Kushé! My name is Hindolo Pokawa, and I am a critical development theorist and practitioner. I founded and now direct the Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy (SLFND).
Funders often use the term “partnership” loosely. Genuine partnership is a relationship of interdependence and intersubjectivity, which is reflected in the pan-African concept known most commonly by the Zulu word ubuntu: “Because you are, I am. Because I am, you are.”
As Sierra Leone celebrates 60 years of independence from Britain, it still depends on official development assistance to pay nurses, teachers, fire fighters, police, and civil servants. Seventy percent of its national budget comes from foreign governments, whose enrichment results directly from Africa’s impoverishment, and yet whose aid comes with conditions that African countries like Sierra Leone must agree to, often at the expense of their land and people. Saying “partner” when we really mean “aid recipient” guarantees a one-sided relationship whose imbalance is never acknowledged.
Such imbalance is not found in nature. Permaculture closely approximates our indigenous teachings about observing and learning from nature: rather than something outside of, independent from, or in competition with the earth, human beings are in relationship with it and all its beings.
In conceptualizing SLFND, I asked myself what I could create that would be different from the many NGOs out there. Rather than funder outcomes, could our constituents drive our work? One thing that came to mind was to look at nature, where everything works with each other through feedback loops and nonhierarchical structures.
To embody this principle, SLFND is deliberately funded entirely through individual donations, intentional partnerships, and social enterprise cooperatives. Our paid staff come from and live in the village where we work; we have no professionalized staff who are disconnected from the local situation. This means that while we grow slowly, we are accountable exclusively to our constituents.
Additionally, we developed a forest-based organizational structure. Organisms in nature do not live just for themselves; they exist to sustain others. Instead of raising money to pay professionalized staff to provide villagers goods and services, what if we raised money to create environments where people, as well as plants and animals, in the village can grow, create, and exchange goods, services, and ideas as they have for generations?
During the civil war in Sierra Leone, it was not logic models or strategic plans that helped us know what to do and where to go when the rebels came at night. It was our relationship with the earth that led us to take this road rather than that, quickly detecting that an animal had gone through. It was our relationships with people that led us to talk down child soldiers by reminding them of our connections and shared future. The logic models and strategic plans left with the aid workers who folded up shop and returned to Europe and America during our time of greatest need. So SLFND used appreciative methods to feed the indigenous practices and ways of knowing that had saved our lives, in developing our programming and organizational structure.
How does change happen? When we think about raising a child, we don’t assign specific outcomes with dates that must be met for the child to continue growing. Rather, we commit to certain principles in raising the child—for example, nonviolent discipline. When the child experiences difficulty or growing pains, we don’t cut off support, but rather tailor our response to the child’s needs and commit to creating its future together.
What if we thought this way about all that we want to grow—from our organizations to nonviolent democratic change? Nonviolent democracy begins in early childhood and includes nonviolent, democratic relations within our communities, among nations, and with the earth. Intergenerational relationships provide us with the feedback we need to know which way to turn.
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