Expats vs. Locals: who should drive development?

By August 11, 2015 Nuru Views No Comments
Thomas Hong in Kampala

As the car weaved in and out of the two-lane road, I observed the Ugandan drivers in the streets of Kampala, amazed at their tenacity and confidence feeling unsure but safe in this taxi on our way to Entebbe Airport. I was happy to be a mere passenger on this journey allowing Charles, the taxi driver, to freely traverse the streets he knew so well. He passed slow moving vehicles at just the right places, slowed down to go over speed bumps, which I didn’t even see, and calmly navigated around trucks and motorcycles alike.

I was in Uganda attending the inaugural Community Driven Development (CDD) Collaborative Meetup in Mbale. Over a course of three days, representatives from over 20 organizations – including donors, supporting organizations, and implementers such as Nuru International – discussed the current landscape, achievements, challenges and the purpose of this specific collaborative and conducted various workshops to create our goals and guiding principles. Spark MicroGrants organized this meetup with some of their members, staff from Segal Family Foundation and Global Development Incubators facilitating the sessions.

Nuru International was invited to be a part of this collaborative because we hold the values of CDD, especially the idea that, “A strong African woman who possesses the same skill set and knowledge that I have is far more capable of sustainably ending extreme poverty in her country than I will ever be,” says Nuru International CEO Jake Harriman. It is with this fundamental belief, the Nuru Leadership Program was born and aims to reflect this idea in Nuru’s approach to development.

One of the goals of the collaborative is to reshape development with this new narrative and paradigm: for local change agents to be the drivers of development, which means decisions, tools and resources should be in their hands. There are several reasons why I believe our industry needs to move forward in this way:

  1. Solutions are more effective. Active participation of local communities makes solutions more relevant, addressing the real needs of these communities, thereby making these solutions more effective. Without understanding the local context or what communities actually struggle with, interventions will not bring effectual change because solutions will not be appropriate or adoptable but focused more on the needs of the implementers.
  2. Solutions are more sustainable. There might be initial gains as top-down models are introduced but such interventions do not bring lasting change, instead they are short-term fixes that leave communities back to where they began with the end of a project. As projects remove expertise and resources, local communities are left without the capacity to continue the intervention. An example from water projects is reported in The Guardian:

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says up to US$360m has been spent on building boreholes and wells that then become useless because they are not maintained or fixed when they break down…water points are often built by donors, governments and NGOs without fully consulting local people and finding out just how much it will cost to keep the boreholes clean and functioning over a sustained period of time.

  1. Local actors gain agency. Sustainable and effective solutions should be a priority of any aid organization but a third reason for this paradigm shift is for the agency of local actors. As the gap between the haves and have-nots grow in today’s world, combined with the history of colonialism and uneven power dynamics, there is a danger in perpetuating a social norm that “the poor” have nothing to contribute or that they ought to be mere “beneficiaries of aid.” Every spectrum within local communities in poverty should take responsibility and be active participants in shaping their future, including for their family and country. The right of self-determination and making meaningful choices should not be infringed on by the West, rather they should be supported by external actors.

I believe local change agents should be driving development efforts and the global communities should be coming alongside as enablers. Just as I was a passenger in Charles’ taxi, explaining what time my flight was and the airline I was taking, he knew the streets and was experienced at driving from Kampala to Entebbe. It would be unwise and potentially dangerous for me to take the wheel and drive his car, as it would also be unwise for external agencies to drive development just because they have a few more shillings.

Thomas Hong

About Thomas Hong

Leadership Program Director — Thomas has worked in education and leadership development in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. He holds a B.A. in Economics and master’s degree in teaching from the University of Virginia and an MBA in international organizations from the University of Geneva.

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