In your own way

What roles can foreigners play in community development? A reflection.

Sarabe Chan*

In community development, we often hear that foreigners should be the facilitator or technical assistant, while locals should take the lead in programmes. While I strongly believe that foreigners must embrace some fundamental values and attitude when practicing development in other countries, I also believe that the roles that foreigners and nationals play need not be so clearly defined. Despite so, I sometimes wonder how foreigners contribute more effectively.

Cesar has inspired me to reflect on the contribution that foreigners can bring to community development.

During my one-year exchange programme in Mexico, my project partner Jimmy and I (both from Hong Kong) volunteered in a low-income neighbourhood. We had some resources and networks to implement education projects and did some field research with the local community to find out about their needs and interests. After a series of consultation with the community and other NGOs, we decided to set up a ‘library under a tent’ in a park where the children usually hung out. We also developed and delivered interactive workshops to spark the children’s interests in learning from books. However, what we did is besides the point. The highlight was meeting Cesar.

Cesar was born and bred in this neighbourhood. When he knew that we were working on an education project, he approached us warmly and offered his help. At that time, he was a 29-year-old father and clothing vendor at the local market. Cesar had no experience nor has ever thought about doing community work, but he pointed us the right directions and became the anchor of our project. Cesar suggested us to approach the local government for support, and he guided us about accessing local resources to support the project. He also taught us about the do’s and don’ts in the community, and most importantly, he came every single day (sometimes with his family and friends) to help us set up the infrastructure. Cesar and I became life-long good friends and comrades. After we left Mexico, Cesar went on to mobilise local people and resources to set up his own social projects for the community. Along with the local government he built skate parks in the community to attract teenagers to spend time there, so that he could befriend them and lure them away from otherwise dangerous activities like drugs and crime. Cesar also organised environmental activities for children to plant trees with their families, with the hope of increasing their appreciation and love for their community. Just recently, Cesar and his wife Norma, along with his community celebrated a one-year anniversary of ‘Rodadas Las Juntas’, a programme that has been teaching and bringing children to ride bicycles.

Before Jimmy and I came, Cesar said that there were minimal community projects in the neighbourhood. Until this day, Cesar always tells me that we being there has inspired him and planted a seed in him to do more for his people. He became a local leader. Although we were there for only a year, what we have left has inspired me to reflect on the roles that foreigners like us can play in community work.  

We can encourage local leaders to inspire people in their community – We know that local leaders can sustain the project for the simple reason that they live in the community, and are more relevant for the local people to relate to. I think that local leaders who love their communities could not only sustain the projects, but they could also create innovative ways to benefit their communities. After we left, Cesar worked with the local government to build a skate park to introduce fun activities for teenagers, and to also use it as an avenue to build friendships with them and know about their lives and troubles. This creativity deeply stunned me, but Cesar genuinely insists that the actions of Jimmy and I were what inspired him. From this experience, I think the actions of outsiders can really play a part in influencing local people because we can show that it is also possible for them to initiative a meaningful project. If we have the humble and loving attitude looking to build friendships, our actions can serve as an avenue of inspiration.

We can foster the appreciation for their communities – Sometimes we tend to overlook the good aspects of our communities if we are in the same environment for too long. I for one know that when friends from overseas come visit me in Hong Kong, they would tend to see the positive aspects of my city, which increases my understanding and appreciation for my community. I think foreigners in development can also serve the same purpose. Development practitioners may always be looking for problems to solve, but one participatory method that I really admire is ‘appreciative inquiry’, which is a strength-based approach to identify the positive aspects of a community or a person’s life. Similar to my personal experience, I think foreigners can really spot out the positive aspects of local communities and share with the people about it – such as the hospitality of the people or the community solidarity. Instead of always introducing solutions from outside, foreigners can discover with local people what they already have and use them.

We can build relationships with local people through learning– As a foreigner, I have a reason to ask many questions because I know very little about the local cultural context. It humbles us as we are unfamiliar with the surroundings, but this vulnerability pulls us closer to local people since we depend on them to help us figure things out. It balances the power dynamics because I am the one with little knowledge. When I was in Mexico, I depended on Cesar and the children to point out where the local resources were. By taking an interest in their lives and learning from them, it helped to build mutual trust, understanding and friendship. On the other hand, the children were quite curious at what two ‘chinos’ (Chinese people) were doing in their neighbourhood, and they asked many questions about our culture. I think it was a great ice-breaker between us and an important starting point of building trust.

We can create synergy together- When foreigners work together with locals, it says one thing – we are in this together. It does not mean that we will find a solution, but at least we are in this journey together to make the community a better place. I believe that in community development, working together brings synergy. For example, Jimmy and I developed a curriculum for the kids using a lot of fun learning techniques from Hong Kong, but we also work with Cesar and other Mexican volunteers to make the material more context-specific.  Outsiders can bring their ideas and resources, but we must also depend on local people for the final product.  

In the end, hard skills are important in development work, as we need thematic expertise and professional skills to carry out projects. However, we also need the human component such as local champions. We need to discover ways to build understanding and relationships with the local community. As a foreigner, I believe there are leadership roles that we can take to initiate this building of trust. It may not be guaranteed, but if a project breeds good-hearted local leaders, then it may be the beginning of many wonderful things. 


*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.


Feature Photo: Google images 



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