Development through (em)power(ed) relationships

Part 2: Power with

In reflecting on Tshikululu’s experience over the past two decades, we have been able to transcend through and beyond the “power over” dynamic.

My favourite example of this is of Tshikululu’s founding social investment (and infrastructure) specialist, who would take time in his first engagements with a school governing body (be it in a rural village or an urban township) to make sure everyone in the project understood that we were not there to put up a building, we were there to build a school. There is, of course, a fundamental difference: a school is more than just bricks and mortar. It is a collection of human relationships, supported by bricks and mortar, that enables teaching and learning.

Quality education outcomes can only be achieved if the human relationships – and the bricks, mortar, plumbing and fencing – are all aligned towards this goal. Building a school thus meant working with people, in mutual respect, to engender collaboration that unlocks the individual talents and knowledge of the relevant stakeholders. This sounds eminently doable until one considers the range of entrenched and competing interests at play. Union members may want better conditions for teachers (never mind more toilets for learners, we need a staff room), local government officials may want all construction work farmed out to local contractors (regardless of their capacity or expertise), parents might feel they do not have a say in the matter (and anyway, few in the village are more learned or as highly paid as the principal).

The Tshikululu infrastructure team held project management meetings under a tree with the community gathered around, as key stakeholders drew out a map of the school grounds with sticks in the sand. And, using the sand patch, facilitated a considered debate on the best placement of the new classroom block and agreement on improved ablution facilities (for learners and teachers).

 Power with transparency and debate leads to better informed, more inclusive and robust decision-making. In this way, one works with power to direct considered social investment strategies that are better able to deliver sustained social returns.