From our Founder & President
Dear Family and Friends of everyday gandhis,
This year (November, 2014) everyday gandhis celebrates 10 years of peacebuilding work in Liberia. How do we measure the results of our efforts and determine whether we have been successful? Conventional NGO’s measure success in terms of quantifiable results. Expenditures have to be justified to funders but not necessarily to the people the NGO’s are supposedly there to serve. Projects are often designed by outside ‘experts’ educated in the West, with a Western mindset and Western motivation – often with vested economic or political interests. So-called ‘target communities’ are seldom asked what they need or want, why, or how. Few aid workers are trained in local cultural norms or in skillful community entry and may not know whom the true stakeholders are.
Who are the real experts in violence-torn communities? Are they outsiders with advanced degrees who design short-term projects in far-away offices? Or are they the local people who know the culture, the land, the history, the community and the problems people face? Add to these questions the long histories of multi-generational trauma, slavery, colonization, corruption, dependence and competition for resources (among aid agencies, governments, corporations and communities) and consider, also, the very real and legitimate need of donors to know how aid dollars are being spent and we begin to appreciate the complexities to be faced.
Peacebuilding pioneer John Paul Lederach has said that ‘it takes about as long to get out of a conflict as it took to get in’. Aid projects are often designed, and their success measured, in quantifiable numbers: schools built, wells dug, children vaccinated, women who voted, etc. Time frames are typically weeks, months or at most a few years. Liberia’s civil war lasted 14 years. Is this how long it should take to create lasting peace there? Applying Lederach’s maxim, we’d have to trace back to the beginning of the slave trade in West Africa in the 1750’s, followed by over one hundred years of slavery, then the traumatic return voyage of freed slaves sent back to colonize Liberia in the 1820’s, and the approximately 150 years before the Liberian civil war erupted in 1989. By this calculation, now that the war has been over for 10 years, we have another 250 years to go before we’ll know whether peace in Liberia is sustainable and healing is complete. In this light, how should aid projects be designed? If we are working on a 1-5 year timeline, with current political agendas on the current global chess board, including current levels of resource availability, use and depletion, climate change, etc., then how can we claim that our efforts are going to bring the desired results? And what are the desired results?
Liberia is resource rich. Chinese and others are buying up African farmland; America, Europe, China and other countries are vying for Africa’s (and Liberia’s) fresh water, timber, oil, gold, and other raw materials. Donor countries want to see certain kinds of economic, educational and political systems in place. Are they aligned with local people who have a rich and complex culture very different from, say, Western or Chinese culture? And, given that the US is the world’s largest consumer of non-renewable resources, the world’s largest contributor to global warming, the world’s largest supplier of weapons and the world’s primary destination for the modern slave trade, are we necessarily the best ‘experts’ on what is right for the rest of the world? Projects arising from local needs and local culture, that are inclusive of as many stakeholders as possible and calibrated to attain long-term cultural, social, ecological and economic sustainability on a 100-500 year timeline involve a different way of thinking altogether, with an entirely different set of questions and goals.
During our first 10 years of work in Liberia, perhaps 10,000 people or more have participated in the ceremonies, negotiations, soccer games and story-telling we have sponsored. We have 14 Liberian scholarship students, with 3 college graduates, and about 40 trained permaculture designers. But what do these numbers actually mean? In Liberia people say, “If I am healed, I can heal 20 people just by interacting with them. Each of them can heal 20 more, who heal 20 more, and so on.” By that measure, we may have reached many thousands beyond our imagining. But how do we measure the healing of the land? Of people’s ancestors and the spirits of the children who perished in the war? Of the rivers swollen with dead bodies? Of the makers and sellers of the weapons used for all this killing? Habuka Bombande, Founding Director of WANEP (West Africa Network for Peacebuilding) says that we need to develop a global culture of ‘mutual accountability’. One measurement, then, of ‘success’ is to ask: How has everyday gandhis’ peacebuilding work, this healing that we seek in Liberia, changed us here in the U.S.? How do our work and our relationships help us heal each other?
In September of 2005, at the end of a long rainy season, I was in Liberia with several Liberian and American colleagues, and with my dear friend and advisor, Deena Metzger. Our car, like everyone else’s, had broken down in the mud. It was twilight and the next village was several kilometers from where we were stranded. No cars could get through from either direction. I am ashamed to say that Deena and I felt uneasy. We arrived in Johnstown to find that rice was already cooking for the evening meal, we were given permission to sleep on the floor of the local clinic, and our exhausted driver was already repairing our vehicle. The Town Chief introduced himself by saying, “You are our strangers, and we welcome you!” Then someone handed each of us an infant, twin girls. We realized it was Rosh Hashannah eve, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, a time when one seeks to make amends with those we have hurt, and to reflect on our behavior for the past year in hopes of being ‘inscribed in the book of life’ for one year more. How apt for us to find ourselves entirely dependent – and fully welcomed and cared for – by such generous and patient Liberian friends.
Dayenu, which means, roughly, ‘If only this had happened, it would have been enough,’ and it is part of the Passover story that names, in the form of a call-and-response poem, all the miracles of deliverance for which the Jewish people can be grateful. Though I am not a religious or even a very observant Jew, I love Rosh Hashanah, and I love Dayenu, with the deep communal humility and gratitude they teach.
And so, at everyday gandhis, perhaps the best measure of success is to ask how our work has changed us, and how we have changed each other for the better because of our experiences. The Liberian healing journey has brought us together to grieve, dream, witness, reflect, share, write, and take action according to the guidance of our own hearts. We ride the roller coaster of understanding that one day lifts us up and the next moment shatters all our insights, hopes and expectations. We experiment with various timelines and try on new questions. We seek to make amends. We look for guidance from the natural world and changes in our dreaming. We practice not knowing, and not needing to know. In the face of uncertainty, we continue to open ourselves to each other, to the stories, and to new ways of being that we hope will bring healing in our lifetimes and in times beyond our own. Dayenu. May we be given another year, together.
- Cynthia Travis, Founder and President of everyday gandhis.