Very early on in my career, as a community development practitioner, I experienced global inequality first hand; such that separates the powerful nations from the weak, the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’. I quickly realised that most initiatives to redress the balance remained at the level of rhetoric and good intentions. How could poor nations and rich nations claim to be operating from an equal playing field – when one held all the cards and dictated priorities and in many cases restricted exactly how things ought to be done? This was translated at all levels; governmental, INGOs, and even within personal relationships. How could it be that relationships with those from the West evoked in us a deep sense of inferiority and feeling that we fell short of standards that we did not set, and often didn’t even fully understand, because they were established across the seas?
In my first job with the Evangelical Alliance for Relief and Development in Malawi, I was tasked with writing project proposals to our Christian brothers and sisters, Christian funding institutions in wealthier countries. Many came with clear guidelines of what their priorities were; some would only fund health projects, particularly those that address nutrition of under 5’s in the southern part of Malawi. We said that this was aid that came in a ‘suit and tie’, nothing could be out of place. If a six year old was at the point of death next door to the household, which met the criteria, we couldn’t respond, unless we lied or withheld information. In that case we would be labelled as lacking integrity, perhaps of even committing fraud. Those from the so-called ‘First World’ appeared to believe that they knew more about the needs of communities in the ‘Third World’, than the communities themselves. After all they were first! They had combated poverty in most of its forms and therefore had all the answers, we were the ones lagging behind! Success in this sector meant forgetting about the aspirations or ambitions of communities, let alone individuals, and being grateful for anything we got. Not that those things were not needed or wanted – but oftentimes there were deeper and more pressing priorities that didn’t fit within the boxes we were confined to. However, we would encourage ourselves by reminding each other that beggars cannot be choosers – that’s how we felt. The Bible puts it this way in Proverbs 22 vs 7: The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.
Our brothers and sisters in the West in the mid to late 1990s felt they were more knowledgeable than us, they had resources we did not have so we were dependent on them to fulfil our mission albeit it wasn’t always our mission we fulfilled, but theirs. They had their own priorities to which we had to align. Mission drift was the order of the day and then we were accused of being donor driven. Indigenous organisations which had been established to respond to environmental degradation, were told that if they would respond to the HIV pandemic they would receive funding because that is what donors wanted to fund. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have the right skills or experience. Then, when they struggled to respond, it served to reinforce that southern NGOs had no capacity and couldn’t implement sustainable programmes without the intervention of international NGOs. Proposals had to be written in perfect English and would be returned with grammatical and syntax corrections that failed to capture exactly what we wanted to communicate about our context, but were perfect to pass their internal reviews and grant committees.
We found ourselves embodying the narratives that I now recognise as being colonial creations – we fulfilled a stereotype of primitive societies, not able to identify our own challenges, and not having solutions to any issues we were able to articulate. Over the years we learnt the art of second guessing what our donors wanted, to say what they wanted to hear. We lost confidence in meetings – we didn’t want to say the wrong thing that would make them walk away, and with them their much needed support for communities. We resorted to saying little in meetings, agreeing profusely to their ‘suggestions’. It was a thinly veiled master and servant relationship. Colonialism was alive and well then, and it still is now in 2019.
There are some pockets within the international development sector now, who want to advance a different type of development, with movements such as ‘Shift the Power’ – however many are constrained because they too are dependent on larger institutions for their survival. They must themselves toe the line. It is a pecking order, and at the very bottom are poor communities who are working hard every day to fulfil their God given potential.
At All We Can we are blessed and privileged that our support comes from Methodists and Methodist churches who have given us the mandate to truly walk together in solidarity with the poor. To respond to needs that communities have without dictating priorities set on the third floor of 25 Marylebone Road (Methodist Church House). This wasn’t always the case. We too used to tell local organisations and communities that we would only fund health, education or livelihood programmes. We would only fund them for one year and if they satisfied our criteria, would progress to two consecutive three-year funding agreements before we went off to find new and innovative projects.
In 2014, we realised that this approach often left local organisations weaker than when we found them, because for seven years they would serve our agenda and by the exit they would have moved away from their core vision and identity – so far they could not return because their skills and experience were eroded and out of date. When introducing our new partnership approach to partners in Burundi, Innocent Mahwikizi Director of All We Can partner UCEDD said; “merci d’avoir abandonné cette approche colonial!” – “thank you for abandoning that colonial approach!”. Strong words which they and others partners had failed to verbalise until we decided to change.
And what is our approach now? It is called ‘Walking Together in Partnership’. We are relational, we commit to our partners and the communities they serve long term because we recognise that sustainable transformation takes decades. We support partners to fulfil their mission, and the mandate given to them by poor communities. All We Can supports them to develop their own strategies and helps them to fulfill these. All We Can’s partnership approach was recently recognised by The Charity Awards 2019, where All We Can was a shortlisted finalist.