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Goodbye to cookie cutters: Three reasons to be glad

Person drinking water from tap in Burundi

(Photo by Mwangi Kirubi)

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with something food-oriented…

In my FH world, “cookie cutter” refers to community development where an outsider comes to a village with a certain pre-packaged technical solution to a problem.  Every village would receive the same stuff with the same design.  The village’s decision is whether to accept or reject the whole package of solutions. Cookie cutter solutions look shiny and inviting but many times they fail, because they don’t really take into account the community’s needs.

While most development agencies avoid the cookie cutter, it’s still out there.  And I do see it when North Americans like me visit a developing country for the first time.   Cookie cutter mentality can happen when a short-term mission team sees a problem and buys a solution without researching the problem or consulting the community. (If you’re interested in learning about how you or your church can avoid this type of thinking, I highly recommend the book When Helping Hurts, produced by dear friends at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.)

Today I asked my colleague Phillip in Burundi about the cost of water systems they plan to help our communities construct. But instead of a simple, one-size-fits-all sum, he gave me a wide range of figures. “It depends on the system,” he told me.  And although dealing with a range of cost figures made my project more complicated, it also gladdened by heart for three reasons:

1) We’re tailoring the water system to the needs of the individual community. Some wells, we dig. Others require a cement or brick cap on an existing spring, safeguarding the water from contamination. At times our systems collect rainwater, guiding it with gutters from the rooftops into a covered tank. And some of the systems use long pipelines to carry water from a collecting tank, high on a hillside, down to the villages.

2) If we’re tailoring the system, it means  our staff members are working incarnationally (which means, “in the flesh”), to listen to what the needs are.

3) If we’re working incarnationally, we’re walking alongside community leaders, parents, teachers, health workers, everyone who has a stake in the community. That means they learn how to plan and execute major community changes, and they have an emotional stake in making sure the system operates when their community graduates from our program.

It’s a great day when even the complications make you glad!