Champions, not victims: Working with people to find lasting solutions

February 25, 2015

In 2009 I traveled to Zimbabwe with an international humanitarian relief organization. This particular trip was focused on water purification. During the nine-day trip, we installed five water filtration systems in five rural schools. We who participated in the trip felt good about what we had accomplished, and from our perspective during the trip… problem solved. However, the complexity of the purification system was above the maintenance capabilities of the recipients of the equipment. It’s not that they were not good stewards of the equipment, they just lacked the training and experience to keep it running effectively.

I recently returned from a two-week, project-focused trip to the West African country of Togo. After a long flight from Paris to Lome (Togo’s capital city), and a bumpy, dusty 6 ½-hour drive to the town of Kara, it became evident to me that Togo is exceedingly poor. In the 2013 World Happiness Report, a 156-nation survey published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Togo ranks dead last. The purpose of our trip was to begin a six-month pilot program involving the use of conservation agriculture as a means to increase food production for both consumption and income generation.

At our agricultural demonstration, local farming participants came with a sense of humor, a lighthearted comradery, and a tremendous thirst for knowledge. They exhibited a steadfast independence and looked at our project team as partners, not people who would give them something, but people who would teach them something. (See video above, compiled by our partner in Togo, Jesse Shanks.)

Food security in Togo is a serious matter. Teaching the Togolese people ways to increase agricultural output is a game changer. The farmers were thirsty for this knowledge not because they perceived us as smarter, but because they have been involved as equals, and because they’ve had opportunities to express their needs and wants.

Going back to my Zimbabwe experience, we created a quick solution for a long-term need. The water filters worked… for a while. But it was not an impact that lasted beyond the life of the product, because our focus was more on the solution and less on the people.

In Togo, and everywhere we go, Just Hope focuses on people. Involving the beneficiaries of service is the only way to arrive at solutions that make lasting change.

After learning how to plant corn and beans in a systematic way using natural fertilizer found locally to increase the yield, and mulching to conserve water and soil, the farmers had keys to their future. I didn’t see victims of their circumstances, I saw champions of their destiny.