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The hippo in the room

The hippo in the room published on No Comments on The hippo in the room
Hippo in Zambia © Farhat Jah

I told you in the last post that there were some bits of must-watch video Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen that really made me think, and here is the first.

In the first part of his talk, Ernesto Sirolli tells us an anecdote about Lessons from an Agricultural Aid project in Zambia (this extract from topnonprofits’ synopsis)

[Ernesto Sirolli] Worked with an Italian NGO. Everyone had great intentions and truly wanted to help. Yet everything they touch failed.

For example, the came to part of Zambia near the Zambezi River and were amazed why the local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. So they taught people to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini.

But the people weren’t interested.

So they paid them to come learn…and sometimes they showed up.

Instead of asking why they weren’t growing anything [the donors] said, “Thank God we are here. Just in nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”

Of course everything in Africa grew beautifully and they were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.”

Just when the tomatoes were nice and ripe, [two hundred] hippos came out of the river and ate everything.

And they said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

And the Zambians said, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?!?”

You never asked.

This story truly struck a chord with me.

It is clear that before deciding agriculture was the answer, the Italian NGO ought first to have asked why it wasn’t already happening, rather than assuming it was because nobody had thought of it before. But from the way the story is presented, some people hearing this story might also think “but the local guys really ought to have given them a heads up about the hippos – poor communication goes both ways”.

This is understandable, but I want to explain why I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that.

I have found in my work that leaders and members of local organisations and groups too often do not feel empowered to challenge donors, even when what the donors are saying has major flaws. At first, like the Zambian donors, I found it baffling, enormously frustrating, even hurtful. But over time I have learned that frankly there are sometimes pretty good reasons for reticence.

Firstly, foreigners are presented, and present themselves, as experts. People with the answers. They come with an attitude that says ‘We are experts. We have many years of training and experience that we are here to share with you. You don’t know why you need this yet, but bear with us, trust us, and soon, you will see’.

More pragmatically, however, consultants that come in from large donors essentially have money in their pocket: inconceivably large sums of money in comparison with local wages. Projects are designed (and this is something for another post) to put money in local participants’ pockets (or give them T-shirts) for helping implement projects, and project success is measured by ticking boxes for having carried out activities and spent the money allocated in a timely fashion, rather than by actually making things better through less measurable metrics. Tell such a donor that their proposal is inadequately thought through, and the money (which is needed) might be taken away.

And, thanks to power arrangements and limitations of donor-funding, this is in fact true. There is seldom any flexibility built in to allow projects to be adaptive. Take this, or take nothing.

If you are an NGO that wants funding to carry out a project, you have to define (often months in advance) exactly what your outputs and outcomes and activities will be, how many workshops you will hold and on what dates, how many books you will print, and how much everything will cost (2-3 years from now). And don’t forget the T-shirts!

It is nigh-on impossible, I can assure you from experience, to secure funding for a project from conventional donors by honestly explaining, ‘We have lots of ideas that might work, but until we get out there, we don’t know what we’re going to do, so we’re going to ask the people we want to help how we can help, and what they need, tell them our ideas, and let them choose what we do together’. Incidentally, if you know of a donor who would accept such a proposal, please let me know!

So it is not really fair to surmise that the ‘beneficiary’ community in Zambia was at fault for not telling the aid agency about the hippos. After all, agriculture was not working for them, money and food were scarce, and they were being offered money to grow food (for the hippos as it happens, but they could at least use the money to buy food elsewhere). The donors had come in armed with seeds and tools. Tell them they are wasting their time, they will consider you uncooperative, and may go away and take their money with them.

And remember, too, that the donors come from rich countries and drive big cars. They clearly know how to make money and be successful and have come to share expertise. Perhaps they have some special varieties of tomato and zucchini that hippos don’t eat? It seems unlikely to us but they’re clearly very confident, and they are willing to pay us good money to grow them, so let’s bear with them and see what trick they’ve got up their sleeve. Perhaps they have got it wrong, but they’ll learn eventually – and at least we can eat today.

What’s more – and although I’ve had my own ‘hippo’ moments in project implementation I’ll admit – I have a particularly large amount of sympathy for the community in this case.

If you have ever been to place where there is a river with hippos in, do you not agree, that you knew the hippos were there?

They are not exactly shy and retiring animals. We’re not talking about insects that live hidden in the soil until one particular month of the year, or a parasitic fungus whose spores are borne invisibly in the wind. A hippopotamus is a rather conspicuous 2-3 tonnes of solid muscle (with big teeth) that rather commands attention, or in this case, two hundred hippos… With the best will in the world, I am afraid I find it rather hard to imagine they hadn’t made themselves known.

So, in the circumstances, I can’t help the community should be given enormous credit for not responding to the donors’ questioning “Why didn’t you tell us?!?” with,

Tell you? Tell you about the hippos? Tell you what about them? We thought you knew! See? Look! Hippos! Big animals, hundreds of them, they live in the river all day splashing and grunting, come out at night to eat vegetation. How did you miss them? How on earth were we to know you hadn’t noticed them? You said you were experts and knew what you were doing! We thought you must have some other clever trick up your sleeves! It didn’t occur to us you didn’t know they were there!”

So – if you want to help – please, for the love of hippos, Shut up and listen! Don’t assume you have all the answers. You probably don’t even know the questions to ask, so ask open questions. Ask people what they need and be prepared to listen and respond to what they tell you.

And to my local partners and others I am collaborating with – if I ever get carried away and forget – please, remember I do not know everything, and I sometimes need you to point out the “hippo in the room”. I will thank you for it.

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen! published on 1 Comment on Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!

This is one of the wisest messages I have ever seen.

TED talks are in general exceptional but the following talk by TED fellow Ernesto Sirolli is an absolute must-see.

Readers on limited bandwidth can download the talk as an audio file here, and it is also available at that link with subtitles in many languages (though unfortunately not yet Kiswahili).

For those on very slow internet, topnonprofits.org has a comprehensive written synopsis of the video.

I strongly recommend everyone interested in development and its successes and failures dedicate the time to watch, read, listen, or otherwise imbibe this phenomenal talk.

Although I had been sent the link before, slow internet meant I didn’t end up watching it till a couple of weeks ago. But I’m so glad I finally did!

The whole message is very powerful but there were some bits in particular that really struck a chord and made me think.  So – go and watch it now! And I’ll be back soon with my thoughts!

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