Means Justifying the Ends

Development efforts are often portrayed as having one destination: ending poverty.  One need only to read the newspaper to see examples of the diversity of projects with poverty alleviation as their goal: flashlights to midwives in Africa, malaria nets distributed within global malarial zones, microloans in Central America, and education for poor girls in Brazil.  All projects are classified as development, all with aims to make the world a better place for a certain group of people.  New membership organizations work to provide one umbrella under which all of these organizations can stand together in support of more effective and efficient aid and development.  They are fostering greater discussion about the importance of keeping our commitments to the world’s poor.

Implicit in most of these conversations about development is the notion that the end justifies the means.  Feeding starving Haitians is more important than how one goes about procuring the food.  Getting indigenous Hondurans access to capital takes priority over the process of  building capacity that allows local communities to shift the balance of power within their country’s economy.  Implementing a program becomes more important than who implements it, making it good business to send in the ex-pat director rather than invest in local administrators.  For our part, we all want to make the world a better place, so the detail of how we go about doing it comes off as technical minutia in the face of good will.

But as President Obama declared exactly one year ago today, “Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term.”   Indeed, I have grown impatient with people as I share aspects of my work, to which they inevitably respond with an explanation how they are helping the poor too by giving money to projects that to my ear reaffirm exactly those notions of charity that save lives in the short term but do nothing to change societies over time.  How do we get broad-based discussion about the relevance of the methods and approaches by which we engage with poor communities around the world?

One way is to create more opportunities for these discussions to take place.  The Social Change Collaboratory is partnering with One Equal Heart Foundation to create a forum for grassroots organizations focused on the how of development.  Our goal is to provide the space in which we can come together and strengthen our network of like-minded NGOs whose work is defined by these characteristics:

  • Relationship-based.  Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the community of focus.  Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
  • Local decision-making.  Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
  • Learning community.  All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.

We want to expand our own learning community and amplify examples of community-driven social change projects.  Over time, we want to use the partnerships that we have with amazing social change leaders around the world to create bridges that bring their voices into on-going conversations about development.  We believe that investing ourselves in understanding the means of social change will result in a world in which more communities have capacity from within to care for their most disadvantaged.

Our first meeting will take place in mid-October in Seattle.  While our focus is on building a community of leaders who are able to meet face-to-face, we welcome information about any organization committed to these characteristics.  I will use future posts to share the results of these gatherings.

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