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The Song Remains the Same

April 28, 2011

And so it happens again.

A benevolent funder/project sponsor breezes into our city with a great project to build social capital, spread information, to raise the profile of local issues and to  report on the local political process.

And just as things start to find their feet and make a real difference, they breeze out again.

It happens all of the time.  Funding runs out.  Patience runs out. Commitment runs out.

Because for the project sponsor this is little more than ‘an experiment’.  Or ‘a contract’.  A community to dabble in.  A kind of train set for grown ups.

This is not their community.

This is not where their children will grow up or their parents will grow old.  Of course they will have local people on the ground – but the ones that really call the shots?  This is not THEIR community.

This is what passes for community development work these days.  A never ending stream of short-term projects that raise aspirations, engage people, make ground and then, in the vast majority of cases, fade away – leaving behind a sense of betrayal, frustration and in some cases apathy.

But it is alright because there is always another funding stream to apply for, another gig to get, another project to manage.  We just need to secure the standard evaluation that declares ‘Much has been achieved – but much remains to be done’ and we can all move on holding our chins up high.  This is the standard pattern of the ‘development industry’ – less so in the developing world these days but still almost exclusively on domestic ‘projects’.

And most of us development professionals are complicit in the process.  We kid ourselves that THIS funding stream is different, that THIS project will help to shift things, that THIS building holds the keys to the kingdom, or at least pay our mortgage for another year or two until the right opportunity comes along.

At some point we have to recognise that change that is prompted from outside, that is funded by someone else, that delivers someone else’s policy goals or answers someone else’s questions is really unlikely to provide us with any hope of transformation.

At some point we have to recognise that for any real long-term success we have to start from where WE are, and work with what WE have got, and break this dangerous habit of relying on external ‘benevolence’.

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