Our rural Ethiopian indigenous local NGO construction partners built hundreds of clean water points, schools, health facilities and farm/business programs every year. Based on their location, the capabilities of the partners varied widely across the country - some partners had fleets of trucks and drill rigs, computers, and permanent staff. Other partners had none of those things. This created challenges for us as we implemented standards of quality in our implementation model, sustainable development practices, and consistent construction quality requirements.
International development is nominally about constructing a school, a water point, a health facility. These deliverables are required, of course, but at a deeper level, sustainable development is about changing behavior in relationship the deliverable. For example, a clean water project means very little to the long-term health of a community if the community does not maintain the water point for longevity, or wash their hands before eating or after defecation. To not make these behavior changes mean that people will not reap the benefits of the project, and it will be largely useless.
Anyone that has ever tried to lose 10 pounds knows how hard it is to change their own behavior - much less to ask a community to change doing something from the way their parents did it, how their grandparents did it, etc. Changing behavior is key to sustainable development and optimal growth, and it is hard. Finding and applying motivation is key to long term change.
In our model, the roots of behavior change took place one year before the first shovel of dirt was ever lifted. The first year was spent having conversations with our partners, the government and the community about where to build, what to build, how to build it, respective contributions, responsibilities, training, etc. This upfront year was crucial because it showed us which community leaders, community members, partners and government representatives had the motivation to go where we were going, to co-invest in sustainability and quality alongside us - and not just do the “easy” work of construction. Which stakeholders had the motivation we were looking for.
Our construction partners were doing the day-to-day work with the communities, and had the front line of responsibility for these activities. Our Country Director, Gebrehiwot Abebe, had a wise philosophy about our partners’ respective capabilities in this regard: We would work with any partner that was motivated to work with us. This did not mean that they had the innate capability or sophistication to work at our level, but it meant that when we gave them feedback they listened, took it to heart, wanted to change, and made changes. They were motivated.
Our standards of inclusion, co-investment, and training raised the bar on even the most sophisticated of our partners, and all partners struggled to grow with us. That was fine, we had the flexibility to patiently allow the work to progress at an absorbable natural pace. A lack of capability wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for a partnership…but a lack of willingness to try would.
After a very reasonable amount of time and effort were spent working alongside the partners, giving feedback, discussing barriers, etc, we would walk away. Focus on working with those that were motivated to work with us. We walked away from a very large, significant partnership for this very reason, and maintained a very small, unsophisticated partnership for the same reason. (And, I’m proud to report that the large partnership undertook some significant internal restructuring, found its motivation, changed its ways, and ultimately re-joined us.)
This is an incredibly useful model that is applicable for life, as well - especially in personal development work. As we grow into our own personal power, embodying divine energy, we develop new standards of integrity, of quality, of sustainability, for ourselves. As we honor our truths it changes our relationships to life, to our families, to our jobs, to all of our partnerships. We implement new standards of quality and sustainability. And some of our partnerships are more capable than others in growing with us, and some are more motivated.
And that is all ok. What is not ok is not to try, not to change and grow and try to embody our truth more fully. Not to tell our partners what our standards are, and see how they respond, gauge their motivation, and walk away if necessary.
But, it’s a process, and it requires investment and transparency. None of the changes happened overnight, and our alignment revealed itself through thoughtful, engaged conversations over time. Some of the partners we thought would never make it became our star partnerships, and some of the partner we thought would find the changes to be easy could not find their motivation.
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of the experience was a shift in our own perception of quality. We grew to celebrate progress, not perfection. Changing behavior is hard, life happens, and we are constantly integrating new dynamics and variables. But the best we can do is have motivated partners that are willing to walk alongside us on the path, each bringing their own transparent selves, each in it together.
Norma Van Horn