Al Etmanski
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Shortly after Peter Wahome’s family moved from central Kenya to the densely populated Kibera neighbourhood of Nairobi, he ventured into the downtown core. There, this young teenager literally hatched a scheme that altered the course of his life and, ultimately, thousands of others across Kenya.

He stuffed a male and female pigeon under his shirt, endured their struggles and scratches on the bus ride home, arriving bloodied but determined to breed them. He went on to become a successful bird breeder. This earned him enough money to rent a small room where he could study in peace, away from his 10 siblings, his father, and his father’s many wives. Peter went on to complete several university degrees, study community economic development in England, found Crafts of Africa, become an Ashoka fellow and, shortly before my daughter Catherine and I met him in Nairobi, launch People to People Tourism, Kenya.

Peter’s accomplishments include fair trade pricing and employment to artisans working in 80 self-help craft producer groups, and fostering community-based eco and cultural tourism. He has created their own distribution and marketing infrastructure. The by-products, which Peter is equally intentional about, include reducing exploitation and conserving the natural and cultural heritage of Kenya’s people.

It is impossible for me to imagine any outside agency or development worker teaching or inspiring Peter to do what he did. Peter’s story reinforces what I have come to appreciate as a central tenet of community organizing, social innovation and social enterprise: people everywhere are creative, resilient, and capable of solving their own problems and meeting their own challenges. No matter the circumstances, unless we recognize and support local leadership at the same time as addressing immediate challenges our good intentions and interventions will fail.

Creating opportunities for people to solve their own problems strengthens local resilience. Resilience is in turn strengthened by nurturing relationships of mutual support, reciprocity and trust. The social fabric of a culture is not lumber and nails, but belonging.

This means tapping into everyone’s desire to be helpful to others; ignoring cultural mythologies and stigma about inability, laziness, and desperation; focusing on everyone’s capabilities; nurturing joy and celebration; being patient – understanding that decades of exploitation wilts local capacity and will not change overnight; and appreciating the negative consequences of interventions by well-meaning outside professionals and aid workers.

This is consistent with the thinking and practice of my friend John McKnight, who created the Asset Based Community Development Institute. John has taught the world to see the gifts, assets and abilities of people who have been labelled, marginalized, ignored and excluded. Recently, the ABCD Institute teamed up with the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, an underappreciated Canadian gem, which has been addressing global poverty and injustice for fifty years. See From Clients to Citizens: Communities Changing the Course of Their Own Development, Alison Mathie & Gordon Cunningham, (Eds.), 2008.

Similarly, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton has built a global social enterprise movement on the premise that every country in the world has an abundance of ingenious, talented social entrepreneurs with solutions for local, regional and global challenges.

I am also aware of a number of young Canadian social entrepreneurs who have designed their organizations around similar assumptions. These include:

Daphne Nederhorst and SAWA Global, which identifies talented leaders in the world’s fifty poorest countries and supports them to spread and scale up their poverty fighting efforts.

Jennifer Fraser and Mobile Movement, which uses mobile phone technology to provides micro finance to young entrepreneurs in Peter Wahome’s Kibera.

Shawn Smith and Global Agents of Change, which funds scholarships and provides micro credit for students in the developing world.

Jennifer Corriero and Taking It Global, which uses social media to build a global learning community among young people. One example is their new partnership with the Pearson Fellowship for Social Innovation, which will support youth-developed projects addressing the UN’s Millenium Development Goals.

There is a common thread running through their collective work. Here are their common design principles, which must be the primary goal of all interventions, practices, aid, resources, donations, and volunteerism:

  • Assume the necessary leadership, capability, talent, determination and expertise exists locally.
  • Strengthen the resilient, adaptive capacity of people to solve their own problems. Local leaders must direct all outside intervention and resources.
  • DO NOT DESTROY THE SOCIAL FABRIC OF BELONGING AND RESILIENCE. Make sure all interventions, either intentionally or unintentionally, do not erode the sense of belonging that clearly exists. This is the equivalent of the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath to: above all, Do No Harm.
  • Seek out and support local creativity and innovation. This is the basis of the Ashoka model. Fifty-two percent of Ashoka Fellows have changed national policy and seventy-five percent have changed the pattern in their field within five years of election.

Having faith and confidence in local entrepreneurs is easier said than done. This rhetoric has been around for decades. In practice, it is forgotten, ignored or creatively reinterpreted. Thus, the cycle of aid and dependency continues. What gives me confidence that things are changing is the work of younger social entrepreneurs who deeply understand their limitations. So does this recent statement from President Obama who concluded his conversation with young African leaders invited to the White House in early August by asserting:

And so when you go back and you talk to your friends and you say, what was the main message the President had — we are rooting for your success, and we want to work with you to achieve that success, but ultimately success is going to be in your hands. And being a partner means that we can be there by your side, but we can’t do it for you.

Coincidentally, Obama was trained as a community organizer by John McKnight, so one hopes his experience will inspire a new generation of practice. Enabling the Peter Wahomes of this world to flourish should be intentional and strategic, not haphazard and accidental.

Al Etmanski is the president and co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network, and a partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG). Check out his blog


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