4/20/10

Local ownership

Can there be responsibility without ownership? Can dependency be turned into a cultural trait? How much autonomy are you willing to trade-off for involving others in your decisions? These are some of the questions that work down here has given new life and meaning and put to the forefront of my mind. Not simple questions with simple answers but nonetheless questions that guide many of the choices you face in Masanga – professionally and personally.

A lot have happened during the course of the last couple of weeks, especially in the area of involving the locals in our work. We have created an advisory board for our own work. This board is made up of local stakeholders and capacities in matters of educational activity. The members thus include (beside us) a primary school headmaster, a librarian, a representative from the local teachers’ association, and the assistant business manager from Masanga. I was really anxious going into the first meeting. Were the members really interested in being permanent members, could the discussions reach the necessary level for giving qualified input to our work, what would they demand in return for their participation, and would they seriously participate or mainly observe.
I had prepared a PowerPoint show to partly explain our visions with the board and the various programmes flowing from the centre and partly make an agenda we could stick by. It worked like a charm. People paid attention; participated and made possible really useful brainstorming on some issues we were interested in getting their opinion about. I was quite positively surprised by the quality of our discussions and the board easily reached consensus on a lot of things regarding some otherwise difficult discussions.
In sum a really successful act of securing local ownership. Or was it?
Local ownership has long been a real buzz word among donors and NGOs working with development. Most project descriptions or funding requests therefore include this word in every second line: “the project will have special focus on matters of local ownership”, “participation of the locals will be ensured in every phase of the work”, “local ownership will guide the work”. The advisory board can serve as a good example for how easy this concept can be manipulated.
For how much local ownership is there really in selecting some locals by yourself (whereby you retain the possibility to choose members, that you know share your ideas about the project), to sit at meetings where you are in charge of the agenda (and thereby retains the advantage of the agenda-setting “hidden” power that lies in being able to structure the meeting) and doesn’t grant the board any real authority (so that you can always disregard their decisions).

As much as I enjoyed that the meeting (surprisingly) went according to my hopes and plan, it was necessary to make the board more independent. The next meeting was therefore used to select a new chairman, which should be given the responsibility to make sure that an agenda was made for each meeting, and that everybody have a chance to influence that. Luckily it ended up being the guy, we hoped would be selected.
For the position as secretary it was decided – with little invention on our part – that Hinduja should be performing the task with the assistance of our librarian, who in this way could receive training in doing minutes (first step was to teach him to actually take notes).

Still the board has no real power, but it is really a great way to hear the local voices, which have proven sufficiently, that they do want to speak – and are capable.

The power we haven’t yet given to the board we are on the other hand ready to give to the future manager. Right now we are in negotiations with a Sierra Leonean candidate. But I must confess that it felt somewhat strange to do interviews for this position. To suddenly be “on the other side of the table” to interview a guy, who have a better educational background and loads more experience than myself: “So, what do you consider your major weaknesses?”. Sometimes it feels like this internship let you skip 10 years of your career in terms of the character of your assignments. Which Danish company would let a guy like me be in charge of other people, or do interviews with a man tenfold more experienced than me, or be in charge of the budget?
And he certainly is qualified for the position. During our last conversation he told us, that he “was 85 %” about the job. Nothing is settled, but it has been great discussing the project with him. He has a lot of ideas and his many years working for different (western) NGOs are definitely visible in his choice of words and his perspectives on doing development. In other words he talks a lot about local ownership.

In time I think he could be the right man to show, that the concept can move beyond being the “façade décor” that many development thinkers criticise it of. But of course that will need us to dare transferring much responsibility and autonomy.

Local ownership is in my eyes extremely important. Sometimes it seems that the long, long record of NGOs working in Sierra Leone (from long time before the civil war) has had some perverse effects. The most visible of these is the culture of dependency that I sense in so many people I encounter. The idea that white men are like mango trees – if only you shake them enough (and in the right way) you will enjoy the fruit of your labour, and you will eat (eating is a far-reaching metaphor in Africa). The problem is then, that nobody want to plant new trees, and start up their own farm (to take the metaphor further), because that doesn’t feed you today. This culture of dependency thus produces an atmosphere of inaction. And maybe that is why it is so difficult to buy Sierra Leonean products. Everybody is to busy shaking the trees. That is a contributing factor why the cheap toothpaste you can buy in the streets are Chinese, the sweets are Lebanese, and the beers are Danish.

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