empty stomachs. Or if they can leave their younger siblings at home and steal precious time away for learning. Or whether they need uniforms in which to attend.

Perhaps children and women’s safety, or fixing soon-to-be-derelict shelters, are more pressing needs, say. Perhaps we’re not the experts. Perhaps our usefulness does not come from our Master degrees and our clever time management techniques. Perhaps what we can bring to the table is far less than we anticipated, and at the same time far more than we ever thought. Perhaps our listening and our asking questions and our subtle suggesting is far more effective. Perhaps showing someone how to draw up a proposal for THEIR idea is far more useful than spending a ton of money on a building that will stand empty because there is no community ownership (and no development worker in sight to sustain it). Perhaps the challenge should be swung around – the change should begin in us.

(I give full credit for a large portion of the thoughts mentioned above to Hands at Work as well as The Warehouse.)