Why good intentions aren't enough
Rotary member and author Marilyn Fitzgerald stresses the importance of community involvement for sustainable service projects.
Rotary members, volunteers, and donors are usually excited to talk about successful projects. Marilyn Fitzgerald, a member of the Rotary Club of Traverse City, Michigan, USA, draws inspiration from a far less popular topic: failure.
A clinical psychologist and author, Fitzgerald has spent years studying economic development projects in poor countries, where well-intentioned efforts to improve lives sometimes backfire. Now she travels the world to consult on projects and speak to Rotary clubs about sustainability and lessons from her fieldwork. We caught up with her at One Rotary Center, where she had addressed Rotary staff.
It’s about getting away from the charity model, where we give things away, and getting into the opportunity model, where we empower people to carve their own paths out of poverty.
Q: How did you come to focus on sustainability in projects?
A: Looking back on international projects I’ve been involved with, I realized that they often created a dependency on the Rotarians, outsiders coming into a community with money and good intentions. I asked myself why projects no longer existed, why the people we wanted to help weren’t carrying on like we planned. I started to realize that those people were not included in project planning, and that’s not sustainable.
What does it take for people to sustain a project themselves, and go on without our help? It’s about getting away from the charity model, where we give things away, and getting into the opportunity model, where we empower people to carve their own paths out of poverty.
Q: How does that work?
A: I work with microloan programs that provide entrepreneurs with capital to start or invest in a business, and the programs I work with always incorporate an educational component. People sometimes don’t know how to count or even the cost of the goods they’re selling. They can get themselves into terrible financial trouble.
It’s amazing to watch in the field: You teach financial literacy, and the people that will listen and learn are the youth and the mothers and grandmothers, the core of the community. In the past we’ve given loans mostly to men and learned when we give a loan to a man, he gets some money, develops a business, and often leaves his family. Women tend to take better care of the money and share their skills with the community.
Q: How do we define sustainability with respect to humanitarian work?
A: There are two main areas of humanitarian aid. One is relief aid, and we don’t expect for that to be sustainable; we expect to take people out of dire straits and help them get back on their feet. Development aid has to do with people being able to do something for themselves, so they’re not dependent on us. It’s a simple litmus test: What will happen to these people if you walk away today?
I was involved in a scholarship program in Indonesia where I was raising $72,000 a year for 1,200 kids to go to school. I didn’t think too much about what would happen if I didn’t show up [with the money] one year, because I planned to keep showing up. You know who thought about it?
The mothers and the children — every year they worried if I was going to be there or not. That wasn’t a sustainable source of income for tuition and we had to change our approach. Income from livestock eventually helped that community become more self-sufficient.
Does what you’re offering matter to them? If not, you have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that will matter.
Q: What steps can Rotary clubs take to make their projects more sustainable?
A: The first step is to involve the community you want to help; talk to the people who live there about their priorities.
In Guatemala, I worked with women who lived and worked on a city dump. A group of Rotarians came in with the goal of providing shelter for these women and their children. But the houses they built were four miles from the dump, and it wasn’t practical for the women to stay there during the workweek.
One woman later told me she had never asked for a house, that she was used to living outside, and what she really wanted was an education for her children. Do you know how much cheaper that would have been than building houses?
As Westerners, we often think we know the answers, we know people need clean water. What we forget to ask is whether they think they need clean water. Does what you’re offering matter to them? If not, you have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that will matter.