[Image: 'Papua New Guinea Fairtrade Coffee Farmer' | © Fairtrade ANZ]
I've seen on many occasions now how much more likely sustained positive change is to happen when you give those who need the change the most control over the tools to make it happen.
This could be as simple as directly giving them funding, ensuring they have clear input to the decision–making process or improving their capacity to make the right decisions to improve their own lives. But it's a pretty safe bet that the closer you can move resources to the point of need, the more likely you are to get an outcome that benefits those who need it the most.
Doing this very likely isn't the simplest or quickest approach. It takes time to properly design systems and frameworks that support this kind of approach. Investments need to be made in giving, often poorly educated, people the additional skills they need to make the best decisions they can for their communities. Mistakes will be made and adjustments to the initial approach will often be needed. The initial pace of change will likely be slower than if outside experts are given free reign to do the work.
But the benefits of letting those who will ultimately benefit from the change lead as much of the process as possible are often immeasurable. Seeing whole communities realise what's possible and lift themselves out of poverty. Watching people see the economic benefit of the environment they live in and work together to protect it. Having children properly educated who then remain within the community they grew up in to help improve the livelihoods of their friends and family.
Unfortunately, I've seen many examples over the past two decades when this approach hasn't been taken. When outsiders have kept too much control and dictated too much. When the shorter path has been taken and changes have come and then almost immediately gone. When huge amounts of money has been wasted on systems and processes that those they were designed to help can't run themselves.
But I've also seen a growing number of projects where the whole approach is geared towards supporting the community to help itself. To provide tools, resources and, perhaps most importantly, permission to make mistakes, so that riskier and more innovative approaches can be trialed.
I've seen this most recently through Fairtrade's farmer–centric theory of change, but I've also seen it through aid–agency funded initiatives based around supporting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in various countries in the Asia–Pacific. And I've even seen it in programs run by Multinationals like Unilever and Ferrero where they are trying to improve the sustainability of their supply chains by empowering the farmers supplying them.
I hope this trend continues – and accelerates. Because when the poorest of the poor really are empowered to help themselves, the changes they make for their own families and communities tend to be the ones that become multi–generational, rather than lasting just as long as the funding.