When the Leadership Program launched a couple of years ago we had some specific ideas about how we wanted the organization to value the voices of those we were serving and desired to strategically put us in a position to lead together with those living in extreme poverty. We believed a ready-made Western solution to poverty was not the answer and saw many examples of how these types of solutions in practice were unsuccessful and unsustainable. We had always valued partnering with the local communities but our research showed not only how important that was to design more impactful interventions but also how necessary it was in order for impact to truly last without the continuous presence and management by expatriate staff. The Leadership Program developed a philosophy and a process of co-creation that would not only teach requisite technical skills but focused on local ownership of the project through restoring agency, humanity, and dignity.

These original ideas have been reinforced through our work with our teams in Kenya. We have continued to refine these strategies and have begun to use them with the new project in Ethiopia. It is a unique approach because if we do what we are claiming, our local leaders will define and own the programs and the Western staff needs to hold their programs more loosely than the traditional development worker. It can also be risky because though backed by sound theory there are few organizations that practically do interventions in this way. Though perhaps that is why many nations have been mired in poverty for so long. We recognize how important this approach is and believe the world does not need another organization that gives shoes or shirts away to those living in poverty or one that builds empty schools or hospitals.

Fortunately we are not alone in fighting poverty in this way. A recent article in the Guardian titled, “Building communities: how poor people are unlocking their own potential” discuss Rural Support Programmes in India and Pakistan that work in a similar fashion.  The article describes their successes as shown by the following excerpts:

The RSP philosophy of community self-help works because it doesn’t impose preset development plans from above. No amount of central planning can accommodate the countless variations at grassroots level, and the approach creates the space for poor communities to play an active role in their own development…

1998 UN Development Programme evaluation of RSPs said: “The model is unique. It is highly responsive to community motives and aspirations within the context of community participation … [and makes it] feasible to unlock the productive and entrepreneurial potential of Pakistan’s rural people.”

The larger impact by working at the grassroots level is obviously great and a big reason why we do this work but I am also impassioned by the treatment of those we are working with who are living in poverty. I do not want them to feel like they are passive recipients of handouts without ever believing they can set their own course for their lives and their future. I have looked into the eyes of enough marginalized people to know the harm that belief does to their humanity and our humanity as well. I echo the words of Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, who recently wrote a beautiful piece that captures what I believe is the heart of the Leadership Program. She described a visit with d.light to Central Kenya and a discussion David Small, the head of d.light Africa, had with one of d.light’s customers, Teresia. From, “Dignity, Not Dependence While Living Under $1 a Day”:

This is why I am doing this work. This is why I started Acumen: I am witnessing a conversation of equals, one between an empowered consumer and a businessman trying to serve her. Teresia is not pandering nor is she begging. David is neither self-satisfied with his own sense of benevolence, nor is he assuming he has the answers. Teresia may have next to nothing of material value in the world, but here she is, full of dignity, full of the confidence that comes with doing something for yourself and paying for it, to boot. Her eyes sparkle with curiosity and strength. Teresia has earned this conversation. David must continue to work for her loyalty and trust as a customer. In the process, both have the chance to be transformed.

This is the type of relationship the Leadership Program is trying to promote and one that we believe will bring the greatest impact that will last. One where our expatriate staff is humble enough to know they do not have all the answers and do not have any misconceptions about their “benevolent service” working with local communities and leaders who are full of dignity and who are able to make meaningful choices for themselves and their families.