As we spend time working in international development and implementing successful projects, our expertise on operating in the developing world has grown. With that experience, we are always learning new lessons based on the circumstances surrounding us. Some of our most recent lessons were learned this past August in the beautiful country of Burundi.
We sent a team of 18 eager volunteers to provide medical care to hundreds of people in the Muramvya province, just an hour and a half east of the capital, Bujumbura. The team arrived with wide eyes and eager excitement to serve the people of Burundi. The trip began without a hitch and everyone loved getting to know one another and preparing for a week full of medical outreach. All was business as usual when we arrived at our first clinic site, set up, and enthusiastically began seeing patients on our first day of outreach. That is, until the Ministry of Health (MOH) arrived.
After examining our program, we were told we did not have permission to conduct medical clinics. Months of excitement, weeks of training, and unbridled anticipation all came to a screeching halt. Throughout the next week, we pushed and pulled and tried and failed to acquire final approval for our team of medical volunteers to operate. We were unable to accomplish the one task we came to do. We always tell volunteers to be flexible, but never had expectations so vastly been unmet. While natural inclination might be to do things our own way, pay a bribe, or just go home, we knew each of those measures would bring highly undesirable ramifications. So we did the opposite. Taking a look at the three things you should always do to succeed in international development will align your vision with that of your partners and position you for long-term success in your efforts.
Work within the system.
No matter what country you are operating in, there is a pre-existing system. If you’re in agriculture, there is a market. If you’re in healthcare, there is a hospital. If you’re in education, there is a school. The quality of that system is not the issue at hand. We are talking about the local leadership, customs, and structure. If your intention is to operate within a certain economic system, you must act within the preexisting boundaries. Part of the goal of your project might be to expand those boundaries, but understand that will happen with time and you must meet your partners where they are. Change takes time. In order to create lasting change, you must gain the trust and respect of local leadership. They are the experts. Walking into a space assuming you already have the answer is the wrong answer. Take time to listen and learn to gain a full understanding of context. Doing so will not only make your program stronger to meet targeted needs, but you will also build a wave of support from the very community you wish to serve.
Work with integrity.
Through each of our projects, we are resolved to build a positive reputation and conduct business in an honest, exemplary way. This may mean slowing down timelines and spending additional time getting to know all stakeholders. Our goal is to build a reputation of integrity in the regions we serve, and every choice we make as an organization builds our reputation for years to come. If you want to be held in high esteem and trusted by your colleagues, partners, and patrons on the ground, you must maintain the integrity of your process no matter what the cost.
If you’ve worked in international development for any length of time, you have undoubtedly hit a wall. Right when it seems you are making progress, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is not the time to throw in the towel. This is the time to step back, examine the situation, reevaluate your methods and keep going. Your evaluation of the situation might alter your approach and you could learn some very valuable things during this time – things that would have never been revealed without the stark wake-up call. Rather than swearing off ever returning to Burundi with another medical team, we conducted a thorough debrief with our partners on the ground. We spent time assessing what went wrong, learning what we could do to avoid those obstacles in the future, and planning our next trip.
As we move forward in the country of Burundi, we are thankful for the relationships that were strengthened in August and the excitement of our partners as we continue to bring quality medical care to our friends in this beautiful country. The people we work alongside are worth every effort, and that is why we will keep going.