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A Quest for Development

By Paolo Singer

Abandon yourself for a moment and leave everything behind. No showers. No toilets. No running water. Rags for clothes. Fences made of wood and barbed wire. Dusty dirt roads and sparsely scattered homes. Welcome to Uta, a small village in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa.

While immersing myself in the life of rural South Africa, at times I struggled to see the big picture. All I knew was what my internship requested of me: I practiced ethnography, interviewing locals through a translator on their lives, skills, and hopes. I experienced a foreign culture and a lifestyle where daily life revolved around finding water, cooking food, herding animals, playing soccer, and dancing in church. I learned a new language, Xitsonga, and I learned how to consult and organize community members on forming sustainable businesses and student groups, first by watching, and then by doing.

Yet my primary motivation to go to South Africa was not to practice ethnography, experience new cultures, learn new languages, or learn community organizing. I went to South Africa to learn how to do development work, and what I found is development work is not straightforward and not what I expected.

You can get self-satisfaction from going into a poor village, making direct contributions, and seeing the concrete change you contributed to in a few weeks. Libraries, soccer fields, bakeries or classrooms; these are lacking in poor communities, and occasionally an NGO will go in and build them. But what good is a library if it is not operated or used? What good is a classroom if the education system is failing because students cannot read their English textbooks, and girls must cook, clean, and wheelbarrow water for miles every day after school? What good is a bakery if the leader of the local government pockets all the profits, and there is a shortage of flour to turn into bread? What good is a soccer field if no one will maintain it in a village that lacks health and jobs? And what good is teaching if there is no teacher to replace you once you leave?

These are problems that many NGO’s doing development work face, and they are the same problems that Think Impact, the nonprofit I worked for, struggled to come to terms with since it started working in these communities in 2002. Year after year they built libraries and soccer fields; they ran health camps and gave out scholarships. But once they left so did their contributions: buildings deteriorate, lessons are forgotten, and life is back to how it was before.

A year before I arrived, Think Impact changed its approach from one of needs-based service to one of asset-based community development, which uses the community’s skills, resources, and crucially, ideas, to facilitate the creation of sustainable, profit-driven projects with social benefits that locals personally create, lead, and have investment in. Once the project, like a hair salon or tutoring program, succeeds in sustaining itself independently, Think Impact fundraises and helps scale it.

This can create a powerful change in a community where people do not take initiative outside of their daily routine, lack outside information, and have no access to jobs. The first week I arrived, a man named Lucky asked me, “What are you building for us this time around? We need a shopping mall.” I shrugged. They were going to come up with the ideas, plans, and resources, and we were going to help them implement them, I told him.

I did not leave Uta, South Africa, having painted a school or taught English. Two months gave me time to learn about the people and issues, to empower and create partnerships between village members. Now that I’m no longer there, I must count on those working on the ground to continue my work and for those in the village to be invested in improving themselves. And again, the question remains: Can this make a dent in the structural root of the problem? In a sense, it does.

The unfortunate truth that hit me throughout the nine weeks I spent in the village is that in communities with a long history of poverty, any hope of improving people’s health, education, and livelihood will not rely on a replicable formula. The immediate self-gratification of seeing your own concrete work when doing temporary service in poor communities has little role in sustainable development. Sustainable development may take generations. Yet I could not ask for more; the raw tumble of joy, outrage, and compassion I felt every day, and the understanding that it is only through partnership and solidarity with others that you will be able to help them help themselves.

Paolo Singer ’13 is a sophomore in Quincy House.

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