“The best thing we can do is to accompany them – to hold their hands and walk with them on their journey.”
Richard Chongo, an advocate of rural economic empowerment in Malawi (his home country), shared these inspirational and touching words with me in a conversation recently around what it means to truly empower people, and the big mistakes we are making when we try to help, despite good intentions.
There is a – dangerous – perception that those living in disadvantaged circumstances need rescuing, and therefore that it is our responsibility to be saviours. This is untrue, and harmful. It infantilises entire communities. It assumes that we know more, that we know better. It is inherently disempowering.
So then, what is it we could do instead?
Richard, who himself faced some incredibly hard times growing up in Malawi, has some wonderful insight around this. He emphasises that there needs to be a big shift from the international community, including NGOs and individual actors, from focusing on what people in these communities DON’T have towards what they DO have – rich wisdom and knowledge about their own context, intelligence, perseverance, ambition, dreams, and a wealth of potential.
He introduced me to the metaphor of the Baobab tree. With the right nurturing, and the space & support to grow, a huge tree can grow from the tiniest seed. Bigger, in fact, than an avocado or mango tree which grows from a larger seed. We should never assume that someone’s initial resources dictate their potential.
Our job, therefore, as outsiders who want to make an impact is first and foremost to STOP assuming and START learning – to show up with open minds and ask what people need, instead of deciding on their behalf. We should put themselves into their shoes, show empathy and respect, and never assume our way is better. We should facilitate potential. And remember that “sometimes money itself is not the answer; money should grow organically, alongside responsibility and empowerment.”
We should remember that the spirit of ownership is crucial to the development of potential; handouts remove burdens but they also disempower and take away the individual investment which drives the willingness to work and grow and succeed. Richard realised this the hard way when he, with beautiful intentions, funded 40 children to attend school, and discovered that removing the burden also reduced the family’s commitment to the child’s learning. He had to find a different way of having an impact, one which left the responsibility firmly with the families themselves, by instead co-funding the schooling WITH them.
We need to make empowerment the absolute core of the work we do. Every time we decide to intervene in the lives of others, we should be asking: "does this action ultimately empower them?" Having good intentions is not enough. Asking good questions is a much better way.
And the first should be: 'what do you need?'