Don't underestimate local NGOs

Eight years ago, when my friends and I started an international development organisation we were by all accounts completely unqualified.

We were in our early twenties and had little or no formal training or experience. Most of us were tree-planting as a way of paying for university when one of our fellow planters, Jeff Schnurr, came back from a trip to a tiny tropical island named Pemba, just off the coast of Tanzania. He regaled us with tales of how he’d met Mbarouk Omar, the man who now heads up our local sister NGO, and had sketched out with him a dream to restore the island’s lost forests. He now wanted to know: would we go out there and help?

Fast-forward eight years and our NGO, Community Forests International, has helped to plant more than 1.5m trees across Pemba. Our movement has also blossomed from rural farmers managing low-tech nurseries into community-scale solar microgrids and regenerative agriculture. Pemba is becoming a place to watch for lessons in frontline climate change adaptation. And in the grand scheme of things, we’ve had next to nothing to do with it.

I say this because as development professionals we often overstate not only our achievements abroad but also our individual roles. This reinforces misconceptions among the general public that the communities we support in the global south cannot ever help themselves, let alone help us.

Community Forests Pemba, the local NGO we partner with, is made up almost entirely of Tanzanians with decades of research and administrative experience as well as an intimate understanding of local challenges. They even taught us how to run our own organisation back in Canada, guiding us on issues such as good governance and building partnerships, and encouraging us to replicate the model we used in Pemba in other places.

We wouldn’t have had half the success we have had without them, so why does the wider sector continue to recycle an old narrative that suggests solutions only flow from wealthy to poor societies but not the other way round? Here are some key lessons we’ve learned from our local partner:

1| Avoid the hero complex

The first time I travelled to Pemba I spent three months trying to build a piece of technology to recycle discarded paper into seedling containers. I struggled because I couldn’t speak the language well enough to describe it to local tradespeople. Rather than looking to my colleagues in Pemba for direction, I blindly followed my own bias. It never really took off and I’m just lucky it turned out to be only a minor distraction. The real answer came later, when my friends there demonstrated how plastic containers could be reused if cared for properly – an embarrassingly simple solution. 

2| Listen to what locals want

Even the name of our organisation betrays our early naivety – the notion that reforestation in Pemba would be best advanced as a strictly community-based activity. We’ve had some great success with that approach, but also huge failures: we lost tens of thousands of trees and years of effort when our communal ideal just didn’t fit the realities on the ground. In one case, land use disputes resulted in shepherds purposely grazing livestock over a newly planted “community” forest. In another, farmers completely neglected a large community plot in favour of tending their own individual woodlots. Our work started to flourish when we stopped trying to dictate where and how trees were planted and focused instead on just supporting the people most committed to the effort.

3| Don’t be afraid of asking ‘dumb’ questions

The fact that none of us are experts by conventional standards has also put us in a unique position as development practitioners. We’ve been free to ask questions – hard questions or dumb questions as needs be – and to adapt as we learn. Being an expert isn’t necessarily bad for development, but assuming you have all the answers can be.

4| Share the benefits of a privileged background

Being critical of our work and constantly questioning our effectiveness is uncomfortable but it is also fundamental to advancing our cause. The fact that a group of 20-year-old Canadians can found an international organisation is an expression of our own privilege. So is the fact that we speak a language of power and can navigate the esoteric world of proposal writing and donor relations more easily than our Swahili-speaking colleagues. At the same time, these privileges undeniably have been vital to the achievements we now share with our Tanzanian partners. Sadly, privilege is one of the most powerful things that we Canadians bring to the work – that, and our solidarity. People don’t like to talk about privilege, but it’s how you use it that matters: use it to level the playing field.  

5| Create opportunities for local leaders to gain more power

Changing how we practise development could be our best tool for addressing inequalities at the heart of development. Creating the space for underprivileged people to assume positions of leadership in our work, for example, and recognising the unmatched knowledge that our partners in the global south have of their own cultural and environmental context, offer small steps toward big systemic change.

Daimen Hardie is a programme manager at Community Forests International. Follow him on Twitter @DaimenHardie. This article was originally published on 19 February 2016 in the Guardian Development Professionals Network.   


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