Story 1¬†– Abdul purchased an antique oil lamp at the local market. When he brought the lamp home and began to clean it a jini came out and said, “Abdul, I have been trapped in this lamp for a 1000 years. As a reward for freeing me, I will grant you one wish, whatever you want. However, I must warn you that whatever you wish for, I will give your neighbor double what I give you.” Abdul thought for a second and said to the jini, “Make me blind in one eye!”

This “joke” is told about and within a specific community group that I have firsthand knowledge. For those in the know, this story creates chuckles because it sadly illustrates a known attitude of many within that community. In my opinion, it is also a root reason for the misery, marginalization, conflict, and poverty within this community. Do I sound too harsh?

Story 2¬†– Every year, Ahmet’s garden had the reputation of having the largest pumpkins in the village. A visitor from another town asked Ahmet, “You have the most beautiful pumpkins I have ever seen. What is your secret?” Ahmet replied, “Oh, it’s no secret. I give my best pumpkin seeds to my neighbors each year. That increases the chances that the bees who pollinate my plants will do so from the highest quality pumpkin pollin around.

Although I cannot verify the historic accuracy of this story, it illustrates well the prevailing thinking patterns of many within another community where I have firsthand knowledge. In my opinion, this way of thinking is the root reason for the relative happiness, achievement, and peace within this community. Interestly, Ahmet and Abdul’s communities are in different regions of the same country.

According to business anthropologist Joerg Schmitz, culture is what is expected, reinforced, and rewarded within a group. This is the most practical and reasonable definition of culture that I have ever come across.

Story 3¬†– I had this definition in mind while attending a meeting sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) in Stockholm not long ago. At this meeting I proposed that transformation only happens when there is change in a person or groups thinking pattern (i.e. what one expects, reinforcers and rewards). I insisted that if we are not influencing the way people think we are not doing anything that will lead to long-term change. I proposed that modeling was one of the best ways to influence people’s world view. Modeling and relationship building usually takes a long-time, much longer than the 12-24 month funding cycles of many donors. My statement caused one representative from a visiting international NGO to get her knickers in a twist. I had crossed the line. She loudly boasted that her NGO does not take a cultural supremacist view. She proclaimed proudly that her NGO would NEVER try to change a host community’s cultural norms. She was unhappy. It was as if I had served pork chops at a bar mitzvah. Sometimes I feel like I’m from outer space.

I believe community development is PRIMARILY about influencing the way host communities think, so that in time it influences the way they act. It is NOT about giving things away nor having a savior or rescuer complex. It is about worldview exchange. The reality is that my staff (and myself) constantly have our thinking and behavior challenged and influenced by interacting with our host communities. Selfishly, it is one big reason I am involved in the international aid sector. I am not an altruist. I almost always get back more than I give when working with the poor and marginalized. Certainly, no culture has it all right. Neither does any culture have it all wrong. In my view, all good community development projects should facilitate mutual transformation, i.e. positive change both in the program participants (host community) and in the program staff (NGO or CBO).