Local insights should drive sustainable development in Africa

By Qasim Rashid Ahmad 06 October 2015

Ahbab Moustapha, a baker, makes his livelihood at a refugee camp in Chad. By carving out partnerships with local organizations the international community can help development become grassroots-driven and genuinely sustainable. Photo by: F. Noy / UNHCR / CC BY-SA

Most of us know the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In an aid and development context, this philosophy underpins an approach to development that encourages beneficiary independence and autonomy. This is clearly a step in the right direction. But we need to acknowledge that in many cases the issue is not that aid beneficiaries don’t know “how to fish,” but that they lack the tools to do so in the way that is most effective for them.

Before rushing to “teach fishing,” it’s essential that international actors take time to talk to those on the ground about what they need most. This means carving out partnerships with local organizations, with a view to helping development become genuinely sustainable and driven by the grassroots.

Earlier this month, the European Commission released recommendations for moving towards “a global partnership for principled and effective humanitarian action,” in preparation for the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit. They called on the international community to “recognize and embrace the diversity of humanitarian actors” and to “encourage and empower” local communities.

Al-Khair Foundation, of which I am chairman, takes an inclusive, collaborative approach to development, particularly for our African projects. In Kenya, we’ve worked with UNHCR to set up livelihood projects for unemployed youth in Dabaab, and a maternity clinic in the Kambioos refugee camp, always with a view to handing over the day-to-day running of these initiatives not only to camp staff, but to the refugees themselves. As a faith-based nongovernmental organization, we also build relationships with local mosques and madrassas to find out how they can use their positions as hubs in order to benefit the community.

We are particularly committed to partnering with institutions that serve local communities across the faith, age and gender divides. We are currently working with a collective of women and young people in a number of villages in Kenya’s Kisumu County to initiate small-scale livelihood projects around fish farming and selling local delicacies. By establishing direct relationships with these individuals, we give them the basic tools required to become self-sufficient; acting as a stepping stone, not a crutch.

In Africa, which still receives the majority of global aid funding, transitioning from a “donors versus beneficiaries” mentality, to thinking about aid delivery as a partnership of equals is particularly necessary.

Too often, African countries are perceived only in terms of their varying levels of dependence on foreign aid, when in fact the continent has more than enough imagination and innovation to forge its own unique solutions to local challenges — if given the support and resources to do so. This was made clear to me at the recent AidEx Africa conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, which brought together African aid and development professionals of all stripes. Partnerships between large and small organizations were highlighted as a key to achieving shared goals. And there were calls for aid providers to view their beneficiaries as “resources” with invaluable expertise and knowledge of their own, rather than simply as vulnerable individuals in need of help.

The international development community can and should help in this regard. Developing grassroots partnerships is vital for empowering local communities with the right tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. And in the long run, it is the first step towards truly sustainable development.

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About the author

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Qasim Rashid Ahmad

Imam Qasim Rashid Ahmad is founder and chairman of Al-Khair Foundation. A graduate in Islamic sciences, he has been actively involved in AKF’s work both at home and overseas. For many years, Qasim led AKF’s fundraising efforts by using his expansive reach and influence in the U.K. Muslim community. Qasim was previously a counselor, community/faith leader and imam at the Croydon Mosque and Islamic Center. He was also a visiting prison imam for nine years.


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