As a professor of sustainable development, I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to travel with my students to several countries. When I was planning our first trip to Ghana, I was advised that pens were a good gift to bring to the schools we would be visiting. When we arrived at our first rural school, which was closed for a holiday, we found that over a hundred children had lined up in the hopes of getting a pen. Turns out, there weren’t any pens or pencils at their school. There also wasn’t any paper, water, chalk, electricity, books, or toilets. A few days later, we visited a small women’s program. And, kids from a nearby school, seeing our bus, came over and once again stood in line. After we distributed the last of our pens, I was waiting outside when a little girl came running up. She was about 8 and she didn’t have a school uniform or shoes. She stopped and looked shyly up at me. When I smiled, she came closer and I saw that she was carrying a very rusty pencil box with a faded cover of Minnie Mouse on it. She opened it up to show me her treasures – a Ghanaian penny, a broken pencil, and a button. I found a pen in my bag and gave it to her. She took it, smiled this huge smile, carefully put it in her treasure box and started running as fast as she could towards home.
At that moment, as I put on my sunglasses to hide my tears, I knew that I had to do more. That same trip, we met a wonderful community leader working in a group of nearby villages, who had a long-term plan for his communities’ development. I believe that sustainable development is best achieved by local people managing their own projects to achieve their goals. During our next two trips, my students and I began to support the communities’ efforts and two years later, with a lot of help, I started Engage Globally.
For me, this is an exciting opportunity to make a difference, to learn new skills, to challenge myself, and to work with other people who are active and passionate. It is also tough, partially because there are parts of this I’m not very good at, but mostly because it is just not enough. Sometimes I'll be looking for something in my purse and I will see the five or six pens I’ve left at the bottom, and I think of that little girl and all the children like her, with beautiful smiles and endless potential, but without a pen…
Since the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, we have seen remarkable achievements in raising life expectancies, addressing global health crises, and reducing poverty worldwide. However, sometimes international aid is not as effective as we might wish with projects designed based on the donors’ priorities and timeline rather than the local community’s needs.
When I first visited Ghana, I saw some of these ‘donor-driven’ outcomes. A well-constructed library building that has been locked and empty, for four years, because no operational funds were provided. Another library with hundreds of donated books, all in German. Broken solar panels on schools, businesses, and wells that were damaged by wind, rains and dust. Without any repair funds or local training, the solar projects simply remain broken. Water purification projects that clog, break, or run dry. Recycling bins and ‘how to recycle’ murals made by international volunteers in a region where there is no recycling. In some small villages, you can find many of these projects, all with donor dedication signs, and all in varied states of disrepair and decay. This has a variety of unintended psychological impacts on communities that must look at these broken efforts every day, while their real needs go unmet.
Engage Globally uses a different model of development, referred to as ‘community-led’. In this model, local communities and community leaders meet and discuss their priorities and design plans for meeting their sustainable development goals. Outside partners provide the resources to enable local communities to implement their plans. These resources are generally a combination of funding and some capacity building, training, or technical assistance.
Local leadership and management of projects has many advantages including: