This is our moment. International development is grounded in respect for others – other genders, other cultures, other nationalities, others. We are all ‘others’ to someone. Feeling mystified by the lack of ‘sustainable’ progress to lasting development in low income countries, I ventured to Dar es Salaam to find out what it is like to work inside a local NGO. I wanted to know what it takes to help them ‘build capacity’.

You know what I mean when I say a ‘local’ NGO. These are the NFPs created by, and for, local citizens to lead change inside their community, their country. These are the NGOs we are talking about when we say we need to strengthen their ‘capacity’, to help them become stronger partners to our international NGOs who decide the programmes and secure the funding to support the local NGOs.

When I was telling friends that I was going to Tanzania to work with a women’s rights group – bringing my knowledge of public relations, advocacy and communications in North America to strengthen the voices of TGNP-Mtandao – responses ranged from “your are brave” to “I wish I could do that”. Perhaps you can. I know we all should. The world needs more professionals working inside local NGOs – learning their context in order to share our skills and knowledge in a meaningful way that really impacts how they work.

A Zimbabwe woman – a powerful activist for women’s rights – was speaking last fall at an event in Montreal. In concluding, she invited us all to “come to my home. You are welcome. I only ask that you remember that you are not ‘going to the field’ you are coming to my home – my entire world is here”. After just a short time in Dar es Salaam, I recognized that I would grow as much as I would contribute from this experience. The first step however was to recognize that I wasn’t going ‘to the field’. I was going to work with fiery, dedicated activists who were eager to learn whatever would allow them to be stronger, more effective in reaching their goals.

Arriving with humbleness and respect allowed me to be open and learn from the women and men I worked with. Change happens within differing contexts. This is their context not mine. I respect that and invested time in understanding how things worked differently in Tanzania.

The challenge I gave myself was to better understand the context for communications and the spaces that exist for activist voices.  That approach allowed me to apply my expertise within the context without judging…just listening, learning and thereby adding value.

Travelling to another country challenges us every day. Literally … finding my way to work through mazes of streets with no names was a challenge in Dar es Salaam. Then one day you start recognizing landmarks. You learn a few words to explain where you want to go. That is when it starts to feel like you will be okay here. The faces are friendly and people truly want to know how you are getting along. You begin to feel comfortable and to open your eyes to the community you are living within.

Feeling confident in a new job in a new city, where language and culture present significant challenges, rests with our ability to rapidly decode how things work. When that does happen, it is easier to focus on what you’re there to do. For me, the starting point for ‘amping’ my motivation and adding value was in understanding the power and the passion across TGNP-Mtandao for real, progressive change in Tanzania. I began to see how they get things done and where they are fighting for the rights of women and girls. When those lights started going on, I understood how to work with these remarkable feminists (men and women) to pinpoint opportunities to share their stories and ways they can ensure their messages are heard.

At the end of my too short time in Dar es Salaam with TGNP-Mtandao, I measure the value of the experience by the friendships of the people I’ve worked with everyday. And I will be looking for their faces and their voices in media reports from Tanzania, from East Africa and on a global stage.

This is where sustainable development starts….working together to raise the volume and the visibility of their voices. Giving Tanzanians the microphone to speak for themselves will allow those of us in ‘northern’ countries to finally understand how to foster progress for prosperity in low income countries.

Susanne Courtney

Susanne Courtney

With 20 years as an entrepreneur & leader in communications consulting in Canada, the US and around the world, followed by a decade in senior executive positions with INGOs, Susanne is committed to helping local NFPs have their voices heard as equal partners.

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