What We Talk about When We Talk about Self-Sufficiency

Self-sufficiency is one of those concepts in non-profit and development work that we rarely question because it seems like such an obvious goal.

When it comes to funding, most organizations I’m familiar with would prefer to have the autonomy they need to carry out their missions. Funders, meanwhile, often have limited resources in what looks like a field of unlimited need. They want to know that their investment catalyzes change that continues thanks to the efforts of the recipients, not thanks to the grantmakers’ regular checks. Playing both these roles, we at Amazon Partnerships Foundation share both perspectives.

But what does self-sufficiency really mean? It is commonly defined as an ability to provide for oneself without help from others. The question is, where in life is this attainable?

I lived in the jungle with ten-year-olds who could harvest yucca (manioc) with a machete, peel it with the same tool, collect water from a stream, cook a big pot of the tuber over an open fire, and serve it to a crowd of us on plates made of broad, smooth leaves. They could also look after their three-year-old siblings, wash clothes in a river, ride a bus by themselves across the province, and do their school work.

They exemplified what is possible as self-sufficient human beings, and yet they still needed things from others, from their family’s love and guidance to money for books and shoes.

We don’t expect children to grow up and never have another need from their parents. We don’t expect our friends to operate in the world without ever asking us a favor. In fact, the ability to exchange favors and support is one of the defining characteristics of friendship.

Of course, family relationships and friendships are different types of relationships than what we reasonably expect between a grantmaker and a grant recipient. Certainly, making and receiving grants requires professionalism, transparency, and accountability, all of which we, as North Americans at least, believe will enable us to trust that money is being used wisely. Donors ask for data and reports to prove that grant recipients are moving toward a day when donors’ money won’t be needed anymore.

Setting aside the debate about whether data and reports “prove” those results, I wonder about the self-seduction of self-sufficiency. There is undoubtedly a strong dose of compassion and dignity in recognizing that we all have the capacity to do for ourselves. But is there also a little smugness in relinquishing responsibility? If we require that people or organizations are self-sufficient after a certain point, i.e. not asking us for more money, we don’t have to get caught up in the messy details of arriving at that state. We can simply feel good that we did our part.

To me this is less a loss for the project (and the people behind it), and more a loss for the donor. When we fly the self-sufficiency flag, too often we disengage from the complex and often inspiring process of how people live their lives, missing opportunities to learn about people’s challenges and true capacities. Nothing is better for building trust than learning about someone else.

So what if, instead of obsessing over specious absolutes like self-sufficiency, donors turn their focus toward the quality of the relationship? This is what we have tried to do with Amazon Partnerships Foundation by having regular conversations with communities, and this practice is the basis for some of the most successful community-based projects around the world.

Some donors will say they don’t have the time or capacity to focus on building relationships, but the truth is they are building relationships from the first interaction. Whether they are doing so effectively, fostering trust that will give them a more nuanced understanding of what self-sufficiency looks like from one moment to the next, is another matter.


One thought on “What We Talk about When We Talk about Self-Sufficiency

  1. I love this post! So thoughtful. So brilliant. Yes, let’s change the conversation. Your point about “building relationships” vs “obsessing over specious absolutes” is so well articulated here. I like that you challenge the dominant paradigm. That’s what the 21st century is all about. Finding new approaches–human centered not data-centered–cuz “data” doesn’t really tell the whole story.

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