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How to keep development programs grounded in the local

It should be a question we reflect on with frequency in any good development organization. Are we truly keeping things grounded in the local? Do our programs reflect the beneficiaries’ thoughts, hopes and ideas in a real way? Are they the drivers of their own social change? Are we who live and work in developing countries (a term I cringe to use) doing our best at maintaining local authenticity and allowing people space and opportunity to imagine, formulate and act on their own ideas?

In my experience working in various NGOs, SERES is one of the best examples of keeping programs locally-driven that I have seen. So much so, in fact, that I felt inspired to write a few points on how we can all best ground ourselves here.

  1. Shift the paradigm – hold local collaborative, open program planning sessions.

First, we must ask (and keep asking!), does the common model of performing short needs-assessment field visits allow us to construct a realistic long-term vision? Are we truly able to predict the social, environmental, political, and economic impacts to beneficiaries and the community, both positive and negative? If we instinctively hesitate to say yes (as I often do), we need to do more.

We need to continue to reflect on how we can adapt the model so that beneficiaries drive the process of defining the project goals, objectives and measures. Do they understand what a development project is and means to accomplish? Do they have any control? Do they have a safe, temporally and culturally appropriate space, without external influence, within which to discuss, reflect and provide feedback? The best way to ensure these questions are addressed in our processes is by allowing development planning to be driven by local leaders and taking more time to create strategic, culturally-appropriate questions that remove as much of our own frame of reference as possible..

Antonio group blog Aug23

Co-founder of SERES, Antonio (right), leads a group of participants in sustainability education & planning congresses.

SERES began with the co-founder from El Salvador asking himself and his friends to observe and identify the key issues that needed addressing. El Salvador, as in many Latin American countries, is rife with economic poverty, environmental degradation, rampant gang violence, economic migration and government corruption. People living there feel the weight of these challenges daily. What they decided to do was to create safe spaces to bring together a wide network of youth that would allow the conversation; that would bring about the release of their deeply-embedded passion for positive change through open questioning, connecting, visioning, and defining responsive actions. Read a great guide for strategic questioning principles.

A plan was constructed that would create local community spaces within which reflective, interconnective youth congress could run; where they could openly discuss their ideas, feelings, and visions, and determine, of their own volition, how to act. In other words, to drive their own development.

  1. Establish and maintain an active local Board of Directors.

At SERES, the “Junta Directiva”, or Board of Directors, consists of all locals (nationals or permanent residents), with a youth ambassador representative from each country. Every youth ambassador in SERES programs has the option to become a voting member of the association, where they attend regular meetings as well as the AGM. They are able to support each other and make decisions together, relating in a way where they deeply feel the problems and can understand the social complexities around local or regional issues. This allows the development of culturally-relevant, safe planning and decision-making spaces constructed of strong relationships based on shared experiences and ideas for change.

  1. Provide training by local professionals.

Rather than developing training modules for beneficiaries by outsourcing trainers, connect with local professionals who can serve as knowledge brokers and mentors. We must be creative, tap into local networks, and be patient in our search for the best results.

Voice Training

Participants learn expression through voice and movement training.

In one example at SERES in Guatemala, a local radio personality has been an incredible instructor of public speaking skills, using techniques that involve role-play and dramatic voice lessons. These soft skills that he creatively inspires in fun sessions allow young participants to emerge as people who have found confidence and voice in formulating and expressing their ideas – a form of true empowerment – arguably the first imperative step in developing locally-driven programming.

  1. Build a philosophy and policy to hire locals first.

A challenge that many development organizations face is finding local “talent” in skilled administrative areas, particularly with projects whose beneficiaries are based in very rural areas. For example in Guatemala, rural indigenous communities with the highest need are typically geographically and politically isolated, with little infrastructural development, particularly in the areas of health and education. Therefore it is difficult to encounter people in these communities who have had the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to run program operations, as they often lack access to formal schooling past elementary level.

In this case, SERES firmly decided to take the time needed to facilitate the education and work-skill development of selected community leaders. Local youth who participate in the community congresses can request to become ambassadors and catalyzers. They stand out as young people with a natural ability to lead others in a thoughtful and collaborative way. They continue with further skills and leadership training, and are now leading the organization with a passion for changing their localities.

  1. Say no to foreign volunteers.

At SERES, I am the first non-national to receive a volunteer stipend in exchange for full-time work in communications (no pressure!). This has only occurred after a lengthy local search brought few realistic results (so far). What I have witnessed in other NGOs is a growing reliance on hiring foreign volunteer workers. These idealistic “volunteers” are easy to source and willing to stay as many NGO offices are clustered around tourist centers that offer a sense of adventure, natural beauty, and plenty of expat bars. (Cynical? Maybe a little. Guilty? For sure.)

With a passion for helping, a real drive to do something meaningful in the world, and a love of learning through travel, there is an abundance of foreign volunteers who are willing to take just-get-by stipends in exchange for work. This can be justified by organizations who need to tap into the English-speaking “western” donor audience, more so than ever with increasing competition for funds. SERES simply refuses to allow this thinking, continuing their commitment to a philosophy of focussing on local capacity development to build a force of skilled workers.

The result?

youth leaders SERES blog Aug23

Infused with a passion for change, youth leaders are building a better world in their communities.

What I see in El Salvador and Guatemala every day is a committed, active local staff supported through to college-level education, with leadership and language training, without the influence of foreign ideals. These youth have accomplished impactful results locally which have attracted international attention, culminating in a SERES Program Coordinator, a young indigenous female leader, traveling to Paris to receive one of three UNESCO prizes for Education is Sustainable Development.

Sure, I understand that these methods are potentially costly and take years to develop. And yes, the other co-founder is a young Australian who is now a Guatemalan permanent resident. It’s true that in this position it could have been tempting for her to be the sole driver of change. But at the core of SERES they have together constructed an unwavering commitment to remaining completely grounded in the local.

A great deal of time and thought went into the construction of this philosophy and embedding it in policy. What this translates to is a non-profit development organization that can establish and administer long-term, effective, impactful programs that are locally-run, responding directly to locally-identified needs through a commitment to training local leaders.

“Effective transitions strategies are rooted in the cultural and ecological characteristics of a particular region and deeply engage the people living there.” – Movement Strategy Center

By D. Wilson

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