Humility and Development by David Westlake

Humility and development work

SEPTEMBER 19, 2012

Human beings seem to love a plan. In fact the more educated, rich and powerful human beings get the more we love a plan. And we especially love a plan made by us and our rich, educated and powerful friends that is about fixing things for other people. We see this in every sphere of life- including development work.

In development work rich, educated, powerful and well-intentioned people make up plans or solutionsfor people who have less formal education, money and power. Programmes and projects that might have worked well in one place are implemented in other places without much regard to the different local circumstances. Local “partners” become programme contractors rather than collaborators and learning is adopted rather than adapted. The result is disempowerment and weak ownership even if there are some good outputs. It is not sustainable, does not create local civil society and dis-honours people.

John Kay has written about this tendency across the variety of human endeavour.

‘It is hard to overstate the damage done in the recent past by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of shareholder value. The architects and planners who believed that buildings could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper, and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities. The politicians who believed they could improve public services by the imposition of multiple targets. Acknowledging the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated these systems would have avoided these errors.’

Obliquity, John Kay

One of the reasons that I am excited about church and community mobilisation approaches in development is that they work hard to resist the desire of the rich and powerful to fix everything for other people. They begin with humility. The kind of humility that starts with listening to God and listening to people.

Typically these approaches begin with a fresh appreciation of the Bible story, particularly the way God thinks about people and communities, what He is concerned about and interested in and how he relates to people. The process helps the church to re-imagine mission and become a truly prophetic witness in their communities. It moves on to a deep understanding of the capabilities, problems, opportunities and dreams of the church and community. This discovery comes not from the minds and theoretical models of the experts but the experiences and and words of the church and community. As dreams and visions develop, rather than bringing in outside specialists ‘men and women of peace’ are brought together from within the community. Together they decide what issues to address, what problems to overcome and how to overcome them. The outside agency is an observer and supporter never the controller.

It’s tough for the rich, educated people who are used to having the power. It is hard to write a five year plan with set outputs, outcomes and impact statements. But it brings us to the heart of Philippians 2, which actually is the heart of God’s mission strategy. Jesus did not grab the power that he could have but chose to live differently so that others could become free. The path towards excellent Christian development practice seems to also be the path of discipleship.


About ywammercy

Called to serve the poor of our world through self-sacrificing love, compassion and justice in the model of Jesus Christ.
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