It’s Called ‘Learning’
As well-intentioned external interveners, we want to do everything right. Our mistakes have consequences for the people we’re working for and the people we’re working with. There is a push to be perfect. This pressure comes from colleagues, bosses, donors and beneficiaries.
In an ideal world, yes, everyone intervening in humanitarian emergencies or working on development would be perfect. No one would have too little time, too little money or too many tools. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that in a truly ideal world there would be no need for outside intervention in the first place.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in either of these worlds. We live in the reality in which the people who want to do good need to develop their skills, learn the context and learn how to apply their skills and knowledge to their work in ways that make sense. They need to be granted the freedom to make choices that may not work, understand why they didn’t, then be granted the license to make changes based on this understanding. This last bit is the most important.
I’m not advocating for experimentation in people’s lives, but rather the leeway to adapt programming choices based on the realities of the context.
One organization, working in Cambodia, was making beneficiary selections based on the wealth criterion “poorest-of-the-poor.” The project was slated to last three years. After the first year, the project team re-evaluated their context and found that not only had very poor migrants moved into the project area, but those people with whom they had been working no longer fit the poorest-of-the-poor criteria. The team, however, did not want to re-examine the criteria because they feared that they would lose funding from the donor, even though conflicts were arising in the villages between project beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries.
This was a case in which the project staff knew that they should have developed options for change, but they didn’t have (or perceived that they didn’t have) the license to make those changes.