Community members in India enjoy clean water thanks to Salvation Army projects tailored precisely to their particular needs
Below: Members of a community in Nairobi, Kenya, discuss their needs with Salvation Army representatives
Major Seth Le Leu is The Salvation Army’s International Projects and Development Secretary
Tonga: Handing Over the Stick
by Major Seth Le Leu
They all sat there looking at me. I was The Salvation Army’s community development expert and I had come all the way from London to their village in Tonga, an island kingdom in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The chairman of the meeting introduced the topic – the village’s development committee had identified that there was a real need for water. They wanted to know how to solve the problem and what I, on behalf of The Salvation Army, would do to help them.
If, as can happen, the importance of an expert is measured by the distance he or she has travelled to dispense his or her expertise then, in the eyes of the village women, I must have seemed truly amazing. A hush descended as they waited to hear the wisdom that would pour from my lips. They were rather disappointed with my response.
‘What solutions do you see to the water shortage?’ I asked.
No one spoke. They all looked at each other. I could see them thinking, ‘What a stupid expert! He has come all this way and, instead of giving us advice, he wants us to advise him!’
The silence didn’t last long and soon the discussion got very animated as the women explored all the options for solving the water problem. They were able to identify the best solution to the shortage – that is, the solution that would work best in their particular situation.
I was able to then take on their ideas, assist them in gathering information they needed to make the system work and prepare a plan that would help ensure the project’s success. Three years on, the water programme is going well.
In this situation, as the outsider coming in, I did not presume to know anything about the village and its circumstances. I didn’t have knowledge of past failures or successes in water programmes there. As insiders, the local women had one kind of knowledge that was important in good community work – they knew what was possible and what could be made to work. As an outside expert I had another kind of knowledge – I could draw from a wider area of experience and also knew the ways to link the dreams of the community with resources that could make their programme work.
Good community programmes need to start this way. We have moved away from the approach of simply being the teachers, using a big stick to point at a blackboard to show people what they should be doing. Instead, we hand over the stick to the community and ask the local people to point out the solutions to their specific problems.
Our role in development is to put the dreams of the local community at the centre of all we do.
In our community development programmes around the world we use a range of different approaches to what can often appear to be the same problem. In each situation the solution has to be tailored to the community in which it is to happen – local people are the only ones who can identify which programme will work and which won’t.
Another benefit to using this sort of approach is that, when the community has decided the best approach, the programme is the local people’s own idea. They will ensure the programme works properly because they were listened to – their ideas were implemented and their dreams were turned into reality.
An approach we use in community development is to realise that the experience we gain working with one community can actually be a hindrance when we work elsewhere. We can easily see a need and simply choose a solution that has worked before but, when we do this, we have failed to link with a community and find out what it wants – and what it really needs.
Linking to a community is not always easy – it takes time and effort and involves talking to all the groups that could be involved in the programme. Men and women will often see solutions in very different terms, for example. Local leaders and wealthier members of the community can try to influence any development in order to reinforce their positions of power – in the end, the local elite can end up benefiting at the expense of poorest members of the community.
These are dangers that we need to be aware of, and true development involves a process of negotiation so that all participants are involved and they all feel the programme truly belongs to them.
The Tongan example is a timely one – one in six people in the world have no access to clean water. If we in The Salvation Army are to rise to this specific challenge and provide clean water to all the communities where we are at work, we need to ‘hand over the stick’, listen to each community and find out what local people’s solutions and dreams are. We need to be partners and not just providers of a service.
If we can do this then we really can make a long-term difference.