Humanity in development

I’ve given more than a few speeches in my lifetime. I truly enjoy the challenge of gauging an audience and adapting my message to meet their needs and interests; many times I have been standing on the stage before I have made a final decision about what I will say.

So far this has always worked for me, but last week I thought that maybe I had pushed it too far.

I had been invited to speak to 900 university students from around the world at the UN Centre in Bangkok; the students were taking part in a Leadership Symposium that was engaging them on a whole range of global issues.

While the topic I was asked to speak about was related to children, my message was broader than that. I wanted to speak about the power of being human; of the need to care; and of the importance of people over programming.

Sitting through a panel discussion right before my session, I started to panic. Somehow in my planning I had failed to note the location of the symposium – the United Nations! – and hadn’t thought through the question of what other speakers might be saying. I had prepared a 45 minute talk about why planning isn’t as important as taking action; why care is more important than sustainability; and why small, individual actions from the heart are equal in value to replicable and scalable programs.

Listening to several UN leaders in their panel before mine, I realised I was potentially right out of sync.

Fortunately, I turned out to be wrong. Rather than being oppositional, my ideas were accepted as complementing the more mainstream developmental views. In fact, most of the feedback was pretty positive. (But only ‘most’ – not all!)

Around the globe, there’s increasing chatter among NGOs and charities about taking more ‘human’ approaches to how we work. The ideas are still often seen as a bit ‘out there’ or accused of being an excuse for organisations that don’t really know what they are doing, but as I discovered there’s also a strong acceptance and hunger for development that puts people first.

Sometimes we don’t have all the data – and that’s OK. If Blue Dragon had held back from rescuing victims of human trafficking until we had baseline data so we could measure our impact, we would still be waiting. (We’ve rescued 668 people so far, and that number is going up by the week).

Sometimes we can’t measure the impact of what we do – and contrary to the dominant view, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. How do we calculate the impact of caring for children who have been abused? How do we determine the number of children who haven’t been abused or trafficked because of the people arrested as a result of our work?

As with so much in the modern world, we develop rules and structures, budgets and plans; and then we enslave ourselves to our own creations. The budgets become our masters; the strategic plans become our lords. As a charity, how can we refuse to help someone in need just because it wasn’t in the annual plan, if helping that person fits with our mission? The very idea makes no sense to me.

Plans and programs are useful as structures within which we can work to serve others; but they should never own us.

I once heard Hadeel Ibrahim, a British philanthropist remark,”We are sometimes so busy being developmental that we forget our humanity.”

It was a great encouragement to see the delegates and organisers of the University Scholars Leadership Symposium embrace my message and feed back their own ideas, questions, doubts, and dreams.

There are so many people in our world dealing with crisis and trauma; it’s not programs that will give them care and comfort, but people. And that may be hard to quantify or to scale up or to make sustainable, but in the end it’s the humanity of development that matters, not just the numbers.

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