During our sabbatical in the United States (2010-2011), we received a bird feeder as a gift. We excitedly hung it on a tree outside our kitchen window – eager to feed the poor birds during winter as well as to enjoy watching them. A couple days later we noticed a hawk in our yard. A hawk relishing every bite of one of those poor sparrows. As he tore away at the smaller bird, forming a circle of feathery carnage, it struck me that this is exactly the dilemma face by development agencies world round, including our own.
We only want to help the poor birds. In so much development around the world, the initial emphasis is upon helping the poor and their nation towards a better way of life. Experts come in with great plans for how to do this which range from economic development plans, initiatives to encourage industry and business, policy guidance for governments as they plan and systematize their bureaucracies, financial investments to build schools and hospitals and training to expand the capacity of professionals in their fields. Often the plans are carried out by more foreign experts, some with a degree of success while the expert is there. Yet when the experts leave, the projects, plans, and people left behind often fall into disuse or become marginalized within the “native” systems and way of doing things.
As a result, local observers may feel more discouraged and cynical then when they began. They saw the great plans, heard the promises, saw certain well-connected people profit from the investment of time, money, and training – but how has their country actually been built? How have their lives been improved? “Nothing ever changes here,” said one neighbor to us as we expressed our concern about the sewer water running through our street. He was a proud, strong man resigned to survival without hope. Inadvertently the efforts of organizations to "develop the potential" of a country may have caused the hearts, courage, and strength of the very people we want to help to be eaten from them.
What then? Identifying who we want to benefit and involving those folks in planning and evaluating is key to appropriately, meaningful contributions. Who do we want to benefit? The professionals we work with themselves or the students and patients they serve? The institutions we work with or the professions they represent? As we identify the “who” we can begin the process of simultaneously training them in planning and planning with them, modeling evaluation and inviting them to evaluate us. These are certainly key skills that will be useful far beyond our presence here in Vietnam. Hopefully they are also skills that will help us avoid a few hawks.