four cups of tea

I had always been skeptical of Greg Mortenson’s work. Anyone who runs around the globe as a sole actor doing good works is opening themselves to lot of potential criticism. The Central Asia Institute seemed to be colonial in nature and mostly all I had heard about was how great Greg Mortenson was not about the level of success of his work. Working and studying international development, Three Cups of Tea was regularly suggested as recommended reading, but I held on to my skepticism and never ventured to read it. It wasn’t until I was working for a US based non-profit with the goal of building schools in developing countries and my older sister gave me the book for my birthday that I began to read Mortenson’s book in Nicaragua while building a school in a remote community.

It was on that trip that my fears of good intentioned non-profits that build schools came true. I witnessed first hand the manipulated stories told to better “sell” the non-profits’ good work. I saw a horrible lack of community engagement and understanding when the founder over stepped our welcome to reprimand the village leaders as if they were school children. I was appalled at the lack of respect for community members that occurred as well as the disempowerment of community members when it came to decisions related to the school building. As I was reading Three Cups of Tea I took away the powerful idea that it takes three cups of tea (or more) to really understand a community, its needs, and find the place where you can help without being an overbearing outsider. Mortenson did well to articulate the point that he went on multiple trips and met with many local stakeholders before starting construction of anything.

If nothing else I hope that Mortenson’s fame and best selling books spread this idea among the general population of people who would like to “do good” around the world. It is a complex task to take on development work and one that can’t be done lightly. Making a difference in the world takes time and patience. You have to develop relationships, meet with leaders and elders, and build credibility among a community as well as better understand community dynamics before you make a large donation let alone build a school or other structure.

Sadly there are many organizations doing more harm than Mortenson that pass under the radar because they know how to look good. Many international development non-profits can easily put on a good face by telling stories and publishing reports, but some are just as worthy of criticism as Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. We can’t continue to have organizations that seek to recreate the exotic travel and heartwarming “good” experiences over and again for their founders’ benefit. How can we better empower communities to work for themselves? How can we better educate future leaders to avoid these pitfalls of international development work? How can we learn to be quiet benefactors?

agency in community development

Previous entry: a first glimpse: zonke

13 May 2008

South Africa is much the same and different as many African countries that I have visited. Same in the sense of the smell of burning oil and gasoline, shipping containers as buildings, the red dirt, the friendly people, passenger vans as taxis, crazy driving, dogs for security, chickens and goats roaming everywhere, and the seemingly common practice of taking things as they come. The differences and nuances come in the country’s history – white minority oppressive rule. White people are not unheard of in this area of Africa and South Africa specifically – uncommon, but not unseen. You get a sense that you are always being watched, but in a different way than what may be experienced in other African countries without such a history. It is more of a, “why are you here” look instead of the, “oh! You are white.” The history of white oppression and the current issue of white organizations taking away from the communities makes the dynamic similar in skepticism, but different in why.

Today there was a meeting of the parents and guardians of the children at the center. I was not surprised to see that the majority of the guardians in attendance were women. The meeting was excellent in that it is incorporating the families and parents with the work of the center, since everyone is working towards the same goal – the children’s future. ‘China’ and another man [Mr. Ndaba] came today – they both work for the Library system and are self-proclaimed educators. For the success of the center it is also vital for the teachers to be interested and involved in the activities of the center. Parents, guardians, librarians, educators, teachers – the center requires a community coalition invested in the children’s future if it is to be a success as well as a strong positive for the future of the community.

In a sense community development has been hindered by the negation of education. Bantu education Acts left the black majority behind and now its effects perpetuate into inadequate schools in remote informal settlements and townships.

We had a tour of Zonkizizwe. There are 2 clinics for the 6 zones of Zonkizizwe Proper. Health services are free, provided by the government and are much used by the residents. I hope to be able to closer look at the health impacts of development and education in Zonke. It seems a pressing issue for many families and children is nutrition [malnutrition] and access to food. I have not yet been able to tell the extent of HIV/AIDS in Zonke, but that will be essential to understanding health and development in South Africa.

As much of what I have seen in African communities there is an incredible potential and energy to make change and improve for the future. The key is now facilitate that for those communities to actualize it themselves. “It takes a village to raise a child” – this idea really seems to be at the root of the African heritage and essential to future understandings of development in Africa. (This is a large generalization, but the basic idea of family structures and how that plays out is important all across Africa when working in development).

Back to the meeting: it was a great way to get community feedback and evaluate progress, programs, and potentially identify actions for the future that can be implemented. The issue I see in coming in the near future is employment. We can only do so much to supplement education, we cannot run schools. When students don’t pass the test for university there needs to be something in place to give them the skills to get trained and employed. My thinking now cuts to the idea of green-collar jobs/ green jobs/ green economy in the US to fight poverty, promote conservation, and cut crime and unemployment. A similar model must be able to work here. We hope to also start a book club in conjunction with the libraries and maybe the schools – this will be important to fostering and sustaining the coalition of teachers/ educators.

29 August 2008 Reflections:

The guardian meeting helps to build a community coalition that is dedicated to one another. People in the community who may have been facing issues alone can now come together and see that there are others also facing the same issues. The meeting also makes a family of those benefiting from the center. This also serves as an evaluation of the center’s activities where guardians can say what is working, what isn’t, or give suggestions of things they need. What is really important as part of these meetings is that the suggestions of the children and youth served by the center are used for everything. Their ideas, suggestions, and needs are utilized in decision making since it is their center – no one else owns it. As a very related issue, the center is starting a Young Intern program to train youth at the center to become the next staff members. So those who directly benefit from the center will soon become the next staff who will be able to give suggestions straight from experience.