Two years ago, I traveled with a group of about fifteen students from across Europe and North America to a small village in the Dominican Republic. We stayed in the community for two weeks trying to finish up a school building, building a public bathroom and organizing educational programs for the children. The villagers were very happy to see us and thanked us for coming to help them. In turn, they cooked for us for the duration of our stay. But every day- or other day- when we had meetings and reflections, no villager was present. We talked about communication, respect, the economy, the needs of the community, and a host of other things. However, our reflections were held in exclusion. Sometimes, the village head came to talk to us- but with the help of an interpreter because they spoke Spanish and we spoke English. But besides the dances and games and during the construction process, we never had villagers come to us to share their experiences and teach us about leadership or values. When we were leaving the village, we were very sad. We thought about the children and how helpless they were. But we were convinced that we had done something commendable and that we were to continue to have hope in the world.
Upon my return to Canada, I became very interested in the study of international development and development practices. As I started reading development blogs and about the complexities of the development industry, I began to learn about the harmful effects of patronizing projects, those save-them-they-are-helpless projects, those I-know-what’s-best-for-them projects and those I’m-a-good-person-helping-humanity projects. As I read and interacted with people in the industry, I learnt that the development approach matters, that good intentions are not enough and that local voices need to be heard. I have since written about awareness campaigns that rob people of their dignity, development projects that harm stifle local initiative, the harmful effects of going to build schools overseas, the importance of Africa’s youth population and the notion of “help” and the importance of Diaspora engagement in African affairs. I tried to promote better practices in NGOs and have facilitated training programs on development practices but only recently have I been able to connect the dots….
How about Diasporans leading typical international development projects but making sure that the projects promote local initiative and build local capacity while protecting people’s dignity and promoting local leadership in development affairs? Eureka!
It sounds good in principle but upon meeting Thato Makgolane, I found that it also looks good in practice. In 2010, when Thato took some students from the Sauder Business School at the University of British Columbia to his hometown of Phalaborwa, South Africa under the Arc Initiative Project, he made it clear that this was not a “save-Africa” project. “If you’re looking for one of those, look elsewhere”, he said to the team; “[My] people should not be perceived as purely just been poor people…and incapable… we are vibrant and given opportunity, we have some amazing skills and abilities.” The Arc Initiative project was structured in such a way that both UBC students and Phaloborwa students and residents were given a platform to share information about their cultures and practices. At any given time, there were people from both countries giving opinions about a subject. Business and management professionals in the Vancouver area were also brought on the project to share skills and best practices in business alongside local business owners in the area.
The focus of the three-day workshop was on financial management, leadership, strategy and marketing with small business owners and people in the financial sector. At the end of the workshop, the participants were presented with a case analysis which they had to solve thus ensuring that they had learnt something from the workshop. Some students from UBC were placed to work in local cooperatives and business enterprises as interns for six-weeks thus assuming an apprentice role and contributing to the enterprise when their skills were needed. The project ended with a business ideas competition and the competing projects were not only reviewed by the students but by the local business people. The winners of the competition were then given funds to launch their sustainable business projects.
The “arc” in the name “Arc Initiative Project” signifies bridge-building across people and nationalities and a two-way-street philosophy. Thato believes that partnerships of this nature should be visible not only in the implementation of projects but also in their design. In other words, as he has done, Africans need to play an active part in birthing ideas that will lead to their growth instead of waiting for Westerners or Easterners to come up with ideas and simply partnering with them to implement those ideas.
And he is right. At the end of the day, one thing is evident: as international development projects continue to remain on the development scene, African Diasporans must step in and lead the way, designing the very plot of these projects, encouraging dialogue among Western and African students and individuals, facilitating knowledge transfer across continents, protecting and promoting local enterprise, destroying stereotypes and proving to the world, that indeed, Africa does not need to be saved.
For more about Thato and the Arc Initiative Project, visit their website