The two decades following the end of World War II were filled with excitement and challenge as the forces of good had just overcome the forces of evil. The US had beat Germany to the bomb and was in a race to beat the Soviet Union into space. The very definition of “American” was clarified and bolstered in the midst of a threatening and expanding Communistic influence in the world, and the United States was determined to sow the seeds of Democracy and Capitalism around the globe.
In the wake of this momentous occasion, economic theories began to arise addressing how the development of countries referred to as the Third World should take place. The underpinnings of these models included the belief that these so-called Third World countries were inferior to ours, that development was defined by economic growth and that economic growth followed a replicable model that could be applied anywhere. Over the course of the last 60 years, aid agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID and the United Nations have spent $2.3 trillion to eradicate poverty according to this very principle, and yet half the world’s children – one out of every two – live a life severely diminished by crushing poverty.
This top-down model of development clearly is not working.
As a matter of fact, more and more research is demonstrating the advantages of bottom-up models of development. Among these studies is a paper recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever).” In the paper, authors Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz conclude that social change initiatives that do less informing and consulting and more collaborating and empowering tend to have a greater chance of success. While their work focused on social change in the United States (admittedly a very different context than where we work in rural Guatemala), the factors they identified for successful community engagement embody the same core principles we’ve found integral to Reading Village’s international work: dignity, learning, and empowerment.
We honor and affirm the resourcefulness and humanity of each person we encounter. This means that we interact with our community partners as equals, not as inferior people who are incapable of doing for themselves. We invite and respect the wisdom, voices, and contributions of teens, parents, teachers, children and community leaders. And because of this, we have developed trusting relationships with communities that enable us to accompany them on their journey to prosperity – prosperity defined and owned by the communities themselves.
We continually look for ways to improve what we do and adapt to changing circumstances. We regularly ask the following four questions: What unexpected event has surprised us lately? Where did it come from? Why is it important and how does it inform how we go forward? As a result our work is informed and improved by what’s actually happening on the ground. Because what seems like a good idea isn’t always a good idea in the cultural context in which we work, and even a good idea that gets implemented exists in a dynamic environment which often requires adjustments — adjustments that inevitably improve upon the idea and the outcomes.
In everything we do, we help people to realize their own potential, take initiative, and discover their ability to influence. We encourage our youth leaders to envision and own the future they want to create for their lives and communities and then we support them with the skills and confidence they need to make those dreams a reality. It is a result of this emphasis that we place on empowerment that we have been able to participate in sustainable transformation, like the youth leaders opening first-ever public libraries in their communities and creating a culture of literacy that will persist long after our presence.
Amartya Sen, author of Development As Freedom, and Nobel prize winning economist defines development as well as I’ve seen anywhere: the freedom to live a life one deems worth living. This kind of freedom, this kind of development, cannot come from outsiders imposing a way of life based on the premise that they know better or that their way of living is better. It can only come from the bottom up, a journey taken together, learning from one another.