Four Essential Skills For Working On Community-Driven Development Projects
The first time I stepped foot in a Thai village I felt a myriad of emotions: excitement to immerse myself in a different way of life and learn about community-driven development (after spending the first eighteen years of it solely in the USA), nervous that I would be ignorant of the customs and language, and curious to see how my preconceived ideas of Thai culture would change after actually living in it. The second I met my host family I realized that everything I assumed about living in a Thai village was probably inaccurate. I decided to enter the situation with a blank slate. Instead of using my past experiences, opinions, and worldview to make a judgment on Thai culture, I chose to be an open book.
I did not know it then but taking that approach had a significant influence on how I would eventually work in village communities and other multicultural settings.
The more community-driven development projects I worked on the more I learned which factors contributed positively to and which hindered a project. I found that often the most important role we can take as foreigners is being a helpful and supportive friend. We do this by building trust, identifying common goals with communities, and by not tricking ourselves into believing that the success of a project is determined by our own personal impact on the work, but instead as a result of the whole community’s efforts. I also learned that being able to operate in a foreign culture is a skill and the factors that go into it are overlooked by many people in international development.
For those who want to pursue a career internationally, here are four essential skills for working on community-driven development projects.
Develop Cultural Competency - A culturally competent person is able to identify and develop an understanding of the unique aspects of the different communities with which they work This can be in the form of customs, linguistic backgrounds, social norms, religious beliefs, history, economics, gender roles, ethnicity, and age. It is an active process that develops the more you spend time in different places. Being culturally competent means that you are able to empathize with a worldview that is different from your own and be able to adapt to and sometimes even adopt it. You seek to understand instead of only being understood. You celebrate the differences in culture instead of expecting things to be done the same way they would be back home. The more competent you become the easier it is to contribute to community-driven development projects that are culturally sustainable.
Understand Cultural Sustainability - Many people who work in international development forget to ask if a project they are working on is culturally sustainable. Foreign aid workers visit a community and see something they might not understand and decide the people there are struggling. They think their job is to fix a perceived problem and introduce new technology, education, or social outreach programs without understanding why a community is experiencing that problem or being aware of the cultural implications of what they are trying to accomplish. This results in organizations spending time and money to fix something that is either not broken or introducing projects that would not work in that particular community. So what is a culturally sustainable community-driven development project? It’s collaborating with local community members to implement projects that will be accepted by the larger community because it fits into their cultural context. You will accomplish this if you’ve developed cultural competency, listened and learned from local knowledge, and practiced humility by knowing that your contribution is a small part of a much bigger project.
Practice Humility - While it is important to be proud of the work you do in international development, some people get caught up and act like they are a savior to the people. Community-driven development is not about foreigners going to a place where people are incapable of helping themselves, providing services from their home country and believing that it will instantly transform the community so they have all the comforts that the foreigner believes are essential because it is what they are used to. Instead community-led development is a collaborative effort and should be initiated by locals who understand the implications that the project will have on the larger community. Exercising humility leads to building friendships because you acknowledge that the work you do has value because it is contributing to a project with people who are often more capable than you to implement the project effectively and sustainably, not because you are providing aid to a people that cannot help themselves. Take the “you” out of a project and learn to recognize the goals of the community.
Know How to Support Community Goals - While a person might spend weeks, months, and sometimes even years working in a certain village or town, 99% of people will eventually go home or on to another project somewhere else. This leads some people to believe that the work they do might not have a long term effect. Those who have learned to be culturally competent and recognize the importance of cultural sustainability know that the impact of their work is a result of the greater community’s goals and it does indeed take a village. A project is most effective when a community identifies their own issues and goals and takes the lead on implementing a project. We as foreigners have the privilege of learning from local experts and as a result we should ask what the community needs instead of trying to take the lead. Our role is to be a helpful friend who supports local partners to achieve goals that they have already identified and begun to work on.
Community-driven development projects are successful when they are collaborative and the people involved are dedicated to finding sustainable ways to improve the lives of the greater populace. We can positively contribute to these projects by supporting local knowledge, advocating and spreading awareness, and acting as a helpful friend while knowing that our contribution is a small part of a larger process. Developing cultural competency, understanding cultural sustainability, practicing humility, and knowing how to support community goals are skills that will help you contribute positively to projects so that the small impact you do have is of value.