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Student Profile

The Locals Know Best

Eric Darsow

A month into my fieldwork in South Africa, a manager from the provincial Department of Social Development asked me, “Do we take off our development coats when we get home from work? Are we wearing development or is it inside us?” As the field of international development becomes increasingly professionalized, questions like these remind aspiring practitioners, like me, that development ought not be treated like a typical 9:00–5:00 job. To submit to the common practice of treating development as a hobby or simply a career would be to trivialize the realities and identities of those development projects I seek to help.

Just as development practice should not be treated like an ordinary day job, my experience in South Africa in summer 2007 taught me that there is nothing international about development. Rather, what I term community development is an organic process of positive change that emerges from within local communities. Even though challenges such as unemployment and infectious disease are global problems, solutions to these common problems are frequently unique and specific to local cultures and histories. The central challenge confronting practitioners seems to be balancing the need for participation in the professionalized international development arena, while still being committed to local approaches and non-hierarchical relationships.

Marion G. Romney, “Caring for the Poor—A Covenantal Obligation,” Ensign, Nov 1978, p. 87

“The locals know best” is a common mantra heard and exchanged in development classes and project planning meetings at BYU and elsewhere. Many practitioners agree that the local project staff, who overcome the day-to-day challenges of development work, often have the best information to contribute to a project’s success. Yet many of the most weighty decisions in development projects tend to be made in air-conditioned offices by staff who have the least connection to the local, on-the-ground knowledge. Just as the general contractor of a worksite should not tell framers exactly how long to cut two-by-fours, development project managers should defer to the knowledge of those familiar with the situation out in the field.

While working with ITEC, an education nonprofit organization, I learned that problems with how information flows between managers and line staff are rarely intentional. Rather, the insulation of upper management arises out of their desire to make decisions too fast and finish projects too soon—often for the sake of securing more funding for upcoming projects. Effective decision making is more likely to take place when people at the top understand the realities of people working at the bottom. Grassroots programs designed by and for one’s own community are likely to hold the greatest promise for success because they naturally incorporate local knowledge in the project’s design and philosophy.

Today’s society seems to be built in the shape of a pyramid. Businesses, families, and well intentioned development projects gravitate toward top-down control structures, creating a feeling of disempowerment, manipulation, and discouragement among those at the bottom. The foundation for long-lasting, change-promoting relationships, however, should leave all persons feeling greater hope for improvement—not less.

While working with ITEC, I accompanied one of our staff to a rural village to visit preschool teachers. While listening to the staff worker converse with a few of the struggling teachers, I was struck by her ability to “flatten” the power hierarchy often involved in development interventions managed by outside organizations. I did not hear the staff member imposing on or demanding anything from the teachers. Instead, I saw two Xhosa women standing on a grassy hill laughing, talking—and problem solving with one another. They were cooperating as equals genuinely concerned for one another as South Africans and friends. This is the kind of development practice that bypasses the traditional top to bottom hierarchy and has a greater likelihood of fostering positive, long-term improvements.

As the manager from the Department of Social Development reminds us, community development should not be seen as merely a professional day job. Positive community change is a personal, full-time process for all involved—both outsiders and locals alike. 

Darsow is working toward a double major in social/cultural anthropology and business management and is planning to graduate in 2009.