The Story of the Half-Built Road

Three lessons from a human-based approach to international development

June 2024
April 2024
June 17, 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

My friend Brian, who works in development, often tells a story that has always stuck with me.

It’s about a time he traveled for a consulting project to a remote community in Northern Somalia, where there was no recognized government. His job was to determine the community’s priorities and report back to the client.

On his first day, Brian gathered some community members and invited them to share stories of when they had solved a problem for themselves: fixing a building, digging a well, preparing a new plot – anything. Next, he asked them what they were good at doing outside of their livelihoods – cooking, taking care of kids, making things. Finally, he asked what resources they had at their disposal – land, tools, animals, vehicles. 

As the conversation progressed, people began to point out unfinished projects around town, including a partially-built access road. The project had run out of money, so construction fizzled out. 

My friend left Somalia after a few days, but the story didn’t end there. 

After he left, the group kept meeting. Pretty soon, they determined that they had the resources to complete the road themselves. The community reached out to other villages along the road, local contractors who could donate machinery, and Somali diaspora communities in the US and Europe.

Eventually, local authorities got wind of the project and provided more resources until the road was completed.

I’m sharing this story from my home and my vantage point of Haiti. The story speaks to me because it represents such a departure from the typical way that I’ve seen development and international aid play out where I live.

I started this column because I’ve seen too much harm and I know too many jaded development practitioners. I’m doing this because I no longer want to feel like we are fighting to go down fighting. I’ve seen people do amazing things with very little and I know there is a better way forward for development. 

First, build trust

My friend’s objective in Somalia was not to fund or implement a specific project; it was to reshape the narrative within a community around their own capacity – both as a community and as individuals. Development fatigue is very real and keeps people trapped in project cycles that make it hard to see what’s possible with what is available. Fostering spaces where people can list their own skills and strengths can help them find power in themselves and feel valued.

The term that’s often used for this kind of work is asset-based community development. There’s some good stuff written about how to apply an asset-based approach to development, but the buzzwords and fuzzwords of development can miss the point: my friend practiced basic principles of human interaction, connection and kindness.

These are not the kind of skills that can be taught in a manual or webinar; they can only be learned through inner work and practice. The good news is that anyone can learn them.

I speak from experience. I am a mulatto Haitian woman who has lived in the capital city of Port-au-Prince my whole life, except for my time studying in the US. When I go into a local community, they will never see me as equal because within this system, we are not. But if they see me as trustworthy, we can go further. Trustworthy enough to not make idle promises, to be transparent, to keep my word (worth repeating), and to fight and advocate for them in the privileged spaces I occupy. 

And, most importantly, grateful to be worthy of their trust.

Stop trying to define the problem

I often say, “He who defines the problem, defines the solution.”

For as long as international aid has been around, professionals in development have defined the problems in the communities where they work, which means they have always owned the solutions.

My friend Brian did not go into a community and tell them what they needed. Instead, he asked, and let people come to their own conclusions. This approach is especially important in parts of the world that are most in need of development funding. 

Something that has long frustrated me is development’s obsession with quantifying the price of a good life. Many aid projects focused on raising the “quality of life” for those living “under two dollars a day.” 

What this equation misses is that many people who earn “under two dollars a day,” have land, animals, and children who attend school. They are able to meet most of their core needs, are respected members of their communities, and yet they are defined as “extreme poor” or “most marginalized.”

When the problem is defined through distant observation, the solutions don’t always match what’s needed and can even make things worse. Development sees people in thatched-roof homes, with no power or indoor plumbing, so they pay for “innovation” that leaves those same people in new homes with worse circulation and new electricity and equipment costs. Just like that, one less child (definitely the girl) will be going to school. 

Let’s get back to basics

My friend’s approach in Somalia shouldn’t be such an outlier – and it doesn’t have to be.

Indigenous activist and artist Lilla Watson famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” She was arguing for community-owned solutions over approaches that assume a community is deficient, ignorant, or otherwise inept.

We have to go back to basics and stop erasing people with “fuzzwords” like “beneficiaries” or “stakeholders.” People living in poverty are humans who want connection, safety and trust, like anyone else. These desires are human, fullstop. They are not unique to privileged or educated people.

I’m calling for a reality check across development. We need to remember that development is not carried out by institutions. Institutions house the capital and the systems of philanthropy, but development is done by people, individuals with their unique backgrounds, ideas, and personalities. The individuals we say we want to help also have their own backgrounds, ideas, and personalities.

Shifting the power allows communities to define their own problems and own their solutions. That means donors will have to intentionally choose to not define the problem – and get comfortable with not owning the solution. 

Come along with me and let’s repair development.

Isabelle is a Haitian anthropologist whose work is focused on claiming local narratives by leveraging the power and assets of communities in Haiti. From 2017 to 2019, she worked with the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to run a civil society-led process to design Haiti’s first national strategy for confronting past crimes and impunity.

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