Ten years ago, I walked with my fellow trainees into the low, warm brick buildings that constituted our volunteer program’s West African Training Center and took a seat. The afternoon’s session on sustainability was about to start, and Mamadou, our host-country instructor, greeted us as we entered.
Mamadou’s topic wasn’t going to be easy to digest. My cohorts’ expectation had been that we would arrive in-country, be told what our villages needed, receive some language training, and scurry off to bring economic security and health to our little domains. Mamadou had to explain why our development projects wouldn’t be pre-assigned to us. He had to bring us around to a new concept — that of co-creation. And to do that, he told us a story:
Sometime during the decade prior to our arrival, an international non-governmental organization (INGO) had pulled up in a dusty little village in the middle of dry season. The nearest water source was 3km away down a steep hill, and the water source drew back even further in seasons of drought. The women of the village were exhausted from hauling all the water they needed up the steep slope back to their courtyards for cooking, washing, and the various other tasks they had to do before and after a long day in the millet fields.
The INGO had recently received a huge grant to build wells across the area, and after a quick village meeting, everyone agreed on a location for the new well. It would be in the center of the village, away from any sacred sites or feuding families, near the chief’s compound. The village would cost-share by constructing the well cover and building the bricks needed for the well top.
Everything went smoothly, and in three months time, there was a well. Speeches were made, hands were shaken, and the women threw a celebratory dance party that went well past everyone’s bedtime.
A year later, the INGO stopped by on their round of follow-ups. They were welcomed back warmly, but they immediately noticed that some women were cresting the top of the hill, coming up from the river, with full buckets of water on their heads. “Why aren’t they using the well?” the INGO workers asked, somewhat flabbergasted.
It took a little bit of careful questioning to find out, because at first, the villagers simply assured them that it was a very fine well, “nothing is wrong with the well.” But, the women of the village finally admitted, the well had taken from them one thing in particular that they valued dearly: an hour of uninterrupted social time. “The well is great, but when we walk to the stream, we walk together. Without walking, we no longer saw our friends. It was draw water, go back to the compound, cook, work. We needed to see our sisters, our neighbors, away from the men and the children.”
Mamadou’s story ended there. As the session segued into the theory of sustainable development, I mentally stayed behind, lost in thought by the abandoned well. The village’s tale would have been powerful even if it was simply a parable, just a hiatus between flip charts and PowerPoint flow graphs. The fact that it truly happened complicated my understanding of what international development is supposed to be.
Ultimately, the specific situation of each community’s needs — of each individual’s needs — can’t be fully known by anyone other than those individuals. If I impose my own solutions on someone else based on my own perception of his or her “problems,” I stand to fail, and my supposed beneficiary will likely bear unknown costs thanks to my inadvertent authority.
Sustainable development calls for a humbler method of proposing and producing solutions, one that acknowledges how logic, goals, and costs become gray areas when faced with the complexities of culture. When a problem is recognized, outside resources should be paired with an insider’s know-how in order to facilitate the best possible results. This, in a nutshell, is what co-creation is: empowering and enabling change alongside a community.
The concept of co-creation isn’t a new one, but it regularly gets ignored in developmental circles, even in well-historied organizations. A community may face a valid physical need; elders may agree that the need should be addressed; families may even be willing to cost-share in the solution of that need. But, unless all parties are involved in the planning, and unless all angles of the perceived need are examined thoroughly, that solution hasn’t been co-created. It has been imposed, and risks facing unknown, potentially serious challenges.
Co-creation is scary and humbling, because it doesn’t always align with “conventional” logic, and it doesn’t allow outsiders or power mongers to play superhero. But, it does make room for the human spirit to triumph — and that is always sustainable.
Written for Every Shelter by Jennifer Heller – 02.26.2019 – Jen’s perspective on the world was highly influenced by her childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has volunteered with a variety of internationally-focused organizations, including a refugee rehabilitation NGO in Boise, Idaho, and a stint in the Peace Corps (Senegal 2008-10). Jen currently manages a medical group in the northwestern US.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Every Shelter, its partners, or affiliates.