In your own way

How to spread love in development?

Sarabe Chan*

Earlier this year, I was at a conference attended by some of the world’s top-notch development thinkers and researchers. In one particular session, a panel of development practitioners shared their work in NGOs, policymaking and social businesses. Usually, we tend to hear a lot of buzzwords like ‘sustainability’, ‘innovation’, ‘governance’ in conferences. But, during this particular panel, the words ‘love’, ‘relationship’ and ‘compassion’ were repetitively mentioned. I felt more awake all of the sudden.

Talking about love and compassion has always seemed a bit unprofessional and mushy, but perhaps the scenery is slowly changing. This is exciting, relevant and important. I dare not generalise but the reasons why most of us pursue a career in development is because of the way we see and think about the world – the injustice, the poverty, and the eagerness to do something about it. The root of these emotions and sense of social responsibility are also derived from the fundamental love and care for other people, hence the desire to bring some sort of change to the current state of the world. 

How do we start discussing about love and practically apply it to our work? After all, it cannot be measured tangibly. This is especially difficult when the impact is unlike the way donors usually envision. This is why we need to build an eco-system of love and understanding. Discussions around humanistic values like love and relationships need to happen. It is not impractical; in fact it may even formulate alternative impact evaluation benchmarks. We can collect stories about relationships built between the staff and programme participants, or measure the level of love that people involved in the project have felt. The challenge lies in the fact that discussing about these topics or even interpreting them into programme outcomes all of the sudden can be a little intimidating, so starting from within the organisation is a gateway to begin. The key is to not to deviate from the original purpose by being reminded constantly of the people that we are trying to love and serve. Here are a few suggestions of ways that organisations can stir these discussions: 

1. Invite people to share their stories – On paper, we know the statistics of the number of people living in poverty, or the number of internally displaced people. We sometimes tend to forget that these numbers are comprised of people with stories. How do we make sense of it? I had a conversation with Oxfam GB’s CEO Mark Goldring earlier this year, and he shared that he invited a Syrian refugee to talk about his experience at the Oxfam headquarters. He basically held the whole room in his hand as he told his story, which was so powerful in reminding everyone about the people that we are trying to serve. Have you ever been to conferences where a panel of leaders talks about the dire state of our world? I admire the work that they do, but wouldn’t it be even more relevant and impactful to also include the voices of programme participants? 

2. Immersion – We can talk about the difficulty of poverty, and the hard lives that farmers lead. At the end of the day, poverty is understood through experience, not only through reading and talking about it. If we do not try to do some farming, then how do we know that it is actually so physically demanding? How do we learn to appreciate the noble work that farmers are doing and understand the problems that the poor are encounter on a daily basis? There are a lot of constraints because immersion programmes take time and resources, and can even bring harm to local communities if they are not well organised. However, experiencing even for a short period of time the lives of the people we are trying to serve can make a difference to the way we approach our work. The more often these visits happen and the more we communicate with people on the ground, the better we get are in touch with reality. It is especially important for those with decision-making powers to interact with local families. I came across a non-profit organisation called One Acre Fund, which supplies smallholder farmers in East Africa with asset-based financing and agriculture training services. Their motto is ‘farmers first’ and makes sure that even the most senior-level leaders go to the field on a regular basis to get a sense of what is happening. Such action, I believe, can generate better understanding and love for programme participants.

3. Reflective practice – It is easy to get overwhelmed by deadlines, donor reporting and coordination so much that we deviate from our original purpose. I think reflections should be built into an organisation’s culture. Recently, I was quite encouraged when talking to a Country Representative of one of the biggest NGOs in the world. He said that the office culture is quite ‘self-critical’, in it that the staff would reflect on their work, intention and be honest enough to criticise themselves through reflections. Reflection allows one to slow down and take a more objective approach to one’s work and mental state, and again, makes room to understand the reason why we are doing the work . In order to facilitate reflective sessions on a regular basis, staff can sit together and share about one particular moment that touched them that week, or one thing they learnt from programme participants. They can also voice out their frustration, or problems that they are facing. Good relationship between colleagues helps to build this intimacy. However, I also believe that little by little, these reflective practices can bring staff closer to one another to build stronger teamwork, which in hindsight is beneficial to the organisation and the people that we are trying to serve. 

I am aware that even in the humanitarian and development sector; there are people who lack a genuine intention to help vulnerable people. This deserves another discussion. I also understand that the organisational culture largely drives what can and cannot be practised. Within traditional organisations, it may be more difficult. But even within a small team within a big organisation, reflection can be practised for 10-15 minutes after weekly meetings. I have merely tried to bring out several actions that we could consider taking if we were to start comfortably discussing about humanistic values. After all, in the field of development, the way we see life and the world largely affects our work. I would like to believe that we do what we do because it reflects our core humanistic values. 


*Sarabe Chan is the co-founder of Say for Development. She studied MA Poverty and Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK as a Chevening Scholar.


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