Although digital technology is beginning to show potential for increasing the impact of individual knowledge, in most African marginalized communities, community knowledge will remain important for a long time. Unfortunately, many development interventions are meddling with African communities’ capacity to make sense of knowledge. Development actors sincerely want to help marginalized communities but their strategies unknowingly cause harm in ways that hinder progress and growth for intended beneficiaries. That is why enough attention should go into thinking about exit strategies.
The benefits of letting communities solve their challenges
When farming communities struggle with their own challenges and problems, major benefits include:
Self-respect – grappling with their own challenges and figuring out solutions is a huge source of pride and self-respect for most farmers, traders and value chain actors. Farmers who have gone through the mill of their problems tend to have a positive attitude and air of self-esteem.
Grit – Struggles strengthen communities more than over-protection from challenges, a process which propagates dependency and weakness. For instance, communities that have been over-protected from drought and agricultural-related diseases often continue to ask for help when they could solve a lot of challenges on their own and even teach other communities how to be resilient.
Openness – Communities that have felt the challenge of struggle are often receptive to help more than those who rely on fewer sources of assistance and advice. In most African communities, learning moments emerge slowly than can happen within the lifespan of most development projects. When communities survive serious challenges they begin to value assistance from different sources.
Respect for help – It is not helpful for development agencies and governments to make communities feel less competent when expecting such communities to boldly take ownership after a particular project or intervention comes to an end. While it may seem like doing them a favor, providing quick interventions is degrading to some communities. Helping elevates the self-worth of development agencies and ‘experts’ but lowers the status of recipient communities. When ‘experts’ expect communities to do as they are told, dependency germinates yet the goal of helping is getting to a situation where helping is no longer needed.
Eyes on the right problem
Identifying the real problems in any community is often the most difficult part but, once correctly done, results will be more sustainable. In some communities the real problem might be bringing up sensitive issues like partisan politics or the influence of religion. All forms of assistance will not work when such real issues continue lurking in the shadows. Development agencies and government interventions should not just assume they know what assistance looks like. Some communities may need you to listen and not provide solutions. In some cases help is simply connecting people with resources or experts who can articulate the importance of farming communities to be ready for the global market, for instance.
A critical entry point is first finding out what a community has tried before. This can send the signal that the community has responsible members. In such cases, development agencies will only share community concerns, but the problem or challenge remains in the hands of the community. Finding out what the community has tried to do in the past is also a demonstration of respect for their efforts in addressing their problems. That is also how irrelevant suggestions can be eliminated. There are several examples of where development agencies bring suggestions that have been tried before and failed. A thorough assessment will reveal all these issues and prevent wasting of resources.
Avoiding the curse of false wisdom
If development agencies do not allow communities to find their own answers, it is easy to slip into false wisdom. There are times when communities need someone to give them information. However, it is critical for development agencies and government to step back and let communities make choices, move forward and learn. Of course, a burning house or a community in urgent problems like a cyclone is not an opportunity to explore options. This is when development actors and other helpers have to take the bull by the horns. Helping communities to prepare for globalization and a highly competitive market should just be about removing roadblocks as opposed to bringing best practices from different contexts.
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