Who Are the Experts?

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It’s well-established in community development that the greater people’s participation in the process, the more effective the result. Real and sustained change requires involvement by community members, who must make an informed decision to change things. 

Obviously, the urgency of a crisis can make that a secondary consideration. As countries reach out in response to devastating events like Typhoon Haiyan, we want to see food and medical supplies distributed as quickly as logistically possible. Disaster relief is about rescue and restoring people’s ability to live as they once did. Time is more critical than participation.

Once an acute need has passed, however, the longer, slower transformation must begin. As familiar as we are with scenes of relief supplies being passed from trucks to waiting, outstretched hands, we often feel that the process of development in a community remains a mystery. Hand-outs create diminishing returns when facing chronic poverty and social problems.

So how do people go about attaining a better level of health and livelihood? What does it look and sound like, and how do we know when it starts to happen?

In September, we hosted a gathering of nearly 70 Bhekulwandle community members of all ages. We wanted to hear what this community means to them – but first we had to convince them we were listening. We began with some simple activities (games really) that encouraged people to begin speaking. Young and old, men and women were getting involved, standing up to share their viewpoints and experience.

“We are the experts, because we have lived here! This is our place, and we know it better than anyone.”

This reversal, from seeing themselves as recipients of outside help, to being owners and experts in their own community, is the start of the process we’ve been seeking. We call it the Voice of Bhekulwandle, and as we continue meeting together, the people’s voice is ringing clearer.


Carl Waldron

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