A few years ago, an international volunteer noticed that the village he worked in lacked a clean, convenient water source. Women were walking 1-2 km to retrieve dirty river water. After two years of hard work, the volunteer successfully built a local well. To his amazement, the women did not use the well, even after he repeatedly prodded them. Frustrated and exhausted, the volunteer began to investigate the mystery. He soon learned that the daily walk to the river was the only time the women of the village could leave their homes and commune with one another.
The story illuminates a common problem in international development. The recognition of culture and local belief systems is not traditionally included in the study and implementation of development projects. Beliefs, values, and worldviews common to Westerners can be extremely different from the ones confronted in the Global South. While the volunteer successfully addressed a community need by his own standards, he missed half of the equation—the unseen, unspoken half that decides how the community feels about the project. It may seem obvious through the eyes of a westerner that a village would want and benefit from a local well. However, without community participation and an understanding of the cultural complexities at play, the well (and many other projects like it) fail to be sustainable.
Foundation for Sustainable Development works to provide a solution to unsuccessful projects by engaging in a more comprehensive approach to development—one that integrates pragmatic solutions with the qualitative interior needs of individuals and communities. These interior aspects (feelings, beliefs, values, and worldviews) are the source of empowerment and the ability to collectively and sustainably rise out of poverty.
The trauma of war, famine, marginalization, desertification, and economic oppression divides communities and reduces self-worth. Delivering resources and implementing needs-based solutions does not automatically trigger a belief in individual and collective action. When plans and solutions come solely from outside intervention, results may look good temporarily, but they do little for the community's belief in their ability to sustain change. In some cases, foreign intervention may actually further feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.
Sustainable solutions must understand the process of personal empowerment and social transformation in order for local ownership to take hold. Communities need to actively participate in the planning, execution, and maintenance of any development solutions that affect them. Since interior growth takes time and is difficult to achieve, any effective development intervention will integrate the perspectives it confronts and translate key messages in terms that can be understood and valued by the community. This allows the community to engage the work in ways that conform to local traditions and ways of thinking.
Sustainable development practiced by FSD involves cultivating relationships, building trust between stakeholders, and acknowledging local value systems in a community-centered approach. Our purpose is to find the barriers in ourselves and our community partners that prevent individual and collective empowerment. Only when these complex barriers are addressed can we implement development solutions in a collaborative and sustainable manner.
Our development model is a response to traditional development's treatment of local communities as passive recipients of “top-down” solutions. We partner with over 200 grassroots organizations that understand the cultural and practical landscape of their communities. With this critical knowledge, our partner organizations hold the key to leading their communities out of poverty. By offering financial resources, capacity, and the understanding that the local leadership must be the true vehicle for change, we are able to make a global impact.
Shifting Development Paradigms
Conventional international development began at the end of World War II and was a major shift from traditional missionary work and colonialism. The conventional approach harnesses scientific rigor, quantitative methodologies, and concrete problem solving for the pursuit of economic growth. Interventions are centrally planned and imposed upon local communities. The communities themselves are viewed as objects of development and are reduced to empirical indicators rather than subjective participants in their own development process.
The integration of technology, health practices, democratic approaches, and rights-based solutions are major accomplishments of the conventional paradigm. However, this approach fails to reach the vast majority of marginalized communities and has led to a rapid loss of natural and social capital, while triggering rampant disempowerment, civil unrest, and loss of cultural identity.
From the conventional arose an alternative development paradigm in the 1970s that addresses a broader scope of needs, such as human well-being, environmental conservation, and most importantly, local ownership. The alternative approach embraces participatory methods and recognizes qualitative needs of communities and individuals to promote heterarchical decision-making. Local knowledge, cultural norms, and systems are honored and transferred into real participatory partnerships that foster empowerment and sustainability. The alternative paradigm produced methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry, Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, Participatory Action Research, and many others.
While collaborative action better addresses the spectrum of community needs, it has its own set of stifling limitations. Practitioners must have a thorough understanding of, and commitment to, participatory methodologies for them to be effective. This is extremely challenging to integrate, particularly for Westerners who live in an individualistic, hierarchical, and competitive culture. A common result of this problem is that international institutions, like the World Bank, will receive permission from local communities to implement their projects, but the communities are not actively involved in planning, implementing, or monitoring the work. The outcomes of these projects are rarely sustainable.
There are numerous psychosocial barriers to marginalized communities actively participating in sustainable development. These include factors such as a lack of individual self-worth, community cohesion, and unseen cultural rules. For example, in many cultures that FSD works with, there is a silent, unquestioning obedience to authority that arose out of severe patriarchal structures. The result is that individuals often do not take initiative to insert change unless directly instructed to do so by a person in authority. Attempting to encourage community participation, particularly from women, is extremely difficult under these circumstances.
Our Role as Outsiders
As outsiders, how do we overcome these barriers and limitations to cultivate empowered participation that results in sustainable growth? The alternative development approach fails to answer this question, giving rise to the need for a development paradigm that transcends the conventional and alternative approaches, while including their valuable additions to the development puzzle.
Foundation for Sustainable Development offers a transformative approach to community growth. Our model integrates pragmatic solutions (conventional) and local participation and ownership (alternative), with a concerted effort to understand and incorporate the interior aspects of our partner communities. We recognize that the individuals we support bring their own unique histories, fears, aspirations, beliefs, and values to the table—aspects that differ greatly from one culture to the next. The interaction between FSD and our partner communities is a deeply personal one. By working with the interior aspects of these communities, we are able to witness and address the barriers that restrict empowerment and participation.
Similarly, our volunteers and interns carry their own set of barriers, which often involve unknowingly imposing their own cultural values and ambitions on the community they are working to support. Uncovering the barriers and cultural complexities on both sides of the development equation is the root work that must be done before a trusted understanding is built and community participation becomes possible.
When we address community needs, while fundamentally transforming the way individuals see themselves and their community roles, our function as a development organization is achieved. This dynamic process of integrating solutions that address interior and exterior needs is what makes our organization unique. It is what lies at the heart of the Foundation for Sustainable Development.