Author: Valentina Tartari, May 20 2015 - My name is Valentina Tartari. I am not a journalist, nor an expert on African politics, but an international development graduate with a strong research interest in African communities. Thanks to the opportunity to take part in the DFID [Department for International Development]-funded International Citizen Service [ICS], I was privileged enough to have an insight on the dynamics of development work on the continent and work in collaboration with African youth to shape the development of their communities.

The journey has certainly been a complex one. Development is not an easy field of work, especially if only equipped with a theoretical degree and a strong desire to make a positive impact on the communities you are working with. However, it can be a beautiful journey, a life-changing one for the people involved.

In this article I intend to explore some of the lessons learnt during the 13 months I spent in Guilongou, a rural village of Burkina Faso (West Africa), working together with UK and African volunteers on a development project aimed at empowering women through training and income generating activities.

Challenging the Stereotype

A lot of the development literature reflects on the Western responsibility to help “distant others”, which is often summarised as the main drive behind development work. The same concept leads to the interpretation of international development as a Western machine involving top-down policies, which are imposed and not relevant to the people on the ground.

Sometimes when you find yourself in the middle of community meetings where you do not know the local language and you are the only foreigner attending, you wonder if that is the case. However, it is a matter of working very hard to challenge that stereotype at the beginning of every project. In that sense, needs assessments, focus groups, peer sessions, participatory exercises are very good tools to allow you to get a deep understanding of community needs, while equally giving your target population the chance to get to know you and approach you without complex.

In Moré, the local language of the Mossi people (the main ethnic group of Burkina Faso), Nasara is the specific word used to describe white people. As you can imagine, me and the other British volunteers working on the project got that a lot. However, our Burkinabé colleagues were an asset in making us realise the word Nasara does not carry the negative connotation that is often associated to the word Black in the West. The programme was a good way to challenge this mutual fear and work in an environment where everybody is treated as equal. By working with and for the community, the sense of separation between “Us” and “Them” soon appeared to be yet another development construct.

The Theory of Change

If you have been involved with work in the non-for-profit sector, you will certainly be familiar with the Theory of Change (ToC). This theory provides a comprehensive picture of the early and intermediate changes in a given community that are needed to reach a long-term goal articulated by the community. It is being increasingly used in international development by a wide range of governmental, bilateral and multi-lateral development agencies, civil society organisations and research programmes intended to support development outcomes.

However, this theory is based on the assumption that at a certain given point change will happen. This brings us back to the whole development debate. Are societies meant to develop or change? Who defines change? What is the direction that communities should be giving to their own development?

In many instances during my experience in Burkina Faso I found myself wondering about the Theory of Change. When discussing polygamy with some of the women in Guilongou, I found out that some children respect and love their father’s spouses as much as their own mothers. One day, during a theatre workshop on family planning in a remote village, a man challenged us to think about the role that God plays in determining how many children somebody should have. So why should we bring about change? Why should communities be challenged to think about change?

To many of these questions my Burkinabé colleagues would answer: “Change is happening. Little by little more girls are now going to school. Young people are no more willing to passively accept forced marriages. Polygamy has now become a choice.”

As development practitioners we are maybe obsessed with making change happen, measuring impact, setting short- and long-term outcomes. It can just be that societies naturally evolve and change, following their own pace. It might be that change is happening without people realising it or necessarily planning it. It might be that certain societies are more hostile to change and some others are instead more open to change. One key lesson learnt during my ICS experience is that in order for change to happen, people need to be ready for it.

I believe people are the main engine of the development machine. Who would have ever imagined seeing thousands of Burkinabé people recently protesting and putting their lives at risk to stop the dictatorial regime, which poorly managed the country for the past 27 years? This is the greatest testimony that the Theory of Change can work only if people willingly decide to be part of that change.

Why me?

I was quite shocked recently when I saw the video “Who wants to be an Africa Volunteer”, a hilarious parody about young people who volunteer to help in Africa in the name of charity. Having been a team leader of young volunteers for 13 months, I came across a variety of volunteers (both UK and Africans). Certainly people came to Burkina Faso with different motivations, different research interest, different skills, but all with one great thing in common: the will to make a difference.

I have had the great privilege of being the witness of young people making a difference every single day, in very extreme weather and health conditions. I have seen people overcoming language barriers, teaching and supporting each other skills, endlessly researching new project ideas and grant opportunities, organising formal training sessions, leading key raising awareness activities.

I was also fortunate enough to witness some of the fruits of our work, with more women attending literacy classes, signing up for training activities, developing self-confidence, joining new business ventures and being able to provide for themselves and their families.

“Everything that has been achieved would have never been possible without the help of volunteers.” These are the words that both the President of the Association, Madame Suzanne Yameogo, and the women of Kabeela kept repeating during my time in Burkina Faso. So if you wonder why me? What is it that a young person like me with limited experience can contribute to development? The answer is that you have a huge role to play.

Development has no age, ethnic, sex or skills boundaries. We can all make a great contribution, by learning and working in the respect of local communities, shaping change according to local people’s priorities and following their own pace. If people are ready for it, we can be ready to be part of it.

Valentina is a former ICS Team Leader in Burkina Faso (June 2013 - June 2014). For Burkina Faso volunteer updates, click here.