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We won’t be sending in the “special forces”

By Rajasvini Bhansali, former Thousand Currents Executive Director

Many philanthropies see their role as “special forces” of poverty reduction. They sweep into a troubled area, introduce programs, distribute aid, implement quickly, get quick results, and sweep out: mission accomplished.

But here’s what’s wrong with that scenario: social and systemic injustice has deep roots in the fabric of local social, political, and economic history. We, in the West, are not in the best position to understand or address those problems. The people who can solve them best are the people whose lives are most affected by them.

That’s why Thousand Currents seeks out dedicated and embedded local partners who are working to understand and address their own problems. We help each group develop its own skills, function more effectively, understand its objectives, make high-quality decisions, put plans into action, and evaluate its achievements. We want to enable people to be agents of long-term, sustainable change in their own societies, to affect their own conditions.

This approach is a slow, deep-acting method. It can’t be rushed, “special forces” style. Here’s how we go about it:

  • Required of Thousand Currents’ staff first and foremost are time, patience, receptivity, and restraint. Flexibility and experimentation is – and should be – part of learning and development. Skinned knees are inevitable and there is not a one-size-fits all. These are conditions that Thousand Currents accepts and embraces.
  • We also challenge the notion of “small” as insignificant. Thousand Currents has learned from grassroots groups that it is the quality and integrity of the work—not the size of the organization —that matters. Small can be fierce, flexible, loyal, deep-rooted. Small can, in fact, be big, and local solutions can have global impact.
  • Thousand Currents addresses the power dynamic between the rich and poor, the South and North and challenges the current broken model of philanthropy. Thousand Currents does this by working in solidarity with activists in the developing world; embracing humility and cultural sensitivity so the Global North can learn from and join forces with the local leaders who have championed social change.
  • With our general operating support for community-based initiatives and organizations, we honor grassroots leadership and local knowledge as the engine of social change. Our support to strengthen our partners’ already-existing capacity, as well as our grantmaking, aim to put power back in the hands of marginalized communities.
  • As a result, Thousand Currents’ partners demonstrate the progress they are making locally – challenging Monsanto on the right to know what is in South Africa’s food; pioneering a new model of joint community ownership of land in India; and empowering hundreds of rural women with new ways to build strong livelihoods in Mexico, and much more.

Local, grassroots solutions are ultimately more relevant, effective, empowering and long lasting than top-down, “imported,” and “special forces” solutions.

So after 30 years, are Thousand Currents resources are making a lasting difference? Mission accomplished?

Our partners’ triumphs are how we know.

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