News: Leading the way

rogerA recent statement from a World Bank blogpost suggests that in the future “aid will be increasingly about transferring knowledge rather than money.” This is heartening. Appeals tend to concentrate our thinking on the money raised and what things it will buy, but as Palms’ supporters know, money and things are easily consumed, leaving people without the knowledge or skills needed to build their own future with the assets that are available to them.

As well Palms has come to understand that if the transfer of either knowledge or money is one directional it can so easily promote patriarchy and paternalism, where the giver remains in control. We appreciate that our dignity as human beings relies on all of us being both givers and receivers. Shared knowledge and skills can improve all of our lives and it is so important to achieving solidarity that we do not allow our judgements about good development, no matter how well researched, to direct the priorities of receiving communities.

As explained by Dr Joel Negin, Senior Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney: “This has profound implications for how AusAID, NGOs, universities and everyone else involved in development, work over the next decade or two. Sharing knowledge and skills is a very different skill from managing aid delivery contracts. It is more fundamentally based on an open exchange of ideas rather than top-down dogmatic imposition. It requires greater humility, honesty and a skill-set of facilitation rather than just technical smarts.”

One directional transfer of either money or skills is easier. It takes far less time than a more dignified engagement where all first seek to discover through culturally sensitive dialogue what each might receive from, as well as give to, the relationship. Palms asks volunteers, donors, Encounter participants and Australian partner organisations to resist giving money or things, but rather support volunteer placements that allow the time to both build relationships and then to work on developing the knowledge and skills identified as being required by all.

Larger Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) attempt to address this by sending development program professionals to liaise with receiving community partners, while smaller Australian community based organisations might have a member or two visit while on holidays. Each can be a start, but neither can build a relationship capable of realising the benefits of mutual development in the same way a Palms volunteer can do. As you will see in Christine’s field trip report in this edition this is what overseas partners appreciate about Palms.

One partner commented that she chose volunteers from Palms rather than an Australian Government agency promising to send each volunteer with $2,500 to spend on a project of their choice within the receiving organisation. She did not want decisions about the projects to be taken out of the hands of her team as she knew this would. This is just one more way that a volunteer program spending over $60,000 per volunteer per annum ends up encouraging an unequal relationship that distorts the value of sharing knowledge and skills.

In the next couple of years Palms will work harder to build relationships with Australian individuals and organisations who share our values and approach. We then hope to offer the government a volunteer program that will assist them to change the retrograde steps taken by the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. Together I believe we can convince them to fund a more effective model, at a much lower cost, to reach far many more grass roots communities where authentic relationships and knowledge sharing have more currency than money.

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The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear. - Rumi