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Why Participation Is Not the End Goal of Development

Brutal Honesty

As an organization with the goal of ending all forms of poverty worldwide, Food for the Hungry (FH) works in the space of international community development to graduate communites from extreme poverty.
FH walks alongside people in communities who are hungry, sick, and have needs of many kinds. We walk beside them with the goal of helping real families and communities “graduate” out of extreme poverty to sustainable education, livelihood, and health practices that will allow them to truly flourish.
Today, I want to share with you a story of graduation. You will hear about a community that has experienced a physical and intangible change.
But first, let me be totally honest. Are you ready?
When it comes to poverty alleviation, I do not believe in community participation. Let me explain.

Goals vs. Process

I already introduced you to FH’s goal: graduating communities from extreme poverty. But in the world of community development, process matters just as much as the goal. While many organizations share FH’s goal to end poverty, fewer share the methodological framework that guides our international programs.
 
The way of reaching the goal is as important as that goal itself.
 
FH believes this because of the theory underlying our work. If poverty is about a lack of material wealth or daily essentials, then dumping bags of clothes, crates of food, and bottles of water is about all it takes to end extreme poverty. We know that that assumption is wrong and that response doesn’t work. In fact, for many communities, the root problem is not lack of food, money, or shelter. The root is a lack of justice that includes loss of power, violation of ownership, and denial of voice.
 
Because of this, FH’s work in communities is about a process, not a goal. It’s about supporting the people there and being a catalyst for change.
 

What’s in a term?

And that is why I don’t believe in community participation.
 
Saying that we invite communities to be part of the process uses language that implies that people are joining FH’s project. In that scenario, FH controls the resources. FH sets the agenda. FH holds the power. And nothing has changed. The people in the community are not truly “empowered.” Someone else is calling the shots. Someone else is setting the terms. Power still rests outside of the community. The lack of justice persists. Powerlessness remains. Violation of ownership and denial of voice continue.
 

FH Supports the Strengths of Communities

Instead, when FH enters a community, we begin with an agreement. The terms are that the community sets the vision. The community creates the change. And FH commits to relationship with the community, creating connections they may need need, and offering training and support for the projects that they choose.
 
Because everyone has something to contribute. The community members are not defined by their poverty. Instead, FH helps them discover their gifts. Seek their passions. Use their talents.
 
Then the people in the community decide how they want to use them. And FH gets the chance to help make it happen.
 

How People in Poverty Describe their Experience

Research shows, people in poverty do not primarily see that experience as defined by lack of material resources. Rather, people in poverty talk about shame, inferiority, powerlessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. Sophie is a 53-year-old woman in a community called Butaganaza, in Burundi. She has known poverty.
 
Before her community worked with FH, Sophie’s family was miserable. She says, “My family had a bad life.”
 
She describes not having enough food. Her children got sick again and again. Sophie told us, “My child was diagnosed with malnutrition because I lacked food to feed her.” Imagine that sense of powerlessness, heartbreak, and shame.
 

From Shame to Graduation

Butaganaza is a community that recently completed its time working with FH and has officially graduated to independence. Today, Sophie’s life is very different. She is happy because her family is healthy. Her cow produces manure, which increased her crop productivity.
 
And even more than that, Sophie is a leader of a group of mothers with children. She praises God because anyone who looks at her fields can say, “This woman has good crops!” Imagine the pride, responsibility, and joy.
 
FH’s role in community graduation is as a catalyst and aid. FH doesn’t own or control the process. The biggest contribution we make is a partnership over a limited period of time. We know there is a transformation when the community recognizes a measurable change in well-being. And we all see their hope in the future. Resilience in the face of disasters. Their ability to care for each other. Strong leaders.
 

You Can Join the Process

FH shares stories of impact with you because we want you to join the process of change. We want you to see the stories of real people and know reality through their eyes. We want your life to be transformed as you allow stories of change from across the globe to show you community. Are you in?