Final Reflections

12 07 2011

The following blog entries are Social Entrepreneur Corps interns’ reflections on their experiences after six weeks working with Social Entrepreneur Corps in South Africa. Interns began their time in South Africa with two weeks of foundation building, which included discussions, readings, and reflections about poverty, development work, relief work, and social entrepreneurship among other topics. Interns then spent four weeks working in the field in three different environments of urban, semi-urban, and rural.  During their field work interns:

  • Performed grassroots consulting with 7 different local organizations
  • Conducted the first two MicroConsignment Campaigns in South Africa (with over 100 eye exams and 72 glasses sold)
  • Completed 77 needs analysis and product feasibility surveys for the expansion of the MicroConsignment Model in South Africa
  • Developed funding proposals to support three local nonprofit organizations

SEC intern Lizzie Hensler reflects on all of her experiences working in the field and in the classroom to respond to the question, “How has your experience working with SEC in South Africa impacted your understanding of either poverty, development vs relief work, or social entrepreneurship.

Lizzie explains the benefits of a rocket stove to women in Balfour

“We stood shivering outside of a small tin shack, waiting for the okay to enter and ask some questions about electricity needs.  A woman walked out, asking for help.  One of our team rushed in after her, only to reemerge not even two minutes later with a shellshocked look on his face.  He said something along the lines of “Maybe a woman should go in and help.”  Alli went in to help with the task of lifting a woman suffering from AIDS into her bed.  After she was settled in, our group of five attempted to find space to sit around her mattress on the floor.  This was difficult due to the fact that the shack was small to begin with, but the rooms, divided by a vertical mattress holding the roof up, were even smaller.  We attempted to ask some questions with the help of a translator, but for me personally, it was difficult to focus on solar lamps when being confronted with this level of poverty and sickness in front of us.  The family, living in this small space, consisted of two sisters, one of whom was very sick with AIDS on the bed in front of us and her sister who suffered from lung disease and was acting as caretaker, and a young orphaned boy.  We discussed solar lamps and stoves and other things that seemed trivial in comparison to the hardships these three were facing.  This was our first day of MicroConsignment field work.

At the time, it was hard to see the effectiveness of what we were doing.  How is surveying about the feasibility of selling solar lamps in the future helpful when the people we’re talking to need dinner for their families today?  It took some reflection to really understand the extent of what we’re doing here.  “Changing Obstacles into Opportunities” isn’t just a catchy motto for Community Enterprise Solutions, but a mission of sustainability being worked for on a daily basis.  My initial expectation was that every day we were going to change the world and by the time we left, poverty would be well on its way to being alleviated.  Naïve and impossible, I know.  In these past six weeks, I’ve learned that development is a process, one that will be sustainable because of the extensive preparation and research that we’re putting in today.  This isn’t easy work, particularly when you know there is a peanut butter and banana sandwich waiting for you in the van and it would be that easy to give that to someone who needs it more than they need a survey.  But to go in blind, without the preparation we’ve been doing in these communities, would be foolish.  It would be impossible to effectively meet the needs (be it energy, water or vision) of a community if we don’t ask people what exactly they need and observe what causes that extra bit of hardship to their every day lives.

Bucky told us that the day this work stops hurting is the day you need to start looking for a new path.  He said that if you become distant from the people you’re trying to help, you’re doing it wrong.  In these short six weeks, I’ve seen how true that is.  The only way to be effective is to make it your own, to shove yourself as far into someone else’s shoes as possible to understand what they might need.  This work hasn’t just been filling out surveys and playing with smiling kids (although there has been a lot of that), but a constant effort to understand what people want and need and how to provide that service in a sustainable way.

Before coming here, I thought I understood poverty and wouldn’t be surprised by what we were in for.  I was wrong in the best way possible.  The people we’ve been talking to aren’t just statistics with decimal points or parts of rising unemployment rates.  They’re also not just photographs of “that one time I went to South Africa”, but people with stories and families and quirks.  But the ability to put faces and names with the numbers makes the lack of immediacy in development just that much harder, but also that much more rewarding in the long run.  This understanding has made it very clear that I don’t want to just give Thulani a hundred dollars to he can make a few more loaves of breads for the orphanage, and I can wash my hands and call it a day.  I’ve learned that I’d rather help him set up relationships with buyers and help him turn his bakery into something long term sustainable; and while there is the immediate satisfaction of relief work, it’ll be more satisfying to look up Mama Rosie’s Bakery months from now and see that maybe it’s grown to employ a few more people and is turning a profit.”

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