What if the popular narrative surrounding poverty isn’t true? Sure, there’s no denying the validity of statistics that say millions of people survive on a couple of dollars a day, lack access to education, and live in constant threat of violence. But we often forget that while these facts can help us to understand people’s circumstances, they are incapable of painting an accurate reflection of the people themselves. This error leads us to create a group of individuals in our minds, termed “the poor,” who are defined by their economic and social conditions alone and inaccurately portrayed at best as helpless and pitiable, and at worst as lazy and ignorant. However, this narrative could not be further from the truth. Keep reading below to see how I came to realize that the people with the fewest opportunities are actually the ones with the most to offer in international development.
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Bumpy dirt roads. Dull, colorless mud houses that are nearly built on top of one another and present such a stark contrast to the surrounding vibrancy of the surrounding hills. Children with ragged clothing and distended stomachs, the ironic sign that they are not receiving enough food. This is what I saw when I drove into a Congolese refugee camp in northwestern Rwanda. Though these sights, sounds, and smells were somewhat familiar to me at this point since I had already spent a considerable amount of time in the region, all else that I had previously encountered seemed to pale in comparison to the staggering level of human suffering that I was now witnessing.
After arriving at the camp, I became acquainted with several of the refugees who then offered to show me around and tell me their stories. As we walked and shared more about ourselves, it’s difficult to say what was most despairing– the actual tales of violence and persecution that they endured in the Congo, or the heartbreak etched in their faces as they spoke of the homeland they were forced to flee. In the midst of these conversations, a number of questions began to form in my mind, but with very little resolution. Undeniably, though, the most relentless ones were how have we allowed this to happen, and how can we begin to address the factors that have created the problem?
In the months that followed and as I eventually returned home to the United States with these questions and the memories of my Congolese friends still haunting me, I quickly set out for answers. Unfortunately, what I found was a complex web of historical, political, social, and environmental factors, all of which had together created the perfect storm for underdevelopment. Despite my best efforts, I found it impossible to get a firm grip on how exactly each of these factors perpetuated the cycle of the poverty, let alone begin to see any effective strategies for interrupting the cycle. Considering the fact that these issues continue to persist in the Congo, regardless of the tremendous amounts of foreign aid that have been poured into the country in recent decades, it seemed as though I was not the only one to have encountered this difficulty.
Fast forward to this summer as I began my internship with Congo Leadership Initiative. Along with managing CLI’s social media accounts and doing some other marketing-related activities, one of my main responsibilities has been to research and pursue grant opportunities. As I have begun this process, I’ve become very familiar with the in’s and out’s of CLI’s development model because it’s this very model that I am tasked with selling other foundations on. While I’ve always respected CLI’s approach to development in the Congo, the more that I have delved into CLI’s strategic model, the more that I have realized the simplicity and beauty in it.
You see, CLI’s founder and board members reached the same conclusion as I did after looking at the deeply entrenched issues that exist in the Congo: we will never understand them well enough to really make a difference. Rather than turning away in a resigned state of helplessness, though, they turned to the people who already do understand the Congo and the many complexities that exist within it. These people are the Congolese themselves.
For so long, these local experts have been overlooked in the realm of international development. In reality, though, they are the ones who possess the necessary knowledge, networks, and passions to be able to create lasting change in the Congo. The reason? It is their land, their culture, their history, and their communities that are ultimately at stake. As a result, my role as an external agent is not to impose my own less-qualified insights and solutions from afar, but rather to take advantage of the tremendous insights and understandings that they bring, and empower them in the pursuit of the own visions for their communities. It is only through this model, in which the Congolese are not bystanders, but leaders in their country’s development, that sustainable transformation will occur in the Congo.