In the problem lies the solution

Sometimes it seems that we get so stuck on a problem that we can’t see past it. And thus we miss the fact that the problem can be an opportunity to create a systemic change, and that the resources to do so are close to home.

The first story I ever put on Hopebuilding wiki was about Mrs. Letela, the principal of a small school in a village in rural Lesotho where children were coming to school hungry and thus couldn’t pay attention in class. Starting a school lunch program wasn’t an immediate option, as the communities didn’t have much food – that was why the children were hungry.

However, all around the school, there was a lot of empty land. The parents were farmers. And there was a home economics class in the school.

She was a wise woman. She didn’t immediately say “let’s start a project to grow food at the school” . Instead, she gently floated the idea, one parent at a time, as parents came to the school to get their children. Parents talked among themselves about the idea. And when she felt the time was right, she held a meeting.

She knew that to feed the students, the parents would have to farm differently. They would need to grow a number of crops in a year, not just one. So she found a small NGO that worked with farmers to teach them organic farming methods, basing the teaching on what they already knew.

In less than two months, parents had begun farming around the school; the home economics class was cooking meals using the vegetables they grew; and the children, with a full stomach, were able to learn. Not much longer after that, neighbouring communities began to come and visit, to see this miracle for themselves. They learned how to do it themselves, and went home and started farming at their schools.

Soon, without any outside support except for the initial expertise of that one small NGO, 58 more schools had such programs, and within a few years, 200 more did as well. And the farmers, seeing that it was possible to grow a range of crops, changed their farming practices at home as well, so food security improved in the community as a whole.

So what was the secret? Firstly, Mrs. Letela was a good facilitator. Her low-key approach meant the parents felt they had come up with the idea themselves; they ‘owned’ the project, and this made it sustainable. Secondly, she understood the need for specific expertise that built on what local people already knew. Thirdly, she saw a problem as an opportunity for growth and change. And fourthly, she looked around her for solutions and resources that were locally available.

I learned about her story from the Community Development Resource Association in Cape Town, which calls this strategy “horizontal learning”. It is all about neighbours learning from neighbours, and thus it is sustainable in a way that doesn’t happen when experts come in from outside. It addresses a number of problems at one time with locally available resources. It doesn’t need outside aid funding. And it is extremely effective.

This is the kind of development we need to support and to celebrate.