What Role Do Outsiders Play?

In development work and church planting work, it’s fairly common in this day and age to question what role an outsider plays. There has been an important shift in recognizing the great need to empower strong local leadership, particularly where sustainability and long term transformation is desired. Where this isn’t a priority you often see colonialism rehashed and projects that fall apart as soon as outsiders leave.

I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t just be better if people like us left; in our place we’d hope that local people would establish and run with everything. It would look indigenous this way and it’d likely last. I’ve never been able to shake the sense that we are called to this though - that we should be doing what we are doing (just making sure that what we are doing is responsible and sustainable).

To back this up, I once had the opportunity to hear a strong local African leader speak to these very points in the organization we predominantly partner with. Trying to be provocative I think, another American friend asked this African man if us westerners should even be here (or if we should just pack up and go home). His response was quite helpful and I thought I’d expand upon it here for those that might be wondering the same thing. He speaks more out of the church planting context than other developmental works but he is involved in many things and partners with many groups and I think the application spans many different areas.

In his response, he pinpoints 7 clear ways that describe partnership and details why we shouldn’t just pack up and leave. Here, find each way and some commentary on what this means and why it’s important.

7 Ways Outsiders Can Help Fuel Movement & Transformation

  1. By Providing Clear Vision. When we partner through vision, we help to identify what local leaders are called to lead into. This doesn’t mean we necessarily provide the vision wholesale. It’s an identification process. It means we take time to listen and tease out the perceived needs and desired direction a particular community is moving in. Often we are able to aid in articulating and casting the particulars of vision. Often we are able to paint that picture of what could be and point others directly to it. This is quite important as you cannot gain what you cannot see. Further, where vision isn’t clear human nature tends to dictate that we wander, mostly aimlessly, in directions that distract from what’s actually important.

  2. By Providing Necessary Training. You can’t really understate the importance of training. With the right knowledge and training people can go much further than they could without it. Often an outside perspective is able to discern the type and depth of training needed to move a leader or community from point A to point B. Training also insures that we are working ourselves out of positions, particularly positions of power, as we train local leaders to fill them. It’s an important high impact / low visibility” thing we can do. If we are doing our jobs well, we should be giving our best away so that we remain invisible and locals step into the forefront.  

  3. By Providing Necessary Marketing. It’s important to let the world know what is going on. As example, the Syrian refugee crisis started several years ago but is just now capturing the world’s attention. While we talked about it back then, not everyone did and many people across the globe were surprised at the magnitude of the problem. As outsiders we can help clue the rest of the world into what’s going on on by capturing information and events in order to make them known to the world outside. This is a sensitive process though - it’s not always acceptable and permissible to share. It’s also a process where we need to be careful not to fall into slacktivism (activism from our lazy boys that doesn’t actually do anything, like simply changing a profile picture) or exploitation: we always tell the story out of relationship and with permission and only where it will bring positive impact. Where we share the story for our own gain we are not helping but hurting, often tremendously. We can aid significantly through the marketing and awareness process but only where it’s done sensitively in partnership with local leadership.

  4. By Providing Necessary Administration. Developing the proper administrative efforts for supporting, empowering and encouraging work can be quite the challenge, specifically where it’s never been done before. It’s definitely not a glamorous role (most people don’t want to be stuck in an office) but it is a vital role in many circumstances. This is something we can teach locals to do and succeed at easily particularly as more often then not administrative efforts do not have to be incredibly elaborate and complex: just simple structure to aid the effort.

  5. By Identifying Emerging Leaders. If as outsiders we are able to successful identify emerging local leaders it becomes a real gift to the community as we encourage and empower them to take an active role in the work at hand. Often we will see and encourage potential where many will ignore it, especially those within a community. Looking for the outside in we carry a different perspective that might be a boon in this area (connecting potential leaders with appropriate positions). 

  6. By Identifying What Matters. Put in a different way, it’s not about making people look like us. In the context of church work, that’s focusing on the Gospel and not my preferred American version of church. In development work that’s through identifying solutions desired by indigenous culture rather than acting as colonial overseers. By separating our own culture (that means for me my American-ness”) from the desired message itself, we enable the message to flourish locally. Where we don’t do that we create weird hybrid people that take on aspects of our culture that just aren’t reproducible and limit long term sustainability. And by modeling this, as local leadership seeks to take the next step in helping neighboring communities as they’ve helped there own, they will carry this notion with them.

  7. By Identifying Resources Locally (And Afar). We can help identify what a community already has that they might be overlooking. And where there might be lack - we can help find the necessary resources to compensate for any lack. Often through looking from the outside in we are able to see the hidden strengths that locals often overlook. Often the flip might be true as well: we can perceive potential needs that locals might also miss. We should be helping them identify these things. And no, this doesn’t mean we always bring in the money. Resource can mean a lot of different things and is very dependent on the community, project and task. When the focus is solely on money, particularly in the context of what can be brought in, we often hurt communities more than we help them (through creating dependency, creating false expectations, limiting sustainability and local reproducibility, etc).

So that’s the perspective of one local African leader that perceives the importance of partnering with outsiders like us. We’ve seen the strength in this as well and it drives us to keep walking in this direction. Let me know in the comments if you have any additional thoughts!

October 19, 2015 · faith · development · local leaders · Faith · Culture


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