Editor's note: We've asked guest blogger Chad Jordan, founder and chief consultant at Cornerstone International, to write about a topic that is close to his heart – and ours: building the capacity of locals so they can lift themselves out of poverty. Chad, who has a book coming out on August 8, shares Five Talents' vision for empowering women and men so that they can create a sustainable living for themselves and their families.
I have a secret. It's sort of hard to admit: Empowering the underserved isn't...about me. There, I said it. Development and poverty eradication strategies aren't about us in the West – at least they shouldn't be.
The goal of empowering the under-served should be to build local capacity and encourage local solutions to local problems. Western actors shouldn't be in the driver's seat.
Let me tell you a quick story. I helped set up a microfinance bank in Tanzania. I drafted the mission statement in conjunction with local leaders, we met with lawyers to obtain a banking license, we sat in meetings to determine the bank's direction, and I drafted an English version of the business training materials that would later be translated into Swahili.
It was a very collaborative atmosphere. We all worked together, we all participated, and we all got on the same page. I knew what my role was – it was to share the knowledge I had of what worked and what did not work in other places. I was there as a strategic advisor. Things went very smoothly.
But about the time I was getting ready to leave, I relapsed. You see, as soon as I handed over all the materials I had been working on, I wouldn't be in control anymore. I would be getting on a plane and heading thousands of miles away. I wouldn't be able to know exactly what was happening. I was having a hard time with it – I had worked really hard on those materials; I had sat through a lot of meetings, business lunches, and in-depth brainstorm sessions. Was I just supposed to hand them over?
Yes, I was. That was the whole point. My role was to be an advisor, to draft materials that could be adapted to the local context. I needed to hand over the materials – all of them – and put my trust in the local capacity. We'd had meeting after meeting, we'd talked about nearly every contingency possible. I needed to let go.
I know it sounds crazy, but I felt like a parent dropping his kid off at college. I saw how transformational microfinance could be in that community, and wanted to stay, to be intimately involved, to make sure our goals were executed. But I knew I needed to step away. I felt like success was tied to my perspective and my knowledge. I was making it about me.
The truth is, the local leaders knew how to make microfinance successful in their context much more than I ever could. They're doing wonderful today. The community is being transformed. Widows and youth – the target groups for this bank – who once relied on handouts for survival are now empowered to create new realities for themselves and their families.
This impact never would have been achieved if I didn't get out the way. If I hadn't eventually realized that it wasn't about me or my knowledge or my expertise, I would have been robbing these wonderful people of an empowered future.
Poverty is tangible – it affects people in very visible ways. Trying to fight it becomes a personal mission. Everyone engaged in development – whether practitioners or simply interested parties – can get caught up in the battle. Our passion causes us to hold on so tightly – I know this to be true firsthand. We want to see people's lives improved so badly, and we think we know the best way to accomplish just that. I have to fight it with every project I'm involved in. I get the itch to take over, but then I remember...
Empowering the underserved isn't about me. It's about locals being empowered to lift themselves, as well as their families, into better lives.
Photo courtesy of Chad Jordan. Click here to find out more about Chad's new book, Shut Up and Give?, which will be released on August 8.