A few days ago, I was sitting in a café being interviewed for a friend’s research project on the global social contract–the collective norms and sense of responsibility that we are developing together through institutions and the increase in interactions and communications across the world.
My friend asked me towards the end of the interview: “What do we owe each other?” The question took me aback for a second, and I realized we so often frame development as one privileged party giving to another less privileged party. We look at it as a gift, an act of charity. We rarely view it as a responsibility that we owe one another as human beings.
My initial response to his question was that we owe it to each other to examine what role we play in perpetuating inequalities, whether in our community, our family, or at work. In development, it’s essential. There is nothing more fraught with complexity than the development industry, where racism, sexism, privilege, and capitalism overlap.
In my work as the co-founder of Women LEAD, a leadership development organization for young women in Nepal, I often wade deep into this complexity. The values we hold dear–sustainability and local ownership–are ones we try to put into practice day after day, knowing that at some point we will sometimes fail.
We knew when we started Women LEAD that our organization would have to begin and end in the hands of the community we work in. My co-founder grew up in Kathmandu, and her experience living and working there brought us to start Women LEAD there. But she is not Nepali, and more importantly she will not spend the rest of her life in the community, which makes it our responsibility to ensure that young Nepali women work with us to build, and eventually fully own, the organization.
It seems obvious to state that the young women in the community we work in know best what problems they’re facing and what solutions they need. But development rarely works that way. We (individuals, organizations, governments) come in with XYZ solution to what we think is the issue in this community or country, and we’re surprised when it fails.
It seems almost sadly revolutionary to state: the first thing we should do when entering a community is to ask their permission to do so. The second is to ask them what they need, and how we can partner with them to provide a solution. The third is to work with them every step of the way, at every step of the development of our organization, from the development and implementation of our programs to our strategy for the next few years.
My co-founder and I know that in a few years we will not run Women LEAD in Nepal ourselves anymore. As any founder knows, there’s difficulty in letting your creation go. But success, and sustainability, will only happen when “your” organization becomes the community’s organization. There’s fear, of course: Where will they take it? What will Women LEAD become in five years? I owe it to the young women we work with to leave it to them to answer the question.