Guest Post by Charles Davidson, Founder and Director of ForgottenSong and PhD Student at The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
It is generally understood in the development community that there is a difference between an approach of “relief” and the mindset of empowerment, the former employed during times of great and immediate distress and the latter to sustainably break cycles of poverty. Issues often arise when systems of relief are employed but not followed by appropriate development-focused transition, causing a long-term dependence on aid. In many situations, cycles of poverty are often perpetuated not by those who are impoverished but rather by those who are “helping”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world’s war-torn countries. While there is, of course, a desperate need at times for large-scale and immediate relief, we must consider that the transformation from relief to development could be achieved much sooner than what has been previously seen.
My argument is that one of the keys to sustainable economic development in war-torn communities is local leadership and vision. The development world in general agrees that poverty is not alleviated unless those trapped in its cycles participate in their own empowerment. Regardless of the strategies involved, it is the participation in the planning, execution and reproduction of the effort that empowers the individual to take hold of his or her own destiny. It is then that resiliency is instilled, self-image is transformed, and those who are empowered become the agents of future empowerment.
But individuals in war-torn countries are oftentimes not trusted or are simply ignored in the development process, reinforced by the intimidating stories which plague the identities of the world’s war-torn countries. Only the worst events make the news and are absorbed by the outside world, and after a time, the violent images become the defining story of an entire country. Iraq is a car bomb, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a teenager with an AK-47, and Colombia is a kidnapping victim. However, for those of us who have traveled to these locations, I would venture to say that we find quite the opposite. Humanity and its creative capacity are alive and well, and oftentimes ingenuity and community are heightened from struggle. Ideas for a brighter tomorrow abound, solidarity is sought by the majority, and the future economic realities do not have to be bleak.
Over the past 10 years I have engrained myself in the community of people doing “good” in war-torn countries, and along the way I have discovered very little being done with sustainability in mind. In 2009 I started an organization called ForgottenSong with the mission to start native-led, self-sustainable, and reproducible businesses to help facilitate economic rehabilitation in current and post-conflict countries. Our vision is to empower the seeds of success that are already in existence in-country, seeking to be a catalyst of existing aspirations rather than to transplant our own vision and plans. As a result, we feel that we are privileged enough to work among people who exhibit the best in what humanity has to offer. The resiliency and courage needed to rise to the top in a mid and post-war society is demonstrated by the future leaders of a post-war community.
I’ll paint this picture by telling a story of Thierry, a former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country which has suffered years of civil war and rebel uprisings, resulting in up to six million deaths. Thierry, at the age of 17, started AJDC (French for “Youth Association for Community Development”) which advocates against the recruitment of child soldiers and provides vocational training to those who have left the armed groups. As a former child soldier, Thierry has direct access to the areas controlled by militias and, due to his character and peace-focused leadership, has created a space where these militias come together along with the national army and police forces to learn why children and youth do not belong in armed groups.
In many of our Sub-Saharan Africa projects, we work with pre-existing projects to avoid reliance on outside and oftentimes unstable sources of funding. Upon connecting with AJDC, rather than coming up with a new project or idea to help child soldiers in this region, we have decided to stand behind Thierry and ask how we can make his pre-existing work more financially sustainable, which AJDC and ForgottenSong together determined could best be done with small goat farms which provide a source of protein as well as vocational training for rehabilitating youth and a sustainable source of funding for the organization itself.
There are multiple methods of development, and that variety of perspective is needed for growth and improvement in approach. But let us not forget to keep the future in mind by actively seeking and celebrating local leaders who already have the vision, ingenuity, and bravery to form new paths for their communities. War-torn countries are not hopeless, nor are they void of local leadership, and the international development field should focus our attention on acknowledging, supporting, and investing in war-torn countries.