(I wrote this last Sunday, but due to an Internet outage the past few days, I haven’t been able to post)
One of the most important things for people who want to do good in other countries have to remember is that there have been people living in the area long before you showed up. Too often NGOs from wealthy states show up in the developing country acting as though they are first to try and help, as though the people there live brutish, uncivilized lives and incapable of taking care of themselves. Most succinctly summarized as “White Savior Complex,” where we from the more developed and privileged countries have a tendency to ignore what has been occurring within an area before we arrived, because we have the silver bullet to save these people from themselves.
This is not to say that people from the developed world cannot help those in the developing world. What we, myself included, must understand is that we are not the center of the universe. The job of the aid or peace worker should not be to tell someone the best way to do things or to direct projects themselves. NGOs and peace workers must convince those in conflict zones what might work best in their interests. The best role is not in the vanguard of change or in leadership roles, but as advisors who nudge the real bringers of change in a certain direction. The best way to produce lasting change that fits with the context of the place you are in is to assist those assisting the people in need, to train the trainers if we will. The best role for foreigners is to help those who want to make a difference in their communities, but may not have the resources in terms of knowledge and skills. Many people want to make things better, but aren’t sure how. If we really want to reach people, the change cannot come from us, but from those who live, breathe, and work in these local cultures or locales. If someone wants to leave their work with a movie deal starring an A-list actor showing off what a saint they are, effective peace practitioner may not be the best of career choices.
So how do we go about helping people if we don’t take a commanding role? What is the best way to reach and affect the greatest number of people? I can tell you with some certainty that the worst thing to do is attempt to create change without assistance. Oftentimes in class (and my previous posts) we talk about “cultural carriers,” which are actions, ideas, or objects that contain great importance to particular cultures. These cultural institutions often already have the structures, resources, and audiences in place that give peace practitioners the channels to reach great numbers of people. Within Kenya, one of the most important institutions is the Christian church. This week, I met with the Vicar John Gitau of the Anglican Diocese of Mt. Kenya South Kangemi Parish, who worked diligently to successfully prevent violence from reaching members of his congregation during the postelection violence. Whether the church has a few members from the same town, a tribal church with congregations around the country, or a branch of one of the international European churches, they have a great deal of influence and importance the Kenyan life. Church leaders can open many doors in Kenya simply from their affiliation with the institution and the respect it garners from the average person. In addition, churches are one of the few organizations that guarantee weekly meetings with hundreds of people. Initiatives of Change has long had a partnership with the churches of Kenya, and through that friendship, has been able to attend sermons where the pastor encourages the congregation to listen to the IoC representative and links the message of peace with the people’s religious beliefs. Such an opportunity is something most NGOs would spend thousands for, and IoC was able to perform such a feat for almost free. The use of currently existing organizations of civil society is something that anyone seeking to do good in the world cannot ignore.
Kenya is a deeply religious country; anyone walking down the streets of Nairobi can see the religious banners or hear gospel songs in stores. Even with the limits placed on one’s work by partnering with such an organization like the church (getting religious organizations to discuss violence against the LGBT community or promote HIV/AIDS prevention through birth control would be nigh impossible), these groups are incredibly important if we want to reach thousands of people in conflict-affected areas.
Civil societies are not the only already existing sources of legitimacy and power in a culture. The state too has quite a bit of resources at its disposal. I was given the opportunity to meet with the Senior Program Manager of the National Peacebuilding & Conflict Management Secretariat, Dickson Magotsi. Mr. Magotsi runs a program, known as “Uwiano,” that was set up by the Kenyan government to monitor and track disturbances of the peace throughout the country. These disturbances are then mapped and studied to recommend the best course of action while notifying local authorities and peace committees of the situation. The Uwiano team learns about the incidents through public media, social networking, individual notifications (the team has set up a special SMS number for alerts from citizens), and security broadcasts. Everything from crime, to organized violence, to ethnic clashes is documented in order to best observe the situation on the ground and produce the most effective response. Because of their position under the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration & Internal Security, Uwiano is able to work as an Interpol-style information consolidation and distribution organization. They bring together students and young people who have studied ethnic violence and other conflicts throughout Kenya, and put them in touch with local security and peace groups in order to maximize the effect through coordination. The state has the ability to create and coordinate national groups, as well as having the authority to really “do something” once violence or conflict begins. The government oftentimes is the catalyst for violence during its failure, as people feel that without a structural means of addressing their grievances, they have to turn to old-school posse justice. The government, however, is often the greatest barrier between innocents and outbreaks of violence, with quick deployment of security forces being the best immediate defense when tensions reach a boiling point, as well as providing a third-party to ensure that both sides lay down their arms. Such a structure should be partnered with by NGOs, not ignored as simply part of the problem. Many government officials want to do some good for their nation, and we should be more than happy to cooperate towards a common goal.