Challenges and Breakthroughs in Development Work | LEE Po Ki, Kate

[ “SHARE” Sept-Oct 2012 – An Eye-Opening Experience of Poverty ] CEDAR’S BLOGGER

Author> LEE Po Ki, Kate, Project Supervisor (Disaster Management & Risk Reduction)

The happiest thing about engaging in development work is witnessing lives being changed. The Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire pointed out that education is the way to individual and social construction. Similarly, development work challenges the existing thinking of society and individuals, including the development workers themselves.

In recent years I have been working in projects in Gansu, China, and have seen the changes in the women there. These women are seldom in control of family wealth and possessions. They are illiterate and stay in their home-village all their lives. Their talents are buried by the social culture of male superiority. What we do is to nurture the women’s talents and build their self-confidence. After many years of unrelenting effort through literacy classes, leadership training, small loans, and health & hygiene education, the women have grown in their capabilities and self-confidence. They have even represented the village in negotiations with the government, successfully set up farmers’ cooperatives.

‘A year does not pass without some disaster’, many villagers used to say. A few years ago I met a minister from Nujiang, Yunnan, at a disaster prevention project. He felt it impossible for his poor minority community to deal with natural disasters. The disaster management workshop changed his thinking–-he recognised that they suffer mostly from fires and rainstorms which occur at particular times of the year. Further, he learned to make use of community resources for disaster prevention, e.g. during the dry season, volunteer mountain rangers watch out for forest fires; in rainy season, villagers who understand Putonghua will relay news of impending rainstorms. He told us, ‘Disasters can actually be prevented by enhancing disaster combat ability and eliminating the weak links.’

As a development worker, I can also be restricted by my own presumptions. The destitute households in Chinese villages are mostly aged and diseased, and I naturally thought that the most we could do for them was to give them rice and cooking oil during Chinese New Year. But workers at the Gansu project site showed me otherwise. They specially invited these destitute householders to be the changemakers to learn and then demonstrate how to corral sheep. An elderly couple told us, ‘We are the demonstration unit, so naturally we are to lead the villagers in corralling.’ They do not see themselves as receiving help but being a part of facilitating development. Their empowerment makes me understand that it is not the projects that build ability but we already have it in ourselves, and it can be applied to change for good if we give it space and opportunity.

I thank the women, the ethnic minority groups and the rural destitute householders for opening my eyes to their development. I hope to continue learning to challenge the old in me and in society, and that I will walk with the poor more appropriately.

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