Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe you can be 'called' to do a certain job or life? Hmmm, I never did. I am more of a person believing in reason and rationality. But, it seems I have found my 'calling' in my new work with The Hunger Project Netherlands. Let me look at how this came about, with my apologies for being wordy...
The Hunger Project is a Global Organisation, or a movement rather, that believes the end of chronic hunger is possible and necessary. It works in 13 countries to support people in the poorest rural communities to take the development of themselves, their families in their own hands. THP works to unleash the intrinsic powers and capacities within people to end their hunger and to live a life in dignity, free from hunger and in good health.
How did I end up getting involved with THP? It was a long and winding road but it brings together many things that I feel close to in my personal and professional life. Let me go back some 15 years and track the road towards THP.
In 1995, while working in my first job in development with Dienst Over Grenzen (Service Abroad, now merged into ICCO) I got in touch with the Instititute of Cultural Affairs in the Netherlands. ICA promotes the use of participatory methods in development and has designed with great rigor a system of methods called Technology of Participation (ToP). ToP enables individuals, groups and organisations to collaborate at a deeper level towards common vision and action. Over the five years that I worked with ICA as a volunteer I was trained in these methodologies, spent time in Africa to see development projects in action, and became a trainer and facilitator in group facilitation methods myself. With ICA I developed a deep understanding of the interaction between individuals and groups, how participation can lead to real ownership of and commitment to plans and what it takes to build and maintain a community of change for development. I was able to work through these methods in the corporate sector, in communities and development organisations in the Netherlands and saw that participation is both a means and an end to development.
From 2001 and 2008 I then had the opportunity to live and work in Africa with my family. After the birth of our daughter Aukje in 2000 our first posting was in rural Zimbabwe where my wife Nynke worked as a medical doctor in a mission hospital. We witnessed the fierce reality of abject poverty and the denial of basic social, economic and political human rights. We saw how rural communities struggled for day to day survival when the basic services in health care, education, agriculture and infrastructure were crumbling around them. I was able to take on assignments as a consultant and trainer to strengthen the capacities of local organisations, local government in development, in particular in the use of participatory methods, project management and leadership. We worked with wonderful local people to develop their understanding and skills while growing our own understanding of development as well. I published a toolbook for participatory capacity building of NGOs, based on a process that I facilitated with a group of gender organisations in Zimbabwe.
After our three year posting in Zimbabwe, our family, now grown with our second born son Sybren and lastborn daughter Rinske, moved to Malawi for another posting. My work in Malawi was strengthening the capacities of 5 local organisations active in the field of food security. This involved their staff capacities on understanding development as a people centred empowerment process; on project management and participatory monitoring and evaluation; on organisational systems and strategies; and on strengthening organizational learning culture and networking. In Malawi I engaged with higher level policy processes on food security and agriculture with national government and the donor community, and supported the collaboration between like-minded NGOs to harmonize their programmes and learn from each other. I saw the diversity of interventions possible to support communities in their development: from participatory literacy circles to cooperative rural credit and savings; from low-input agriculture to sports for development; from hiv-aids councelling and testing to theatre for development; from rights-based approaches to training for transformation. This also helped me to see the complexity of poverty as a multi-faceted problem that cannot be solved by single interventions but that needs a systems approach in order to bring change at different sectors and levels of society.
In 2008 I took up a new post at the Wageningen University and Research Center, in the Centre for Development Innovation. As atrainer and consultant I worked in a team on strengtening capacities in the field of multi-stakeholder processes for sustainable development and social justice. Our clients were key players in the development sector: international development organisations, UN-agencies, national government agencies and local development partners in developing countries, universities and research centres. Our focus was on strengthening the understanding of povery as a complex and multi-dimensional problem and their capacity to use multi-stakeholder approaches for interventions. This approach involves bringing together stakeholders from government, private sector and civil society to create common understanding of a problematic and develop common goals to work towards solving the problem using their own roles and capacities. The use of multi-stakeholder approaches is founded on participatory methods, and concepts of theories of change, development complexity, social change and social learning.
Around 2010 I arrived at a point in my life and career, feeling less and less comfortable with my work and priorities. I appreciated the great professional achievements and progress that I had made over the fifteen years, but also felt that they had come at a great price. Working long hours, traveling for many weeks per year to be involved with multiple assignments that demand everything was somehow alienating. In my work I was training and consulting others to use intriguing and intelligent approaches in development – very interesting but high about the grass roots level. At home I was often stressed, tired, somewhat detached because of the frequent travelling and long hours of work.
It was just when I decided that I would like to change all that, The Hunger Project came with a job opening for a fundraiser/programme officer. This immediately caught my attention. THP was not new to me at all. In Malawi I had been in contact with THP and had organized an excursion for my local partners to visit THPs work and learn from their approach. I was very impressed by their work and inspired by the Malawian Director Rowlands Kaotcha. Last year I learned that THP Netherlands had a new director, Evelijne Bruning, a renowned figure in the Dutch development scene. In February 2010 I had invited Evelijne to facilitate a seminar on the Millennium Development Goals during an international course on local governance at Wageningen UR. Evelijne’s contribution to the seminar was inspiring and I was luckily surprised when she sent me the job opening at THP, to distribute to interested people. I quickly sent in my application, on April 1st, not a joke!
The application process went very smooth – there was an immediate connect with me and THP. It almost feels like a destiny since it really brings together many things I feel close to. The work on grass roots empowerment, using advanced participatory methods throughout. The integrated approach to development with a focus on gender equality and strengthening local governance. The advancement of entrepreneurship in the organization and with local development partners – no direct service delivery or handouts but inspiration, capacity building, opening doors.
THP also gave me the opportunity to work part-time, spending more time with my family. The work also requires less travelling abroad, an increasing stress factor in my previous work. And it has plenty of room for strengthening the THP approach with my ideas on multi-stakeholder processes.
Working at THP may not be my destiny, but it feels like coming home. That is good enough for me!