Do we often assume that we hold the key to assisting local communities in finding better ways? Shouldn’t we be questioning who learns from whom in these situations?
Apart from oversharing personal matters in LinkedIn, it is common to see posts showcasing missions abroad, where individuals from the West visit developing countries to “deliver aid” or “help” local communities.
These narratives often establish a hierarchy of who is helping and who is learning. This mindset has been prevalent since the early 2000s, when concepts of racism and diversity were not as widely recognized as they are today.
If there are any changes, they may be visible in the photographs. Traditional village pictures from the 1990s to the 2010s usually featured one or a few white people with the local community.
Instead of white people, the pictures nowadays feature local staff of an international organization (with a jacket or shirt identifying which organization they work for). However, the stories remain the same.
A trip to a village in Kalimantan in the mid-2010s shifted my perspective on foreign aid and development assistance.
A Life-Changing Encounter in Central Kalimantan
Upon arriving at a small village in Central Kalimantan province, I was exhausted. It was mid-afternoon in the mid-2010s, after a 2-hour flight from Jakarta to Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan, and an additional 2-hour drive from the city to the village.
I served as a member of an evaluation team assigned by a European country’s ministry of foreign affairs to assess a renewable energy program, which was part of a climate change partnership with Indonesia.
Our group of six consisted of two local NGO employees and four of us from Jakarta, traveling together in two off-road vehicles. I was part of an evaluation team that a European country’s ministry of foreign affairs assigned to evaluate a renewable energy program as part of its climate change partnership with Indonesia. This particular project took place in two villages in Central Kalimantan.
While I was trying to cool down from the extreme heat (Palangkaraya is about 2.2 degrees south of the equator), I couldn’t help but notice how my European colleagues were suffering.
It must be extremely unpleasant for them. One of them, the director of the program being evaluated, had been in Jakarta for two years, so I assumed he would be fine with the weather. However, two members of the evaluation team had just arrived in Jakarta the day before from a very northern European country.
The vast forest area of Central Kalimantan — 40.8 million hectares out of 153 million hectares — is in danger due to deforestation, which is primarily the result of palm oil plantations, logging, mining, and fires.
In order to protect the forest, one activity of the Kalimantan project was to distribute “improved cooking stoves” to the villagers and build their capacity so that they would use small firewood or biomass instead of chopping trees in the nearby forest. The latter was typically used for “traditional” stoves, which consume more firewood and emit more pollutants.
The responsibility of our evaluation team was to ascertain if the local NGOs, supported by funding from the donor country, had implemented their activities appropriately to fulfill the project’s goals of preserving the forest and reducing emissions.
Back then, I couldn’t shake the feeling that allocating resources to hire a team of three evaluators, with two hailing from Europe and one from Jakarta (myself), to assess the distribution of cooking stoves seemed excessive.
This notion was further reinforced when we examined the project’s budget and expenses. We discovered that only 1% of the total budget was allocated to the stoves themselves, while the remaining funds were directed towards enhancing the skills and capacity of the people involved.
Embracing a more optimistic outlook, I endeavored to lift my spirits. We committed ourselves to preparing a thorough report on the project, drawing from our conversations with the villagers and observations of how the project’s impact, whether positive or negative, had influenced their daily lives.
The Reality Behind Improved Cooking Stoves and Biomass
We gathered at the village chief’s house, with representatives from the villagers, mostly men, in attendance. The village chief expressed gratitude to the government donor and stated that the stoves had greatly helped the villagers. To be honest, I assumed he’d been briefed on how to deliver the speech.
Meeting with the village chief and some villagers did not provide much insight into how the project was actually carried out. So we asked the village chief if we could go see the women and see how they used their “precious” stoves.
The village chief and NGO staff argued about whether we could do it, then said to me, “Perhaps not today; we have to walk, and your western colleagues might not be able to stand the weather.” “But today and now are our only chances; there is no tomorrow,” I resisted. After some back-and-forth, they finally agreed to let us visit the villagers at their home and accompanied us.
We trekked for around 30 minutes along a dusty dirt road under the sweltering sun. As sweat generously dripped from my brow, I glanced at my colleagues and asked, “Is everything OK?” Despite the rhetorical nature of my question, they answered with optimism, assuring me, “Of course, everything is fine.”
The women in the village welcomed us cheerfully, especially the children, who found the westerners amusing. They kindly offered us beverages and modest snacks collected from their homes. One woman explained, “We didn’t expect you to visit our homes; we thought you’d only speak at the village chief’s house.” She apologized for not serving a proper lunch. And so, our unexpected meal became boiled bananas for lunch!
During our conversation with the women, I noticed that some of them spoke with a Javanese accent. When I mentioned that my hometown is in Central Java, they quickly switched from Bahasa Indonesia to Javanese. Some came to Central Kalimantan in the 1970s as part of Soeharto’s transmigration program, while others are second generation.
The cultural barrier had vanished; I was no longer identified as a Jakartan. I was then invited into their kitchen to check the stoves. Surprisingly, in half of the eight kitchens I visited, the unused stoves were placed in the kitchen corner. The other half of the households cooked their meals on both “improved” and “traditional” stoves.
They explained that after using the improved stoves, their men stopped going to the forest to collect branches. The men claimed that because the new stoves used small branches, the women could collect them on their own.
It meant that women were given additional responsibilities, such as collecting firewood and cooking meals. Additionally, cooking meals on the “improved” stoves took longer. As a result, they became frustrated; some deliberately broke the stoves, forcing them to use the old ones, which required men to collect firewood for them.
What about biomass? Was it necessary for them to use cow dung in combination with small branches, as specified in the project plan? The women told us that there were only a few cows in their small village. When we went to visit the cage at one of the villagers’ houses, there were only two cows. More precisely, one and a half cows, because one of them was so thin.
I found it hard to argue. Though I’m not an expert on climate change, I wondered how much of a difference it would make to switch from using “big” to “small” branches in terms of emissions savings.
How much energy could the dung of one and a half cows actually generate? Introducing and adopting new ideas within local communities could be a lengthy process, if they were embraced at all.
Local Communities: the Unsung Heroes of Forest Conservation
The women safeguarded the forests by utilizing resources solely for their basic needs, such as cooking and building humble homes. Additionally, their conventional agricultural methods, emphasizing crop diversity, soil health, and water conservation, contributed to resilience against climate change.
So, who truly needs to learn? It’s me, the NGO staff, the project team, the evaluation team, and the donor! Before deciding to build capacity of the villagers through training, mentoring, and workshops for local communities, we need to first learn their local wisdom.
Indeed, the women in the village, like countless local communities globally, have been implementing sustainable resource management and coexisting harmoniously with their environment for generations, even without explicitly addressing environmental concerns.
Though it may not be their primary objective, their traditional practices often contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Through generations of observation, experimentation, and adaptation, local communities have cultivated practices that enable them to live sustainably within their environment.
My perspective on how foreign aid and technical assistance should work has completely shifted. I no longer perceive myself as playing the role of “the hero” or “the mentor.” Instead, I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to learn from local communities and integrate their wisdom into the development projects I am involved in.
I am forever grateful to the women of the village in Central Kalimantan for enlightening me and broadening my perspective.