Saturday, 1 November 2008

Sinani - Conflict Transformation and Development in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Sinani is a partner organisation of WFD's, a German NGO working in conflict-affected contexts. On 30 October, WFD hosted a workshop in Berlin with Berenice Meintjes, a psychologist with Sinani, who presented Sinani's "KwaZulu-Natal Programme for Survivors of Violence". The organisation has a rich website showing how Sinani combines conflict transformation, development and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment - find it among my links below.

There was one thing I found particularly striking in Berenice's presentation . She stressed that Sinani did not pre-select the communities to work in. As described by Berenice, Sinani enters a given community upon the community's request only, and without any plan: it is up to the local interlocutors to voice their interests. For example, in one place Sinani was requested to assist with the production of a music CD - they did, but via a process of clarification and negotiation to be sure the CD production would be a uniting element rather than a divisive one.
I'd wish international development NGOs could be as clear and open-minded in their work as Sinani seems to be! In many places, I have seen a routine which could be summarised as
  1. People at headquarters decide which countries to work in.
  2. People at headquarters and/ or in field offices decide what the strategic priorities for a given country are...
  3. ...then, they find local organisations to work with or/ and hire local staff to implement more or less pre-determined projects.
  4. The international NGO (INGO) hosts meetings at various levels. People are encouraged to participate - but more often than not, they are not given sufficiently clear information to fully understand the basic choices that have been made by the international NGO and are in no position to fundamentally challenge these choices, anyway.
  5. During project implementation, the focus tends to be on making sure things happen as planned (and getting the right kind of documentation for "back donors".
At first sight, this may look like the most efficient way to get things done in the sense of producing certain pre-determined outputs. But each of these five steps, especially when taken in an unthinking manner, may take those involved closer to disempowerment - and that is valid for both sides ("North" and "South") to the development game.

Should the focus of development intervention be "to get things done", or should it be to grow and unfold local talent, local capacities, local solutions?

If we are into development, then we must accept that we do not know today what we will know tomorrow. This does not mean that we have no rules - we need to formulate and abide by clear, basic standards known to everyone involved, e.g. to treat every person in a project as an end, not as a means of development, to "do no harm", to respect human rights as defined by international law. Within the basic rules we set to our interventions, we need to create a maximum of openness for "indigenous" initiative, enabling people to drive their own development processes. And we need to remain open to criticism, challenges and learning - if we don't keep developing ourselves, we're poorly placed to support others in their development.