Great Stories, Leadership, Vision

The “Local Leadership” Dilemma

As I’ve been becoming more educated in the field of global relief and development I’ve started to form some reasonably strong opinions. The strongest is that I don’t know enough to support my strong opinions. I have become convinced by reading, site visits, and conversations with trusted, experienced professionals that effective long term improvement in lives and communities in the developing world requires leadership from within the local community. The enormous failure of foreign aid over the last decades has demonstrated that western money is not sufficient to change reality in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, or even among the poor and outcast in our own country. There is something true in the adage about teaching a man to fish. In principle I support the idea of local leadership, but if the needed leadership was in place wouldn’t things be improving? I hate to sound like a redneck but isn’t their ample evidence that leadership is one of the resources that is missing in many struggling countries? Dare I say that there is something lacking in the vision, ethics, and strategy of locals in many places that contributes to their ongoing suffering? It is apparent that much of the world has not demonstrated the ability to make critical decisions that are in the long term best interests of their people and environment. Generations of the world’s poorest have come and gone without significant improvement despite massive financial giving. That’s not to suggest that we’ve got everything figured out at home. The current debt crises in the United States and Europe make it clear that there are deep problems in our leadership as well. Two years ago I posted about an exciting project in Swaziland called Bulembu. Sadly, recent developments have created significant doubt about the future of the efforts. The Globe and Mail has done an appropriate job of describing the changes in what seem to be careful terms. Commenters have (as usual) been far less diplomatic. Professor Sugunasiri’s broad stroke condemnation of western “arrogance”, though coming off as more arrogant itself, does perhaps offer something of value. There can be no effective partnership between people, organizations, communities, or countries when either side believes the other is ignorant. Humility must become the foundation. I was pleased to see that Volker Wagner and the Bulembu International board will continue to support the Child Care Program at Bulembu even as the local leaders take over much of the operation. Perhaps they are demonstrating that there is a point when humility requires that partnerships are dissolved with as much dignity and grace as possible. What’s the lesson here? Leadership is a critical resource in development and in the long term it is best to see it centred in locals who are intimately familiar with the culture and characteristics of the people we are trying to help; but that must be balanced with a mutual humility that respects the strengths and perspectives of all involved. We must do the hard work of true partnership whenever possible. Generalizations about Africans or Westerners or the poor are inflammatory and unhelpful. We should expect that no one we deal with is entirely pure in motive or clear in expectations, and that includes ourselves. And we should keep trying. The needs are too great and the stories of success too profound for us give up hope.