16 March 2010

The real challenge in development work

Although emergency response after a big disaster is a challenging work, according to my experience the reconstruction and rehabilitation is the more challenging one. Basically to do emergency response is not more than distributing basic needs of the beneficiaries. The only challenge is to set up an prestigious distribution methodology, so that more beneficiaries are benefited in a rapid way.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation presents itself more complicated than it seems in the first sight. Especially in the NGO way of work, i.e. to put a high value on participation and empowerment of the beneficiaries, this challenge will appear to be real. Working together with the beneficiaries to build a resilient community seems to be easy but in reality could be difficult and complicated. No wonder that many NGOs, even the big ones, take a more practical way. On paper they present their program with a breakthrough methodology, but in reality the big part of it is only made up by lower staff.

In this aspect I was lucky that in the tsunami 2004 emergency and post emergency programme in Aceh-Nias I did not work in a big NGO, but in a small NGO, that powerful enough to put methodology in action and not only on paper in those well written progress update. Here I don't want to list all challenges in the development work after emergency phase. I rather focus on one challenge, which according to my opinion is often forgotten by NGOs. This challenge is "how to put the beneficiaries as the subject of the project itself".

Surprisingly many NGOs praise their approach as the best to suit this aim, but in reality the approach itself results in putting the beneficiaries on the looser side. One of it is to avoid paying the beneficiaries for their work in rehabilitation and reconstruction. On the first sight, and many development work consultants will convince you that this is the best and only way to empowering the beneficiaries. I was involved in a very delicate discussion during the preparation of rehabilitation and reconstruction programme in Padang West Sumatera in December last year. Some of the consultants were convinced and wanted to ensure it that no payment will be given to beneficiaries in all their reconstruction work that will take one year and a half. Why? Because this will destroy the spirit of "gotong-royong", the art of working together in Indonesia. Gotong-royong means work voluntarily without payment.

At the first sight this idea looks great and it seems to support certain value of working together and helping each other. But people who are involved in the project itself and put the beneficiaries as the subject of the project will know that this is an injustice, that this idea is worth written in report to make the consultants and back donors happy, but in the contrary it makes the beneficiaries looser. Why? Simply because gotong-royong doesn't work in such a long time consuming project. We all know that most of the beneficiaries are from the poor families. How do you dare to ask them to work one year and a half without payment? When they will earn their bread? Do you really mean that gotong-royong should take a long time like this? Gotong-royong will be done normally in a short period. The poor people need to work for their life. If they have a lot a saving in the bank, then we could ask them to work for free for one year and a half.

But there is another ethical aspect here. If we see the whole emergency response and rehabilitation and reconstruction works after tsunami 2004 in Aceh-Nias, it is unbelievable that the beneficiaries get the least of the big budgets. Sometimes I challenged some of my international and national collegues: the money was collected in the name of the victims and the affected population. But are the poor families able to buy milk for their children more than before the project? Do our projects empower them to be able to buy vitamins than before? Are they able to send their children to school because of the projects? You can continue this litany, and in the end you will wonder that the whole aid in billion dollars is actually mainly benefited the people who have had enough before and not the beneficiaries. You will know who can buy cars and houses because of the high salary they get from these projects.The beneficiaries will get in the end an empty house, but the highly paid staff will get the big amount in their bank accounts. I strongly believe that back donors have to be aware of this ethical aspect and that they should not be fascinated by the well written presentation of the consultants. Of course only if they really care about the beneficiaries. Small NGOs do!
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