A guest post by Jennifer Lentfer of how-matters.org.
(Whispering.) “Psst, excuse me. Actually it’s not ‘your’ program. And if you think that it is, we may have a problem on our hands.”
Many would argue that who owns what in development is a key aspect, if not the aspect, to a project’s or program’s success.
And so a person’s choice word choice when describing their work or endeavor can actually reveal quite a lot.
Some may think I’m just being fussy about semantics. They’ll argue that that well done is more important than well said. They’ll point to the fact that international assistance is constantly riddled with phrases and jargon that are eventually forgotten or rendered meaningless. But it’s deeper than that and I’m not talking nouns and acronyms.
I’m talking about possessive adjectives. MINE – YOURS – ITS – HERS – HIS – OURS – THEIRS – WHOSE.
Let’s be honest. How many of you, when talking to a friend, another NGO colleague, or donor refers to “our program” in [insert Country X or District Y or Village Z]?
But let me ask you something – Do you live in Country X or District Y or Village Z?
If you don’t, that should be your first clue that “my project” or “our program” is not the phrase for you to use. Here’s some others:
- When people from your community are knocking on your door for help and you are working day and night to help fulfill their self-identified needs, then yes, by all means, lay your claim.
- When you are coming up with the ideas and steps forward, based on a collective process to generate solutions to shared problems with your neighbors’ and fellow community members, then yes, “our project” is appropriate.
- When you are implementing a project and it’s not just a job or a hobby, it is a matter of life and personal responsibility to people you face every day, go ahead, “our project” can be yours.
- When you can identify with the people you’re serving to such an extent that you feel an obligation to be directly accountable to them in a tangible rather than an abstract way, the program is truly “yours.”
Essentially, unless you’re on the ground, doing the work with and on behalf of your own community on a daily basis, I believe a program cannot and should not ever be considered “yours,” grammatically or otherwise. Without this awareness, “our project” can be dismissive and disrespectful to local activists and grassroots leaders.
Every aid worker probably has their own bugaboos about aid jargon. These come and go as the aid lexicon shifts and changes with the latest development trend. There was a time near the turn of this century when I felt as if I had to discuss the definition of CABA (children affected by AIDS) then later OVC (orphans and vulnerable children) in one more stakeholder meeting, I would literally pitch a fit like a three-year-old.
But this “our project” issue for me has never left. When I was with a large corporate aid agency, though we claimed to work in partnership with local implementing organizations, all the programs were conceived of and spoken of as “ours.” This always struck me as extremely hypocritical, and frankly counter-productive to sound and proven principles of assets-based, community-driven development.
What made them our programs? The fact that we wrote the proposals? (Eh hum, in consultation with our partners of course.) Or were they our programs because, through our funding of local partners, we ultimately controlled how each cent was spent? Or because we were supposedly the ones who had to be accountable to USAID?
How is community ownership even possible under such circumstances? Local partners and communities didn’t have a chance to make the projects theirs. If a project is considered to be someone else’s, and your sense of agency and autonomy are clearly not on their radar, why would you even bother?
Similarly, I hear “our project” used just as egregiously by the philanthropy, DIY aid, and social enterprise folks. How many times have I had to endure hearing all about “our project” from the do-gooder newly returned from Kenya at a cocktail party? As I nod and listen, I’m silently thinking to myself that the fact that this project is “yours,” will more than likely contribute to its downfall.
In the Keystone INGO Partner Survey, an initiative to measure the performance of northern NGOs, local organizations sent a clear message. They do not want to be treated as sub-contractors, carrying out international agencies’ projects and priorities. Rather they want help from aid agencies to become independent and influential organizations in their own right, enabling them to respond flexibly to local people’s needs.
When are we going to realize that participation is not just a nice-to-have in this work? Nor is it even enough.
To bring about real change, we need to be talking ownership.
And not our own.
Named One of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter,” Jennifer Lentfer is the creator of how-matters.org. Lentfer has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade, as well as various international organizations in Africa and the US, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and Firelight Foundation. Lentfer is currently Senior Writer on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness team and editor of the organization’s Politics of Poverty blog. Lentfer is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.
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