Engaging in any kind of community development work can be challenging. From my experience, the idea of what “development” is, is always changing. “Development” in a global context is assumed to mean progress, or working to make things “better” than they are. This usually manifests as the practical application of Western assumptions about issues, problems and challenges in communities both abroad and in Canada. For example, NGOs working to implement education by providing a Western curriculum that does not acknowledge the cultural, local or community level social relations and historical context. As I have come to understand the assumptions that inform a general understanding of “development”, my understanding of “development” has changed. For me, “development” is working towards mutual goals in collaborative environments where projects are co-created with acknowledgement, respect and in partnership with local communities where the project will be implemented. Projects should work to support sustainable opportunities within communities towards common goals that are shared by communities. It is a partnership, that most of the time is fraught with challenge and chaos yet despite this, there is mutual benefit and mutual respect in learning through the challenge.
I have learned a few things that may seem vague or intangible but, for me, have created a productive basis of partnership and respect.
Take time to build genuine relationships with the people you are working with. Even if there is a feeling like nothing is happening, the time you spend building relationships is invaluable. I once spent three months working with a group of people and simply being curious, asking questions, feeling uncomfortable that I wasn’t “doing” anything and wanting to go home. I ended up continuing to work with this group of people for years since then based on the relationships we built over the 3 months of curiosity.
Keep questioning your role. Ask yourself what you’re learning is and what kind of impact you’re having, if any. It is uncomfortable to consider yourself, your power and your privilege but important in creating partnership. Somebody told me once that there should always be a sense of discomfort working in a community you’re not directly a part of and if there isn’t any discomfort than you’re doing something wrong.
Have the uncomfortable conversations about the context and history of development that is hard to talk about – colonialism, power, privilege, saviourism, dependency, corruption. Talking about these ideas in context helps understand dynamics between yourself and the people you are working with which will create an opportunity for more informed development.
Reach out and share your story and experience to recreate the narrative of what “development” means and how people are impacted by your work. Sharing also helps ground your experience in your own reality of life. I have always struggled working in development by what seems to be my “real” life and what is my work. Growing up in Canada and working in Tanzania creates an opportunity to continually bridge my two realities of life and stay connected to my role.
Development is different for everyone. At the basis of it is a critical reflection of your own role and a curiosity of the world to see what is possible.
Hanna Chidwick is a current MSc Global Health
student at McMaster University. She studied Global
Development during her undergraduate degree
before spending the past two years working in
Tanzania with community led initiatives. Hanna is
passionate about re-framing the construction of
“Africa” and creating respectful, informed, practical
ways to engage in community development.