Rethinking Development: Empowerment of the Community

The other day, I was having a conversation with someone about the goals of Pangea Proxima and, more generally, about development work.  This person suggested to me that I consider introducing clinical trials to impoverished rural areas of the countries that I may work in.  The rationale was that clinical trials were a method of supplying people with medical assessments and medications that they would not have access to otherwise.  As well-intentioned as this perspective may be, I couldn’t help but be surprised that the larger implications regarding ethical practices and sustainability weren’t immediately understood as well. 
Children of Butajira, Ethiopia

I joined Pangea Proxima as a consultant because I believe in work that is thoughtful in its development as well as respectful of human dignity regardless of location or socioeconomic status of the people benefiting from the project.  The goal is always to develop projects that have staying power, that community members have ownership over, that elicit pride.  A clinical trial, while potentially providing healthcare to the selected participants, is time-limited and for a select few.  Sustainable projects should ideally have a long-lasting impact and be available to all.  In addition, I don’t believe that using a person’s inability to access healthcare as an avenue to test medical practices or medications is morally acceptable.  So this leads me to my question of... why?  Why would someone who I believe to be generally ethical suggest a project idea that I believe is a great departure from the direction that development work should be heading?
Mural in Hawassa, Ethiopia

I think the answer to this question lies in the distance that people can place between those living in wealthy countries as opposed to people living in low-income, and therefore low-resource, countries.  There is a tendency to try to fix the problem of poverty by throwing solutions at it, in the form of money or donations, when these may not ultimately be a solution at all.  Feeding a person for a day may mean that their stomach is full today, but empty again tomorrow; the underlying issue that caused the hunger remains.  I believe that educating and empowering an individual or a community is 100 times more effective in promoting development than donating food or clothing is.  Increasing skills in sustainable farming or building practices not only provides lasting food and shelter, it maintains the dignity of the project participants. 

There is a movement in the international development world that is shifting away from the previous paradigm of wealthy countries donating money and an agenda for poor countries to implement.  The shift is toward the empowerment of people in low-income countries to find and implement solutions for their own countries because they are, quite obviously, the people who know their land best.  I believe that the most successful and ethical projects that require outside funding or support are the ones that truly harness and empower the voices of the target population.  Pangea Proxima is attempting to do just this by building local capacity, employing local people in projects, getting ideas from local people and consulting with the community every step of the way.  I believe that this is the direction that development work needs to head in in order to maintain integrity, and for this reason I am very proud to join the Pangea Proxima team.

Author: Marina Marcus (Pangea Proxima International Consultant- Global Health Specialist)

1 comment:

J Mincey said...

Wonderful work, Marina. I agree wholeheartedly that empowerment of the people is the key. It is one thing to insert your own agenda and do what you think is good for a community. It is quite another to offer resources to the people and let them make decisions that work best for them. This gives the people in the community a sense of ownership and, in the long run, will make for change that could last for generations.

Once again, nice job. It is nice to be affiliated with an organization that has so many like-minded, forward-thinking people, such as yourself.