Humanitarian Work Is Really Changing Centuries Old Habits

We humanitarians, NGO’s and even mission workers often forget something very critical. Habits, attitudes, and traditional patterns of thinking and behavior must change.

That “amazing technology”, that amazing “idea” to, “Help those poor people over there”, is not the main thing.
That flash of brilliance on our part  is not even close to being the most critical aspect of any help given. The lack of good ideas is rarely our issue.
The real work is life change.
Are people willing to modify decades, even centuries old habits, attitudes, and mentalities that guide their living?
This is the real story of community development.
The technologies we bring often accomplish little without habit change. This is so typical that I would honestly say that the real work for Humanitarian development workers is guiding change. Providing an alternate story, displaying a picture of another possible reality for people to see.

“She had spent twelve years in the African state of Togo, doing everything from raising fish to building roads to digging wells. So much time in the Third World had left inside of her a hard-earned knowledge of poverty’s sadness and an understanding of how hard it is to change. But change was always possible”   (Mike Tidwell. Ponds of Kalambayi. Pg 13)

Anyone can plunk down some “AMAZING” project that involves setting up some extremely helpful new technology, and then go home in two weeks. We feel awesome inside.  But most of it does not continue for very long.
We have to acknowledged that Africans  have “hang ups” just like every other human being on this earth does.
I have found that my work is more about relationships, and ongoing conversations, over time. Nothing can be substituted for time.
This is where the growth and change comes.
People need encouragement, they  need time to hear, process, picture, and then practice an alternate story.  Time is what most workers lack the most. In the name of widgets and numbers, we force development workers to jump and flit from here to there.   This is the greatest weakness of the whole AID and development system in my mind.
I was once a theologian. In that sphere, like all others, I can assure you the real work is working with a people who resist what they are not accustomed to, in belief, practice, and structure.
 “In the village the saddest and finally the most infuriating expression to the average Peace Corps Volunteer, if my own experience is any guide, was that, frightened sentence they pulled out of their hats when you were talking about change or when you were trying to push some slightly new idea. I was eating dinner one night with Alexandro, and he used the expression four times within a half an hour. What he said four times was: “The people aren’t accustomed to doing it that way.” Each time it was a little more irritating, especially, I think, because finally it was even irritating to Alexandre. The last time he said it he even blushed a little. The conversation offers some insights into both the problems of a poor town and the problems of a Volunteer working to change things in a poor town.”
(Living Poor. A Peace Corps Chronicle. Moritz Thomsen. Pg 55-56)

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