American Friends Service Committee
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Water Buffalos in Air-Conditioned Rooms
Natassia Pura is a Thai American activist currently working on post-tsunami rehabilitation and development in Thailand.
After graduating in May 2005 I accepted my first job at one of the most well-known NGOs in Thailand. This NGO is admired for its community-based methodology and its innovative means of doing outreach and mobilizing the real targets of assistance (mostly poor Thais living in rural areas) to help themselves and their neighbors in the long-term. In addition, it remains one of the most successful locally-based non-profit organizations to practice NGO sustainability by operating a separate business arm whose profits fund a large portion of its social programs.
After the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, aid agencies and non-profit groups had to act fast as cash flowed in from around the world, accompanied by demands for plans of action. So what happens when you combine millions in foreign money, very little time, and an organization that prides itself on taking a local, sustainable approach to development in its own country?
In the past year we as a global community have witnessed enough natural disasters to know how the decisions of a few people with enough power under pressure can seriously influence the nature and outcome of assistance -- both in the emergency phase and during the long-term recovery period. One thing that rarely changes is that the people whose lives have been drastically altered have insufficient control over what kind of external support they will receive -- or the strings that will come attached. Those struggling to regain what is lost from the little that used to exist lack time or energy to cogitate about the perceived value of their choices and their right to self-determination. Many just accept that they can only expect so much from governments that marginalize them and from strangers of different tongues who break promises or dispense hundreds or thousands of what isn't needed.
Hence the growing opinion that the closest you can come to serving real needs is to join or channel efforts through local, experienced organizations which can establish long-term relationships with the affected communities. Our NGO attracted a lot of foreign donors who, to use a Thai expression, did not want their money spent by "water buffaloes in air-conditioned rooms." In other words, they trusted us to know the right approach because of our history of working out in the field and for the people. Our organization also attracted many foreign volunteers and staff, myself included (although I am half Thai and bilingual), because we wanted a firsthand experience of genuine community development.
By January 2005, our NGO executives proposed a model for post-tsunami rehabilitation to be applied systematically in 80 target villages. With more time, community-led and personalized assessments for individual villages could have been facilitated prior to this stage, but the donors were knocking on our door and everyone else's, demanding to see comprehensive disaster-relief plans that would be worthy of their cash. Our project attracted a lot of attention for some key features: democratically elected committees to represent each community; establishment of local village banks and mechanisms for micro-credit finance; women's empowerment through loans for income generation; village youth governments to train future locally-based change agents. The approach was designed to be holistic and integrated -- addressing issues of livelihood recovery, skills and capacity building, health and environment, gender equality, democracy, and community empowerment. It is visibly different from free distribution of survival necessities and other livelihood assets, or the rebuilding of infrastructure. This is because in order for the project to realize its ultimate goal -- sustainable development -- it depends upon the understanding and cooperation of Thai villagers from its inception. Donors cheer at the concepts we convey in our PowerPoint presentations. Very often they read the proposals written by foreign staff in English, and the checks follow quickly.
Yet proposals are the words brought by the messengers who help convey and sell ideas -- the ideas of people who may be visionary leaders in the development field but who, alas, have not been toiling in the field for quite some time. I am not crying "water buffalo" -- indeed, given my relatively comfortable position within the project structure, I have no right. But as one of the few messengers to have frequent contact with all players (donors, NGO executives and directors in headquarters, field/operations staff, and Thai community members), I quickly learned some things about the real world versus the theories in a university classroom. Human choices to resist or conform are determining factors in how the infallible plan plays out. And even in a grassroots NGO like this one, with a project that is crafted with the utmost consideration for community participation and long-term self-sufficiency, we are subject to the influence of internal hierarchies and silent codes of NGO-donor interaction.
So, is identifying a local partner organization enough to guarantee sustainability? One of our projects which receives much attention is our school lunch farms. This project is presented as a long-term solution to lack of nutrition in children that allows a school to generate income independently through selling crops or animals, and feed its students simultaneously. Certainly there are incredibly successful farms that have brought teachers, parents, students, and community closer in the process. Yet in all successful cases, there has been a delicate, often difficult, process of securing unyielding commitment from schools to the long-term goal. There have also been times where there was not enough time to go through a typical preparation process and schools selected for farms had never even been visited or consulted before being assigned to donors. On one occasion, I had about one day in the field to explain to donors that the schools they were scheduled to visit had not even heard about lunch farms, and at the same time, ask schools if donors could visit them in a few hours to offer them farms even if they wanted libraries and computer labs. I chose to tell the truth to both sides, matters worked out, and now all schools are preparing their lunch farms. But how will the pressure that accompanied this beginning ñ with no time for consideration, and millions of Baht already in the bank -- affect the schools' sense of investment, and how many farms will continue flourishing a few years from now?
Donors underestimate the power they have to hinder the natural progression of community-based development -- particularly when the donors are multinational businesses professing corporate social responsibility, and when the donors come from foreign "developed" nations. For in trying to foster project ownership and tangible benefits for real people who have little decision-making power (relative to those helping them), the more visible task for those at an NGO's headquarters is to accommodate those with the money so they do not have to stray too far out of their comfort zones. After all, what can be bestowed can be easily taken away. Information must be brought to donors perfectly packaged in their language and marketed to their lived experience.
The alternative -- that a donor go to the community for a week, listen and learn from the planning or preparation phases -- might seem unrealistic. But consider this. Donor visits occupy more our field staff for more than one-third of their time. Most of the time these visits occur in the context of monitoring and scrutiny, as opposed to trust-building between donor and community prior to project inception. It is inevitable that in a process where donor and recipient have no direct contact until after the project is underway, community voices will be lost, misunderstood, or diluted.
When an organization becomes large and spread-out enough, it will ultimately adopt the red tape and hierarchical structure that makes recent Peace and Justice Studies graduates groan. Sometimes to save face between our superiors and donors, we accept the immediate assignments delegated from above and the meaning of what we are doing becomes displaced. In the office, we write anything that sells in the name of the "community" though we may not know the name of a single person in that village. In the field, we drive donors toward their sponsored village on short notice, all the while formulating a defense for the deviations made from headquarters' plans. Such is the reality, until those with the power to give also choose to get the full-body experience of the development work they are enabling. Only then will they understand that they are lending assistance to other humans like themselves -- not to a project plan on paper -- and that in this process there are ambitions, competition, sacrifices, conflicts, and joys. Hands shaken in meeting rooms do not guarantee open arms as opposed to raised fists.
Having seen communities risk losing assistance in order to stand by their choices, I know that I too have the beauty of choice, and that it is my responsibility to exercise it. So I choose when to accommodate a donor and when to ask for patience and open-mindedness. I choose when to adapt to my superiors' desires and when to present my objections and alternatives. I choose when to be silent in order to keep field staff morale high and I choose when to be vocal so they know what's being decided for or above them. I choose when to promote a project idea with a Thai village elder, school teacher, or youth and when to sit back and listen to why they think it won't work or have more important things to think about. It is in thoughtful choices that community members' needs and interests are expressed, even when they are not present at the final moments of decision-making. It is also in these choices that I remember who I am, and why I am an activist.