Don’t Tell Them What They Need

Posted on February 8, 2008. Filed under: Making Change, Nonprofit, Social Entrepreneurship |

When I was in Africa I first started hearing about giving service to others according to what they need, not what you think they need.

My church works with World Hope International Zambia which takes a unique approach to taking care of orphans and their caregivers in the villages in Zambia. World Hope doesn’t just waltz into a village and give them things they think they need and leave. They talk to leaders in the village and ask them to get a group together of caregivers who would be interested in working together to make money and get extra benefits from World Hope. The group then decides what three projects they would like to take on-the village I worked with decided to raise chickens, have a garden, and have a carpentry shop-World Hope gives them the money and guides them through the experience. The ultimate hope is the villages become self-sufficient through the jobs they have created on their own.  They also create partnership with American churches who give the money to start the projects.

I like their model and feel good participating in the work with the village and with World Hope. A lot of people become skeptical about doing “missions” work, they think you are just going to waltz in there and take over, tell them what they need and leave.

A women on the plane ride over to Africa exactly expressed those same concerns. She turned to me and my traveling companion and said “You Americans you think you can just go to Africa, stay for a week, tell them what they need and leave. You are not doing any good, you actually tend to make things worse.” As much as I felt offended by the fact she decided I was one of those Americans, I agreed with her in the fact that there are people that do that, and it is not the right way to do it.

While visiting other countries or deciding on new service projects at home we have to make sure that the population we are serving wants and needs what we are giving them. Both of these have to be in place.

During a class discussion a couple weeks ago a fellow student was talking about her recent trip to Tijuana with Habitat for Humanity. She has frequently gone back there and has made some strong relationships with the people she has visited. But she mentioned something she was struggling with. There was one area in particular where Habitat built a whole new community for individuals without homes. In this community there was wide spread violence and poverty, although they had roofs over their head. She could not figure out why.

Of course, me and my big mouth, had to ask “Are you sure that the houses were what they wanted?” She was adamant that they needed a roof and that is what they wanted, what they had always told her, and they were grateful. After a heated discussion, where the professor stepped into to challenge Habitat’s process there we decided all together that they needed houses, but they weren’t in the right location.

You see Habitat built the whole new community and gave houses to people from all over Tijuana, which meant that everyone that moved there had to relocate, leave their families and old neighborhoods behind. They wanted a home, but they didn’t want it where they put it.

One can look at the situation and think, well they should just be grateful. And this is the way many Americans think about philanthropy. “I am giving them something, before they had nothing. They should just be grateful.”

I feel wholeheartedly that this isn’t the answer.

Yes, of course they are grateful, but if we didn’t give them what they wanted, where they wanted it, and really essentially what they needed – which was a stable community and home where they wanted it in this example – we are not setting the community up for sustainability.

I know if I won a free Hummer online, I would be grateful, but I am not going to drive it, even if I don’t have a working car. I am going to sell it and buy the things I need, a car with better gas milleage.  Unfortunately, all those that we give to don’t have that option. A person receiving a Habitat home can’t just sell it and move back home to buy another house.

So, next time you are giving, think about what the person really needs. Next time you are being a social entrepreneur think about what your organization really needs and how it will affect your community and those you serve. If you think only on the surface your goal will never be reached.


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