Empowerment Through Engagement: Lessons Learned

Three years ago, all of us at Orenda became fascinated by the idea of participatory development; the idea that those who were the beneficiaries of aid should be given the chance to design the solutions that best fit their needs. We came to Islamabad, fresh with the belief that we were ready to get the people involved in the construction of their own future through education.

In almost two years of work, we have discovered that the term ‘participatory development’ needs a critical revaluation. For a long time, the development community has seen beneficiaries in terms of what they aren’t doing, as opposed to what they are. The people we serve are underprivileged, but are involved in the daily struggle of frugal innovation. They are experts at designing their own solutions to keep their households running, whether an NGO is present to help them out or not. More than ever, they are eager for progress.

Their participation in development, hence, is one part of the solution, not the entire thing. The other half is the participation of non-profits themselves in development.

From my experience on the field, non-profits make two major mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of their work.

First, they are reluctant to let go of their own comfort. This manifests itself in various forms. Sometimes, it’s the ostentatious arrival of a fieldwork team on a car that is considered a symbol of wealth in rural areas. On other occasions, it is their conception of, and confidence in solutions that are clearly ill-designed and misplaced. The confidence rules out the possibility of beneficiaries participating in development, it destroys the space for debate that creates efficient solutions. If you’re curious to know how this feels, imagine this as trying to tell an insistent friend, who has bought a gift for you, that that this is not what you needed. It seems ungrateful, and it risks offending someone who has already made a mistake.

The second mistake by non-profits is the creation of dependency. Often, solutions are conceived with the idea that the non-profit will be involved with them for long periods of time. Non-profits, in our experience, are increasingly driven by their desire to stay relevant and needed. True empowerment, if chased, would eventually make non-profits irrelevant, because the beneficiaries would be able to navigate the path to prosperity on their own.

‘Participatory development’ then, needs a critical revaluation. Non-profits, and aid givers are the ones who are the missing participants. True participation would need a humility that places the beneficiary above the benefactor. True participation would also need us to swallow the bitter pill that our work is much more effective when we aim to withdraw ourselves eventually. Both, of course, require the renunciation of power, and that is always hard. But, it is necessary.

At Orenda, we have made both mistakes, and it has been a painful process.

In just one month, we had already scrapped our first solution – a dreamy proposal of turning shipping containers into schools – and pivoted to a completely new one. In the subsequent year, we upgraded our approach multiple times to satisfy the needs of a much more vocal group of beneficiaries. We could do it then because we were a small organization. Turning ourselves in a new direction involved significant amounts of pain, and this began to increase as we grew as a team.

We have also changed the way we approach our beneficiaries. We used to travel by car, and then switched to motorbikes, which were more common in rural areas. We started to spend a great deal of time getting to know people even if it meant taking significant detours from our paths. In brick kilns, fields, and near tube wells, we participated vigorously and got the community to participate as well. The learnings taken from these interactions were more beneficial to our program compared to months of research done in front of a screen.

Lastly, as an organization, we know our success, paradoxically, means that we make ourselves redundant. This makes it even more necessary that we devise solutions that do not need our constant support. This is the hardest part, because it involves watching our solutions fail, without resisting the urge to intervene, and we’re still a long way from achieving this goal.

In a world that is increasingly becoming resource constrained, a true participatory development approach would mean that aid is utilized and distributed in the most efficient way possible, to create a new generation of empowered—as opposed to dependent—people.

Aid and Development, Sustainable Development, Knowledge Economy and Societies

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