What is our true job?

Who will revolutionize the development industry? It’s those who eyes, ears, and voice are devoted to empowering people in the developing world to find solutions to their own problems. It’s those with a professional, but more importantly, a personal resolve to nurture alternative models of “development” that genuinely build on the dignity, knowledge, skills, culture, and abilities of local people.

In order to do this, people working in international development and foreign assistance must balance many roles, deftly walking between two worlds, that of the “donor” and that of the “community.” In recognition of the great responsibility, privilege and burden of this, as well as the sophistication required to pull it off well, I outline and celebrate the following skills and qualities for development practitioners to embody, cultivate, and use in their vocation and in their calling to this work.

You are a loudspeaker.

A loudspeaker is someone who will fight for what local partners need to succeed. You are there to listen to partners and then to advocate for their interests within your organization, ensuring that they receive the resources they’ve identified as necessary for success. A development practitioner is a loudspeaker for the shared vision between your organization and your partners in addressing the underlying causes of suffering, oppression, and injustice.

Be an expert, but not in the way you think.

Many people focus on becoming an “expert” in a technical area such as child survival or agriculture, or becoming an expert in an agency’s policies, procedures, and guidelines. These can be useful, but unless a development practitioner becomes an expert on the partners with which they work, learned in the skills, resources, knowledge, and capacities they bring, “local expertise” will never receive the recognition and support it deserves. Instead of bringing in outside expertise, let’s all be students of participatory development, learning from, with and by members of the community and local partners.

Innovation comes in being a problem solver.

Local partners should be supported at all times to think creatively about their programming. Outsiders can offer ideas and recommendations, but these are limited by what we don’t or can’t know. Therefore, our more important role is to encourage, coach and uphold processes of individual and collective reflection to identify and overcome obstacles. Supporting local people to enhance their own efforts with openness and confidence is what gives birth to true innovation.

Like it or not, you are a leader.

An effective leader lives by his or her values, exhibiting personal responsibility, sharing inspiration, and personifying integrity. Leaders translate good intentions into good practice, and in the international development field, every success depends on it.

But be a friend first.

A true friend celebrates your successes and shares your failures. From my own experience and failures, the most important thing I’ve learned is that human warmth is key to successful development. Human warmth, exhibited through our respect, positivity, undying support, and unending encouragement, enables the trust that results in authentic and productive relationships. More than this, the community(ies) an organization serves must be surrounded by a womb in which new beginnings for people may be gestated, nurtured and given birth. Relationships of warmth, integrity and trust remind people of their essential humanity and open them to each other, and therefore to hope and change.

Therefore, for me, it all comes back to…not what we do, but how we do it.


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